by Gavin Haines, The Telegraph, August 3, 2017
Ever wondered why some people have more of a compulsion to travel than others? Not only travel, but travel to challenging destinations; places where they are likely to be pushed out of their comfort zones or encouraged to take risks.
And have you wondered why some individuals thrive in changeable environments yet wilt when faced with routine? Or why some people are more likely to flit between jobs, experiment with drugs and be more promiscuous?
Well, researchers have repeatedly tried to link such behaviour traits with a gene variant known as DRD4-7R, which is thought to be present in around 20 per cent of the population.
Some commentators have even nicknamed it the “wanderlust gene”, which is certainly a sexier moniker than DRD4-7R, but to what extent does science support this idea of one gene being responsible for our relationship with exploration?
Dr Richard Paul Ebstein, Professor of Psychology at the National University of Singapore, has been studying DRD4-7R for more than two decades and believes there is definitely a relationship between the gene and “novelty seeking or extraverted behaviour”.
“I think overall the story is coherent,” said Dr Ebstein, who studied the relationship between DRD4-7R and financial risk taking.
“We have evidence to suggest that the same allele [gene variant] involved in the personality trait of novelty seeking and impulsivity was also involved in being pro-risk in financial situations. People who have that allele appear to be more risk prone.”
Other studies have linked the allele with human migration. In 1999, research by the University of California suggested the 7R allele was more prevalent in migratory cultures than in settled ones, supporting the idea of a so-called “wanderlust gene”.
Subsequent research goes further, suggesting people with the 7R allele are actually more adaptable to nomadic lifestyle; the same studies suggested those with the 7R allele actually fared less well than their contemporaries when they lived as settled villagers.
Research into the “wanderlust gene” has been seized upon by some commentators, who have wistfully suggested that doyens of derring-do such as Christopher Columbus and Amelia Earhart carried the gene.
However, those commentators may be getting carried away because (and sorry to kill the romance here) one gene doth not a personality make.
“Any one gene only contributes a very small percentage towards someone’s personality,” said Dr Ebstein. Or as science writer, Dr Kat Arney, more eloquently puts it: “Genes are like ingredients in a recipe – certain genes make a contribution but there isn’t one single gene for, say, wanderlust. Even something like eye colour is not down to one gene.”
Dr Arney, the self-styled “Nigella of science”, touches on this in her debut book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, which encourages people not to look so myopically at genes.
“That particular receptor is linked with so many things,” said the garrulous doctor. “Is it the risk-taking gene, is it the promiscuity gene, is it the ADHD gene? No, it’s one part of a very big neurological pathway.”
Culture and environment also play a key factor in determining how the gene works.
“The other fly in the ointment is the environment,” said Dr Ebstein. “There are studies that suggest these environmental effects actually change the way the gene works.”
Dr Arney concurs. “It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts,” she said. “It’s nonsense to think that one single variation in one single gene is going to make the difference between whether you want to be Indiana Jones or not.”
How well travelled are you? Do you have the wanderlust gene?
Consider yourself a modern day Marco Polo? Find out for sure with our quiz.