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What Makes Us Explore?

Is the urge for exploration innate to our species, or is it a vestigial disorder? Rand Simberg takes on the question at The Space Review this week, an article I came across thanks to a link at Music of the Spheres, which hosts the latest Carnival of Space this week. If you have an interest in simulators and flying (and as a now inactive but still interested CFII, I can relate to that!), you’ll want to be reading Music of the Spheres regularly. It’s a fine and enthusiastic blog frequently updated with space-related software discussions, and one I’ve been reading for years to follow Bruce’s adventures with the ORBITER simulator.

But back to exploration: Simberg questions whether the exploratory impulse isn’t disruptive in modern society, pointing out that most people in the world live out their lives within miles of the place where they were born, and suggesting that those who want to push a human agenda in space need a better justification than this. The candidates? Fear is one, as in fear of space debris that could wreak havoc on our planet. An even better one is greed (maybe ‘the profit motive’ sounds a little better):

The vast amount of resources in the universe resides off the planet. For example, there are single asteroids that contain a trillion dollars worth (at current market rates—no doubt retrieving that amount would depress prices considerably, not a bad thing) of platinum-group metals, used for fuel cells and other new energy applications. The same technologies that can divert errant asteroids might also allow us to retrieve and mine them.

Sunlight can be collected continuously in orbit 24/7, and there may be prospects for using it not only off the planet, but sending it down here as well. In general, opening up new natural resources means vastly increasing planetary (and solar system) wealth.

But despite the ‘fear and greed’ emphasis in his post, Simberg believes the biggest reason for opening up space is the opportunity to improve our social and political lives, and the chance to create a new laboratory for advancing the cause of freedom off-planet.

“One in which we can continue to advance the ideals of Locke, Burke, Smith and others, and escape the romantic and misguided ideals of Rousseau about the perfectability of man, rather than his institutions, that resulted in the brutal deaths of tens of millions over the past decades.”

Space offers that laboratory, but Simberg would pitch it in terms not of a vision for space ‘exploration,’ but rather space ‘development.’ Would switching the emphasis renew public interest in space, or would it simply be perceived (if perceived at all) as no more than a marketing change by people with a commercial or governmental funding axe to grind? I’ll stick with that exploratory impulse, thanks — I believe in it — rather than buying into the idea of exploration as a symptom of attention-deficit disorder (Simberg quotes The Economist on that peculiar idea). But attack Rousseau’s intellectual heirs and the so-called ‘perfectability of man’ and I’m on your side, making this provocative piece easy to recommend.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • kurt9 July 26, 2008, 18:06

    Exploration is, of course, a subset of pioneering. So, what Rand is really asking is if pioneering is an innate part of human nature and human culture. History suggests not. The value of pioneering is generally recognized in American culture and, to a lessor extent, Australian culture. It appears to be entirely lacking in the rest of the world. If the Europeans had it, they lost it because anyone who had the gumption to leave and create a new life for themselves left Europe and came to North America. The modern day Europeans are the descendants of the “stay at home” types. This is reflected in their present day political world-view.

    The East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc.) also completely lack the pioneering drive. Many inventions that white people take credit for (printing press, gun powder, etc.) were invented in China centuries before they were (independently) invented in Europe. Yet, the Chinese did nothing with these. The Chinese also did not colonized the Americas and Australia, even though they “discovered” these places before the Europeans did. Finally, my wife (who is Japanese) says that Americans are pioneers, but the Japanese are not.

    Another clue can be found in the L-5 Society. This was the only plausible scenario of space development that was ever proposed. Basically all foward-thinking people in the U.S. were L-5 Society members during its heyday in the late 70’s (the only one who wasn’t was Robert Forward, because he thought the O’neill scenario was too “conservative” technically).

    So, where were the L-5 Society chapters located? As one might guess, the vast majority of them were located in the U.S. However, there were a couple of active chapters in Australia. There was maybe one in Europe and none in Japan.

    Now, China was about as poor as Africa is today. So, it is understandable that Chinese people would have had more immediate interests than space colonies at the time (like getting enough to eat or reasonable housing). However, one would think that the Chinese today might become interested in space colonization.

    Pioneering is a value that is naturally compatible with the values of free-thinking, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship. Again, these are largely Western U.S. values (even the U.S. east coast or South are not as much into this as the Western part). It is no accident that the Western U.S. has greater per capita levels of entrepreneurship, especially technology, than the rest of the U.S. It fits the pioneering mentality of the region.

    Religion plays a role. Religion, in general, seems to be hostile to the values of free-thinking, pioneering, and self-reliance. However, the western U.S. contains a notable exception – the Mormons. Mormon culture has a more self-reliant, pioneering atmosphere compared to, say, catholicism, baptists, and the evangelicals. Many notable entrepreneurs and business people are Mormons (like the founder of Lotus and JetBlue airlines.

    Pioneering and exploration is considered to be a threat by many cultures. People who question the status quo threaten an established system. Most cultures are based on stasis. The anglo-american culture, in contrast, is based on dynamism. The East Asians are learning that dynamism is far superior to stasis. 300 years of suffering (in the hands of foreigners) have taught the Chinese that technological and economic dynamism is infinitely superior to stasis. Will this lesson translate into pioneering being incorporated into Chinese culture as a value? Only time will tell. I think we will have the answer in the next 50 years. I certainly hope the answer is “Yes”.

    I think the answer to Rand is that exploration and pioneering have been considered positive values during only brief periods of human history. It is the positive value associated with pioneering and exploration that makes Anglo-American culture better than the rest.

  • James M. Essig July 26, 2008, 18:25

    Hi Paul;

    I think the urge to explore is innate within our species.

    Whether we live out our desire to explore in the form of a very strong interest in, and advocacy for, manned interstellar travel as we spaceheads at Tau Zero do, or take an interest in seeing just how much money we can acquire such as those who make billions on Wall Street, every one of us on this planet seems to yearn for something new and beyond our current experiential horizon.

    In a sense, we are all open to the infinite whether we believe that ultimate infinite reality is God, the Universe, the Cosmos, some sort of Cosmic Consciousness, or an ever ascending series of ever more advanced and intellegent bodily ETI beings.

    It can even be said that certain military generals who are anxious to prove the utility and effectiveness of a new weapon system, even in the very dark theme of the situation of modern warfare, experience the desire to reach into the unknown.

    This desire to reach into the unknown is lived out even in the perhaps unfortunate instances of young adolescents or pre-adolescents experimenting with sex with class mates, or those of the same age who experiment with illegal drugs.

    The desire to explore seems to be ever present everywhere in our modern society and in every previous eras in human society.



  • Thomas July 26, 2008, 19:13

    I certainly see the point about the East Asians not being very pioneering, but at least now they seem to be putting forth effort into space exploration. Japan’s got a chunk of the ISS now, and are developing a resupply ship. China wants to go to the moon. India wants to as well. I think Asia is starting to get serious about space exploration.

  • david lewis July 26, 2008, 23:16

    We have human groups that are nomadic while we have other groups that never travel more than a few miles from their homes. A big difference. One that I doubt is genetic. Probably it is more due the very adaptable human animal adapting to its social environment.

    A culture that encourages exploration is probably more likely to have explorers. Of course even if one’s culture does not encourage exploration exploration might still occur. People with no desire for exploration might be fleeing persecution in which case exploration is just a side affect of their main purpose – to get away from the persecution. Some might go for the profit, in which case it would be the drive for wealth that might be innate to human kind rather than a drive for exploration. Some might go just because of religion in which case it just means that people are susceptible to religious influences, not that they have any more desire to explore than your average person does to randomly fast on any particular day of the year.

    Of course there are a few that explore just for the sake of exploring.

    How to encourage exploration in the long term? Finding a way to make a profit would be effective. Maybe a major find in space that draws and focuses the attention of people, such as life on Europa, would work. Either that or constant bombarding of people with issues on space via the media and schools. Make space real to them, not just something a hundred or so kilometers up that they believe will never affect them. Also improved economic standing – a poor person in a gang who is wondering if they will get shot in the next fight probably isn’t going to concern themselves with space or its development in any way (this would probably apply to countries as well as gang members).

  • djlactin July 27, 2008, 4:31

    gotta rant at kurt9.

    The East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc.) also completely lack the pioneering drive.

    Japanese wife or not, this kind of statement is ignorant in both senses of the word.
    First: it implies that all (2 billion or so) “east asians” are all the same. Meet a few and you’ll soon learn otherwise.

    Second: let’s not forget:
    The Silk road.
    The exploratory expeditions of Admiral Zheng He, who was probing near the south end of Africa at about the same time as the Portuguese were coming around the other side.
    Genghis Khan and his hordes. (Is there any difference between exploration and conquest?)

    And don’t forget, “east asians” first colonized the Americas 12000 years ago or more.

    Then you make this statement:

    The Chinese also did not colonized [sic] the Americas and Australia, even though they “discovered” these places before the Europeans did.

    Coming so soon after your assertion that East asians “completely lack the exploring drive”, it blew my irony meter.

    I suggest you reexamine your perspectives.

    Maybe spend some time in ‘East Asia’. (I have and am.)

    Derek Lactin

  • dad2059 July 27, 2008, 10:34

    I would have to say the drive for exploration of any type is a human trait, not a cultural one, although culture plays a huge role.

    And if the anglo-american culture is so hip on exploration, why did we stop Moon launches in the 1970s and why do young Americans could care less about human exploration of the Cosmos now-a-days? Most are hard pressed to give a crap about robotic exploration. And young Americans today prefer virtual reality worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft, not dreams of Burrough’s ‘Barsoom’ or Clarke’s ‘2001’.

    I certainly hope the Asians take up the torch they dropped 600 years ago, some human culture has to.

    As the genetic bottle neck mankind experienced 70,000 years ago proves, our grip upon our existence in the Cosmos is tenuous at best.

  • kurt9 July 27, 2008, 13:36


    I lived in Japan and Taiwan for 10 years. I stand by my comments.

    The East Asian societies (China, Japan, Korea) have historically been very insular. Admiral Zheng He is an example that actually supports my position. He did discover the Americans and Australia, as well as having sailed around Africa. This is all very true. However, his voyages were never repeated. There was never any follow up, no overseas colonization by the Chinese following his voyages. Indeed, when he returned, all further voyages were canceled and construction of large ships was banned. The case of Zheng He is historically notable because of its rarity in Chinese history. Japan has a similar history of closing itself off from the rest of the world and forbidding Japanese from leaving.

    Genghis Khan was the leader of Mongolian nomadic tribes. These people were definitely outsiders with regards to Chinese and other East Asian societies.

    You will also note my comment about the Chinese lack of pioneering resulting in 300 years of suffering in the hands of foreigners and that this may have burned the lesson in their collective psyche. The Chinese could, indeed, becoming more pioneering oriented. Certainly individual Chinese who are currently moving to African to start business and generally develop the place show some gumption (a gumption that very few Americans seem to have). The Chinese space program may go somewhere or it may not. Time will tell.

    For what its worth, I consider the O’neill space colony scenario to be an Asian “thing”. In the long run (22nd century and beyond), I think the Chinese and other Asians will go into space in a big way. If FTL proves to be impossible (both spacecraft and wormhole), then the future of space colonization is O’neill style colonies. If so, it is much more likely that Chinese and other Asians will build and live in these things than Westerners, especially Americans. The reason is not hard to understand.

    Any space colony is likely to be a heavily urban environment. Forget Don Davis’s pretty pictures of open fields in Island 3 habitats. It is far more likely that these Island 3’s will have 10 million people in them. Sort of like Tokyo and Hong Kong are today. People who live in these cities will go to the O’niell cans if they offer sufficient opportunity. Americans, largely, will not. We like our wide open spaces, big houses, and great outdoors.

  • tibor July 27, 2008, 18:43


    you say

    “…that exploration and pioneering have been considered positive values during only brief periods of human history. It is the positive value associated with pioneering and exploration that makes Anglo-American culture better than the rest.”

    Here some Wikipedia citations; just a few examples, not exhaustive, about sea pioneers.

    “Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture.”

    “The migration of the Polynesians is impressive considering that the islands settled by them are spread out over great distances—the Pacific Ocean covers nearly a half of the Earth’s surface area. Most contemporary cultures, by comparison, never voyaged beyond sight of land.”

    “Viking … Norse (Scandinavian) peoples, famous as explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates, who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 8th to the early 11th century.”

    Further, we should not forget the portuguese, spanish and dutch exploration; just start the long list with Henry the Navigator.

    I am not a historian, so I believe that there are much more examples on pioneering and exploration by humans (but never forget their negative “side effects”, sometimes called collateral damage…).

    So what should make the current Anglo-American culture I think You refer to (barely three hundred years old – compare the time frame with the examples above) better than the rest? I cannot see the reasons.


  • ljk July 27, 2008, 23:30

    While perhaps many of us here would go into space both for
    the experience and to “explore strange new worlds, etc.”, the
    real pioneers of space – the ones who will go there to stay and
    carry on the legacy to their descendants – will be motivated
    mainly by economics, political oppression, and cultural/religious

    Of course there will be scientists among them, but they are
    of course most interested in the data, not necessarily colonization.
    I know a few Mars scientists from the 1990s who thought manned
    spaceflight would take funding away from robotic exploration of
    the Red Planet. Many scientists had the same feeling with Apollo
    in the 1960s, though the manned missions brought back far more
    samples than any robotic mission did or could have at the time.

    So while we would perhaps like to see the brave and noble
    scientist astronaut be the one who blazes a trail into the galaxy,
    the first real space pioneers may instead be the ones looking
    to make a lot of money and those who want to live their lives
    away from the controlling governments of Earth.

  • Athena July 28, 2008, 4:48

    I think that the human urge to explore is innate. This urge is the reason that sapiens sapiens ended up occupying every terrestrial niche, uniquely among mammals.

    No culture has a monopoly on this urge. Instead, each culture undergoes an expansive phase, when it encourages exploration (often combined with conquest). It’s true that a small percentage of each community travels extensively, but it’s vital for collective and individual well-being to know that wandering is possible. Malaise increases in a society whenever mobility is perceived to be constrained.

    As for the motives behind exploration, of course they are always mixed. Permit me to quote one of the closing sentences of my long essay, Making Aliens:

    “And despite all the caveats I listed, I think we will venture to the stars — for knowledge, for glory, but above all, because we thirst to know what is behind the next bend in the path.”

  • djlactin July 28, 2008, 10:38

    A minority response.

    After some reflection and a cursory virtual examination of history, I conclude that humans in general have no particular drive to explore.

    I put on a helmet before saying that, because I think I am saying this to a group of people who do not represent humans ‘in general’.

    Allow me to explain.

    Species distributions expand. This applies to moles and fungi, just as to humans. Range expansion does not equate to an urge to explore, or we could attribute that urge to Horses, just because they originated in North America and expanded into South America, Asia and Africa.

    The human population expanded its range, but is this ‘exploration’?

    I think not. I posit that groups moved only because the local habitat was full or depleted. How many people do you (yes, you) know who have actually ‘gone exploring’? (I mean, beyond their immediate ambit of say 100 miles). How many have actually gone over the horizon in search of the unknown? Of the people I grew up with: none (except me). Many of my school friends sent their kids to the same schools we attended. The boy across the street from me bought his parents’ house. The girl next door bought hers’; her sister bought the house across the street. This is not unusual.

    Most people are interested (fascinated) by the results of exploration and read avidly the accounts of the (surviving) explorers. But how many would ACTUALLY HAVE GONE? (Would you have signed on to the Magellan voyage? Even knowing that it would succeed [Which nobody did at the time.] Especially if you knew that only 14 of the original 200 or so sailors would survive? Be honest.)

    Exploration for the purpose of exploration? Feh.

    I’m a Canadian in South Korea via China. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who have said: “Cool, I’d love to do that….” but who never do. Or how many get a panicked look. THOSE are normal people.

    I’m abnormal. So are you Kurt9.

    So here’s my point:

    Natural “explorers” are vanishingly rare.

    I think the history of human exploration should probably be considered from a totally different perspective: search for profit (the only human trait that I can think of that is absent from the rest of nature).

    Exploration is a by-product.

    Phoenicians: traders;
    Vikings: raiders;
    Mongols: seekers of land and power (and to pass on their y-chromosomes);
    Portuguese and Spaniards: seekers of a route to the riches of the orient that bypassed the Arab blockage in the middle east;
    Dutch: seekers of a source of income to overcome a spanish blockade;
    English: spices from Asia, furs from the Americas, ‘commodities’ from Africa.
    French; Germans; Italians; Belgians…

    So now I’d like to discuss the present (implied) question “Why explore?”

    I think the entrepreneurs who are now dabbling in space technology are the future of exploration. It is they who will ultimately mine the moon, the asteroids. Not for the fun of it. For the money.

    Exploration is not a hobby; it’s a business.

  • kurt9 July 28, 2008, 11:55


    Yes, the Vikings, Phoenicians, and other societies have been known traders in history. However, for everyone of these examples, there are probably 3-5 cultural examples for each given time where exploration and innovation have not only not been valued, but actively discouraged.

    Do not get me wrong, I would love to believe that human beings have an innate desire to explore and what not. However, history shows that this is more the exception than the rule for most human societies. The major benefit of modern communications and transportation is that it has thrown all of the world’s cultures together in a competitive matrix. This will increase the desire for various societies around the world (especially East Asia) to innovate and pioneer their way into the future.

    I stand by my point with regards to the L-5 Society. Short of development of FTL or wormhole, the O’niell scenario is the only plausible one for large scale space colonization. It most certainly was the only one when it was proposed and disseminated in the mid to late 70’s. Anyone who had any interest in space would have gravitated towards the L-5 Society during it heyday. So, I think it a reasonable metric of a given society’s interest in pioneering would be measured by the number of L-5 Society members and chapters that society had. As I mentioned previously, the majority of these was in the U.S. and, to a lessor extent, Australia. This is only to be expected as both North America and Australia are “frontier” societies.

    I would also say that my anecdotal experience also supports this conclusion. I lived 10 years in Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia and got to know many western expats as well as local people. I found, generally speaking, that the continentals, Brits, and Canadians to be more skeptical about new technologies and ideas than the Americans. The Aussies I knew were somewhere in between. I found this to be especially true with regards to subject such as life extension, space, and nanotechnology. Many of the continentals (Europeans) as well as Brits were downright luddite towards these ideas. This is anecdotal evidence to me that Americans have a more pioneering spirit about stuff than much of the remaining west.

    My Japanese and Chinese friends were generally interested in nanotech, if it could be made to work. They seemed much less interested in space and life extension. However, much of the manga in Japan (and China) have cybernetic and space themes in them.

    I am generally optimistic about the future of mankind. However, much of this optimism is driven by the belief that competitive pressure will drive people to innovate and do things by necessity, rather than an innate desire to pioneer and explore. In this sense, I am both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time (all of my transhumanist friends think I am pessimistic, all of my non-transhumanist friends think I am optimistic).

  • ljk July 30, 2008, 19:03

    Journeys to the Other Shore

    Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge

    Roxanne L. Euben

    To read the entire book description or a sample chapter, please visit:


    The contemporary world is increasingly defined by dizzying flows of people and ideas. But while Western travel is associated with a pioneering spirit of discovery, the dominant image of Muslim mobility is the jihadi who travels not to learn but to destroy.

    Journeys to the Other Shore challenges these stereotypes by charting the common ways in which Muslim and Western travelers negotiate the dislocation of travel to unfamiliar and strange worlds.