Maps, Part 3: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future

"Gaia spacecraft" by ESA–D. Ducros, 2013

“Gaia spacecraft” by ESA–D. Ducros, 2013

In Parts 1 and 2 of Maps: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future, we explored how the ancients mapped the heavens and how modern space programs capture data today. Amazingly adept we humans have been at duality, both mythologizing and demystifying the worlds around us through time. As we calculate and calibrate and chronicle, we push the boundaries of our known existences and challenge ourselves to see where the impossible can become the possible. Take a look at the Gaia Probe that will map out the Milky Way using a billion pixel camera and two telescopes. The Milky Way was the stuff of dreams for millennia. Now the Milky Way will be rendered with a precision that boggles the mind and unlocks the mysteries that have intrigued the human imagination for centuries.

Mapping has a practical purpose in showing us the parameters of knowledge and existence at particular points in time. But it also serves another purpose. A map holds the promise of great journeys, of bold adventures and of breath-taking discoveries. What is it about the human mind that seeks to break through the barriers of complacency? Of an imagination dissatisfied with living with the world as one knows it?

Geneticists map the human journey out of Africa. Click to view a video of the map and the journey. Image: National Geographic.

Geneticists map the human journey out of Africa. Click to view a video of the map and the journey. Image: National Geographic.

Humans emerged around 6 million years ago in Africa (although some would argue that honor would go to Asia). What is known is that around 50,000 years ago humans started the great migration that over the centuries would take them to the far reaches of the planet. They acquired abstract thought and reasoning, which meant that they could plan migratory routes, arrange food sources and devise tools and practices that would build great civilizations. The species is one of constant invention and re-invention.  But why this insatiable desire to tread boldly into the unknown?

“No other mammal moves around like we do, says Svante Pääbo, a director of the Max Planck Institute Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he uses genetics to study human origins. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this. Other humans either. Neanderthals were around hundreds of thousands of years, but they never spread around the world. In just 50,000 years we covered everything. There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”[1]

microbiology-163470_640Investigation has led some scientists to believe that this wanderlust could be linked to the gene DRD4, which is tied to dopamine, the hormone and neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward in the brain.[2]  A variant of DRD4 is DRD4-7R, which is carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans and is linked to curiosity and restlessness. Studies have shown this variant presents in people who are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.  The variant also promotes a need for change and novelty, and is associated with ADHD.[3]

Other scientists, however, believe this explanation is too reductive. “You just can’t reduce something as complex as human exploration to a single gene,” says Yale University evolutionary and population geneticist Kenneth Kidd.[4] Instead, while DRD4-7R may have had a role in the evolutionary migrations of humans, many argue that it is rather a combination of genes along with skills that developed as humans evolved that created a scaffold of traits underlying our travel bug.[5]

Click here to watch the short film "Wanderers" on Vimeo.

Click here to watch the short film “Wanderers” on Vimeo.

One thing is certain. We humans will continue to explore. We are reaching for the heavens and laying claim to make the unknown ours. Take a look at Wanderers, a short film by Erik Wernquist, narrated by the renowned late physicist Carl Sagan that uses actual depictions of our solar system to create a unique envisioning of human colonization of space. See the future unfold as earthlings establish settlements and tame hostile environments. Stills from the film show the actual sites with accompanying descriptions.

Maps can guide us to places far, far away. Interestingly, it is the astronauts who have also shown us something marvelous about the recording of the galaxies. The Overview Effect is a phenomenon well documented by scientists. Experienced by many astronauts, it is a psychological and spiritual sensation of connectedness, a feeling that all life and the natural world have a oneness. Floating above the Earth, there is a sense that boundaries, rivalries and differences recede against the wondrous majesty of rolling horizons. We can conclude then that in mapping the cosmos, from their long view in space, astronauts have discovered a new dimension to explore:  the measure of what it is to be human.

We’ve mapped our human existence for thousands of years. And here we are. In a world wobbly with strife, yet somehow breathtakingly beautiful when viewed from a different perspective. We are a species that continues on, never content to rest. To the optimistic among us, our explorations are our destiny. To those of a more sober nature, humans have a propensity for mischief. Should we really visit that upon other worlds? Heady things to think about indeed. But let’s put all that aside for the moment. Instead, let’s turn off the lights, free our minds of earthly woes and watch the video of the Overview Effect. Godspeed to us all.

Check out these maps of the future and learn the new ways we may be charting our world and universe very soon:

  • Facebook for Maps: “A little-known California company called Esri offers a ‘Facebook for Maps’ that promises to change the way we interact with our environment, predict behavior, and make decisions in the decades ahead.”
  • 10 Things You Need to Know About the Future of Maps: This fascinating article by The Guardian reveals the exciting ways in which cartography and mapping are changing.
  • The Future of the Map Isn’t a Map at All—It’s InformationGoogle’s interesting take on the future of maps and a video about their “futuristic map plan.”
  • Maps of the World’s Future Coastlines: An eye-opening look at how our seaside cities might fare in the future.
  • Future Maps: A thought-provoking collection of maps of how the United States and world might look in the future due to various influences. The collection includes maps from a multitude of sources, including one based on Nostradamus’ predictions.

[1] Dobbs, D. (2013, January 1). The New Age of Exploration. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from

[2] Lichter, J. B., Barr, C. L., Kennedy, J. L., Van Tol, H. H., Kidd, K. K., & Livak, K. J. (1993). A hypervariable segment in the human dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene. Human Molecular Genetics, 2(6), 767-773.

[3] Dobbs, D.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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