It's in Our DNA

Some 50,000 years ago, a man stood up and left his home fire.
A man stood up and left his home fire.

Think about the astonishing evolution and accomplishments in that one sentence. At that moment our species had been standing up for at least three million years, an ability that entailed some risk. A standing ape is visible and vulnerable, an easy target for predators and enemies. But the bold posture frees the hands for tools, and it extends the vision to the horizon.

For many millennia, men—or, more likely, women—had been making fires and cooking meat. Mastering fire must have taken heroic courage amid many painful mistakes. Yet the feat represents another key trait of humans: the willingness to transform hostile forces into allies. And so the man had the DNA of a seeker and an inventor. And now he left his home fire.

Accompanying him were his hunting partners, highly skilled marksmen and warriors who knew how to plan a hunt and patiently execute the strategy. Most of them carried the latest technology: a spear with a stone so sharp they could have shaved with it. But our man carried only a stone knife with a leather handle.

The men walked for hours until they came to where they knew a herd of deer liked to gather. They signaled to each other, walked in a noiseless crouch, and moved within spear-throwing distance of the herd. But just as the spear men stood up, one of the deer sniffed the air and raised the alarm, and the whole herd took off bounding through the woods. The spear men just stood there. They knew they didn’t have a chance.

Yet our man took off after the deer, armed only with his knife. Though he was the fastest runner among the humans, the deer ran six times faster. What he lacked in deer-speed he made up in persistence. He kept running, long after he lost sight of his prey, following the tracks, jogging steadily, for ten miles until one of the older deer began to stumble and fall behind the others. The man caught up and leaped onto the animal’s back.

Thousands of years after our man got his deer, one of his descendants once more wandered far from the home fire. The deer had long since disappeared, hunted out of existence within their known world. To make things worse, the climate had been changing. The winters were getting colder, and the summers failed to warm. In search of game, this man walked for days until he came to the shores of an icy sea. A narrow stretch of bare land extended into the sea. Far off in the distance, across the water, he could see another land.

He returned to his village and told the others. After arguing for days about the risk and the possibilities, a group returned to the land bridge and began walking across. After many days of travel—some of them turned back, a few died from thirst or starvation—they finally reached the far shore. There they saw a miracle: vast herds of huge animals, strange creatures so tame the humans could walk right up to them. They had come to what, much later, you and I would know as America.

This story—of restlessness, of people leaving war or poor resources, or setting out simply to find a better life—continued over the next ten and twenty millennia. Our ancestors risked all, developed new technology, new systems, and found riches they could not have imagined. I have no doubt that some, maybe most, people never attempted the bridge, and stayed behind to survive as best they could. Maybe only a few were bold or crazy enough to walk straight into the unknown. Maybe only a few of these went on to hunt the giant bears and mastodons and tigers on the other side. But these were the people who allowed humanity to expand and thrive, and they became our forebears.

Courage in the face of risks, persistence to overcome long odds, patience to stick to a plan, invention to create new technology, and curiosity about the unknown; even after 50,000 years, these are still the hallmarks of people who move ahead and thrive, pulling the rest of us with them towards better lives.

What if they had never stood up and left their home fires? What if they found the Bering Land Strait, that bridge between continents, and, after walking for a bit, turned back and never tried again? What if humans denied their own native wanderlust, that need to know what lies beyond the far shore? What if they had failed to develop the new technology we needed to fit the new environments? How would we be living today? Would we have evolved at all?

We face the same questions today—questions in the form of a choice. Should we commit to exploring and settling the frontier of space? Or should we play it safe and turn back?