"Restless Genes" drive us forward?

The urge to explore is central to the identity of humans, not simply because it expands on the pleasure of what is already known, but because, amplified by the market, the application of new knowledge can have a social dimension, benefiting more than the discoverer.

This excerpt from National Geographic's "Restless Genes" suggests two forces that may be the most responsible for useful discovery - the convergence of our interior and exterior worlds:

[Developmental and evolutionary geneticist Jim Noonan's] research focuses on the genes that build two key systems: our limbs and our brains. 'So I’m biased,' he says, when I press him about what makes us explorers. 'But if you want to boil this down, I’d say our ability to explore comes from those two systems....'

Together, says Noonan, these differences compose a set of traits uniquely suited for creating explorers. We have great mobility, extraordinary dexterity, 'and, the big one, brains that can think imaginatively.' And each amplifies the others: Our conceptual imagination greatly magnifies the effect of our mobility and dexterity, which in turn stirs our imaginations further.

'Think of a tool,' says Noonan. 'If you can use it well and have imagination, you think of more applications for it.' As you think of more ways to use the tool, you imagine more goals it can help you accomplish....

Elsewhere in "Restless Genes," Alison Gopnik, a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that children act very much like little scientists.

...human children play by creating hypothetical scenarios with artificial rules that test hypotheses. Can I build a tower of blocks as tall as I am? What’ll happen if we make the bike ramp go even higher? How will this schoolhouse game change if I’m the teacher and my big brother is the student? Such play effectively makes children explorers of landscapes filled with competing possibilities. We do less of this as we get older, says Gopnik, and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and more conditioned to stick with familiar ones. 'It’s the difference,' she says, 'between going to your usual, reliable restaurant versus a new place that might be great or awful.'

Innovators and discoverers, it seems to me, are animated by the best of what makes us human. The idea that it just might be better around the corner - or in the morning - or across the ocean - or, as Gopnik says, with this little change to our experimental process - brings a competing and potentially beneficial possibility into view.

As we enter 2013, the IdeaFestival invites you to join us as we explore a world of possibility. If you don't already, please follow us on Twitter @ideafestival or fan our Facebook page. Sign up for an IdeaFestival University class. And make plans to attend the IdeaFestival in Louisville, Sept. 24 - 27.

Stay curious.