Over 60,000 years ago, humans migrated out of Africa. But why? Scientists have been studying the origins of human migration to figure out what drives these mass waves of movement and Dr. Richard Ebstein, a geneticist and biologist from the National University of Singapore, believes he may have found an explanation – the existence of a travel gene.
Now, he is testing candidates in Singapore to see who embodies the travel gene, or the so-called “Wandermust gene”. People with these genes don’t just want to travel; they have to.
The first candidate to be tested is Tony “The Traveller” Giles, who has travelled to every continent and over 125 different countries.
Did I mention he’s also fully blind and 80 per cent deaf? If anyone has a genetic need to travel, Tony is a likely candidate. We chatted with Tony and Dr Ebstein about travelling and the travel gene.
Tony the Traveler
What inspired you to try and travel to every country in the world?
I went to boarding school for blind and disabled children when I was about 10. The school was a long way from home, over 400km.
When I was 16, I got the chance to go the States with my school for a week and it was a totally new experience. Everything was different; the accents, the loud Americans, the wide pavements. I was young and naive, but I eventually went back to study in the States when I was about 20.
When I was there, I travelled alone and pushed myself, and after that I never looked back, I was hooked.
I have watched some of your previous interviews and you are so confident. Where does that confidence come from?
When I started living on a campus, it was very safe. There wasn’t much traffic and so my teachers let me go out and do things. They made me cross the road at 13 or 14 years old and I went from there really. They pushed me to do things, which really helped with my confidence.
I also had an extremely loving family; my mom knew I wasn’t any different from my brothers and sisters apart from the fact that I was blind.
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” How do you think you have experienced this and how have others around you embraced this quote during your travels?
I really do think travel breaks down barriers. It goes both ways, some people will see me and can’t understand it and run away, other people are curious and will come and engage.
Sometimes, when I push my way into their lives and badger people in the streets asking how to get somewhere it ends up being a 10-minute conversation and I’ll end up making friends.
I think it’s a two-way street really, travelling is the most important and best education you can get. I think it has made me humbler and yes, I think other people seeing me has humbled them.
Breaking down those prejudices and barriers are so important.
If the travel gene does exist, what suggestions do you have for people who don’t have it to encourage them to still go out and travel?
Well I don’t know if I have it yet, but if I haven’t got it I still have traveled to 120+ countries and every continent in the world.
I think that if you want to travel, just go and do it. You only have one chance to live. Yes, it can be scary, especially the first time for many people but if it’s too scary, go with a friend. Start basic and build up, that’s what I did.
Dr. Richard Ebstein
Tell me about your research so far and how you discovered the travel gene.
There is evidence in human evolution that our species was born about over 200,000 years ago in Africa and about 60,000 years ago, for reasons unknown, a group migrated out of Africa into the Middle East and then dispersed all over the world.
No matter how abundant or fruitful the settled region was, people always migrated somewhere new after a certain period of time. About the time during the exodus of Africa, there is evidence that this “migration gene” came into existence and is related to why people left Africa.
Today this gene is a novelty-seeking personality trait and is related to extroversion, so people who have the gene tend to be exploratory, extroverted, curious, and a bit impulsive.
So, is a love for travelling a product of nature or nurture?
It’s always a little bit of both, but it’s worth stating that this particular trait is highly heritable. However, it may very well be that we examine your genes and you don’t have the traveler’s gene, but you travel anyways.
In fact, if you didn’t have the genes for travelling and still travel, that makes you more adventurous because you are overcoming your own natural tendencies to stay at home.
Do you have advice for people who don’t have the gene or are perhaps more hesitant to travel?
I would say travel and try to get used to it. Travelling is good for all of us because we get to see different people and places. My own experiences traveling has left me struck by the common humanity between all people.
I went to China a while ago, and I don’t know a word of Chinese, but when I sat down and watched people, I saw the same type of human interactions I’d see in Africa, America, wherever. I think it probably makes us more understanding.
Has travel given you an advantage in your research compared to other scientists?
Keeping an open mind in my area of science is important, as my field is about making connections and associations that didn’t exist before.
Meeting different kinds of people has given me the opportunity to think about things differently, making it easier for me to think outside the box when considering my own research.