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The Explorer Gene

explorer gene

In 1987, Dr. C. Robert Cloninger created the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire (TPQ). Despite its unique, Star-Trekian name, Cloninger’s TPQ entered a crowded field of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram, and the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA).

Spock administers the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire

Spock administers the TPQ to Captain Kirk

The TPQ distinguished itself  in two respects.

First, it came from a trusted source within the medical establishment. Cloninger, a medical doctor and professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, developed the TPQ from clinical research.

Second, Cloninger’s test made claims about the genetic origin of behavioral differences. Specifically, it argued that important aspects of personality are heritable, that our temperament grows out of genetic factors as much environmental ones.

As Cloninger sees it, the route from gene to expressed behavior follows a path laid down by neurotransmitters, particularly seritonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.  The three dimensions of the TPQ (which measure harm avoidance, reward dependency, and novelty seeking) correspond to different sensitivities in these three neurotransmitters.

Cloninger’s TPQ, now somewhat modified, remains controversial within the field of psychology. Some studies confirm a link between personality assessment and neurotransmitter sensitivity while others do not.  In 1996, two studies in the United States and Israel found a correlation between a high proclivity for novelty seeking and a longer sequence in the D4 dopamine receptor gene.

Scientists hypothesized that the added length of the D4Dr sequence made certain individuals particularly sensitive to changes in dopamine. High levels of dopamine — secreted in moments of pain, pleasure, or excitement — would lead to an intense high. By contrast, moderate levels of dopamine would leave the long D4Dr individual feeling depressed.

Novelty seeking, then, was not simply an acting out against one’s parents or the product of a mid-life crisis. It was long-D4Dr individuals’ attempts to self-medicate: to BASE jump, drag race, and free climb their way to their next rush of dopamine.

The discovery of the long D4Dr gene in 1996 captured popular attention. Was exploratory behavior more a matter of genes than life experience?  Did Lord Byron chase maids and attack Turks because of a mutation on his 11th chromosome? Was Columbus’s discovery of America an elaborate attempt to get high?

Such genetic arguments are simplistic. Recent studies have brought the TPQ test and the D4Dr-novelty seeking link into question. Moreover, as Maria Coffey points out in her book, Explorers of the Infinite, many of the riskiest activities — such as high altitude mountain climbing – come with long periods of drudgery. If high-risk activity is the key to unlocking an individual’s neuro-chemical Valhalla, the long D4Dr adventurer would do better working as a day-trader on Wall Street or playing the $500 tables in Atlantic City.


What’s more interesting to me is idea that “exploratory behavior” is an impulse beyond our control. This is a distinctly modern idea, though one that expressed itself somewhat differently in the 19th century. At that time, polar explorers called it “Arctic fever” a metaphor that was appropriate for an era afflicted by contagious disease. I find it interesting that late 20th century audiences have placed this impulsive, cannot-be-reasoned-with desire for danger within the human genome.

One might argue that the idea of the D4Dr is rooted in modern scientific research, that it represents something real rather than the 19th century’s metaphor of “fevers.” Still this doesn’t explain why talk of the explorer gene continues today even after the scientific evidence has left it behind.

For example, the dopamine-craving would-be adventurer can still join the D4Dr Club which bills itself as  “the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all types.”

No genetic testing is necessary. If you have an elongated D4DR, you probably know it. Be proud of it! Flaunt it! Whatever your ‘thing’ is – Adventure Travel, Extreme Sports or if you just like an adrenaline rush.

Membership benefits include a newsletter, inclusion in studies about the D4Dr gene, and a discount on flak jackets.

the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all typesthe ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all ty

Polar Hoaxes and Lost Worlds

cook and peary

A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the  “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months.  For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.

John Tierney

John Tierney

John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).

Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).

The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to  describe this ecosystem  not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.

Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6;  Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”

Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part II


(For Part I, go here)

I first took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) when I was a junior in high school. This was a good time to take it since, like most sixteen-year-olds, I was self-absorbed enough to think I should spend more time trying to figure myself out.

The test labeled me as an ENTP: Extroversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving.

I was a clear extrovert, someone who Jung describes as gaining energy from the world around them, or in my case, trying to set fire to the world around them. Introverts like Jung find energy through reflection. Thinking first, acting second. An interesting idea.

I also tested strongly intuitive, or as the MBTI would observe, I gathered information as concepts and abstract patterns rather than as concrete, immediate facts available to the senses.

One axiom of the MBTI is that personality types are stable, more or less. As this idea goes, the psyche sets up basic patterns of gathering, interpreting, and acting on information quite early, by age three or four.

Yet critics of the MBTI such as Paul Matthews point out that people who take the test often get different answers. My testing history confirms this as well. In high school, the MBTI tagged me as a thinker rather than feeler,  deciding issues on logical and consistent premises.

When I took the test again last week, I had swung over to the feeling side of the spectrum, making decisions based upon personal association or empathy more than general principles. That a person’s psychological type seems squishy, mutable over time, is one of many criticisms leveled at the MBTI, one that challenges its claim to measure meaningful psychological differences.

Still, my MBTI evaluation has been stable other than that, particularly in the final category of  perceiving/judging which evaluates how people process information. Strongly judging individuals tend to like settling matters and, as a result, gather information in order to make decisions and tie up loose ends.

Those with strong perceiving tendencies (of which I am one) gather information like rodents in November, amassing it without end. Perceivers are the hoarders of ideas, stowing and revising them even though it keeps things unsettled. They have messy desks.

Driving on Rt 6 in Wellfleet last week, my wife Michele (an INFJ)  wondered how her students might type characters in her lit courses. Ahab would have to be an INTJ. The Great Gatsby? ESFP I think.

The conversation brought me back to a post I wrote last year about The Explorer Type.  At the time, I was thinking about how certain explorers, such as Roy Chapman Andrews and Louis Leakey, took on similar cultural personae: popular outsiders who contributed to, but were not a part of, the academic establishment.

Was there something deeper here? A psychological type that lay behind the public persona?  The ENTP personality type (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) is often labeled “The Inventor-Explorer.” Other analyses of Myers-Briggs tag INTP (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceving) as the rightful home of this type. Yet what spotty data exists on this subject shows that real explorers, such Chuck Yeager and Alan Shepard, test as ISTPs (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving).

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Then again, test pilots and astronauts offer a narrow field of explorers. Reading Goethe and ranging over the mountains of South America, would Alexander von Humboldt have been an ISTP? Never. An ENTP if ever there was one.

Nor should the military discipline and technical demands of modern spaceflight necessarily point to controlled, process-oriented types such as ISTPs. The world’s most famous astronaut is a confirmed ENFP.

James Kirk: A Confirmed ENFP

An ENFP seeks out new worlds.

See for yourself.

Take a quick MBTI assessment here.

Type profiles are available here.

Other posts on exploration and personality:

What Kind of Explorer Are You?

Call Me Starbuck

Maybe I Was Wrong

Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part I


Myers-Briggs personality assessments are sprouting up everywhere on Facebook this week. For those who don’t know what this is, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most widely used personality profile in the United States, a favorite tool of career planners, team-builders, and guidance counselors.

Isabel Briggs Myers

Isabel Briggs Myers

Brain child of Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, the MBTI divides the human psyche in four separate areas, each one of which has two different tendencies or dichotomies:

Extraverion (E)/Introversion (I)
Intuition (N)/Sensation (S)
Thinking (T) /Feeling (F)
Judging (J) /Perceiving (P)

There is nothing obvious about these psychic divisions. In truth, the categories of the MBTI were long in the making. In the early 1920s, Briggs was experimenting with a number of different categories for explaining the diversity of human behavior. More specifically, she was interested in explaining the strange, unBriggs-like behavior of her new son-in-law.

Then Myers read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in 1923 and psychometric light bulbs started to go off in her head.  Jung’s system seemed perfectly suited for creating a system of personality profiles.  This is probably because Jung had his own strange in-law to explain, former mentor and father-figure Sigmund Freud.

Carl Jung (lower right) and Sigmund Freud (lower left), 1908

Carl Jung (lower right) and Sigmund Freud (lower left), 1908

Freud, Jung observed, gained energy by focusing on the outside world, a process that Jung called extraversion. Jung, however, was different. He found succor looking inward. (As a boy Jung spent his days writing secret messages to a mannequin carved on the end of his ruler). These were not neuroses, he thought, as much as they were different expressions of personality (though Jung does make one wonder).

Indeed, Jung felt that the spectrum of introversion and extraversion expressed a key dichotomy in western thought, one that dated back to the different approaches of Plato, who usually sought truth inwardly through the world of ideas, and Aristotle, who looked for reality in the phenomena of the world around him.

All of this is to say that the roots of the MBTI go deep. By the 1940s, Myers had expanded on Jung’s types and established a test that could be used for commercial application. Since then the MBTI has rocketed into mainstream culture, used to profile everyone from religious seminarians to astronauts.

Next Post: MBTI and the Explorer Type

The Forging of Races


I’m not in favor of ducking debates, but in matters of science and religion, it’s best to keep one’s head down. Not that I mind giving and taking a few hits, but the slings and arrows hurled by various bloggers are not easily deflected by reason. Much of the time, arguments on both sides seem to proceed without any sense of historical nuance.

For example, creationists often speak about science as if they were playing billiards: science is a game of facts, observable, measurable, linked together by visible and predictable causes. Any forces that take place off the felt table (such as phenomena of the far away or the deep past) fall into the zone of “theory,” a pejorative term that comes to mean speculation or opinion. This works well with pool, but hardly science, where strict empiricism or “Baconian science” has been out of vogue since the 18th century.

On the other side, the polemical evolutionists tend to lump anti-evolutionary arguments together under the category of “anti-science.” This would have been news to nineteenth-century scientists such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier, both of whom advanced serious objections to evolution on scientific, not religious, grounds.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen

I bring these issues up not because I have picked up my sword and plan to fight the good fight, but because I’m reading an excellent book on science and religion by Colin Kidd called The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.

Kidd argues that scriptures are largely color-blind, agnostic on the question of racial hierarchies. Yet he also argues that the Bible became the guide for western scholars trying to understand the origins of human races.

It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence on the forging of races. [Kidd, 19]

Even more interesting, Kidd argues that scriptures held racism or “racial essentialism” in check for much of modern history. As much as one can see rampent racism in the development of the Atlantic slave trade (pioneered by Christians and other followers of the Book), Europeans and Euro-Americans usually reaffirmed the common humanity of the races as “Children of Adam.” To do otherwise was to exclude some races from the original sin (and the promise of salvation) which emerges out of Genesis.


By the nineteenth century, certain scholars advanced the theory that non-white races were “Pre-Adamites,” humans who were formed by God in a separate act of creation. As religious theories of racial origin gave way to increasingly secular explanations, racial thinking became even more extreme, leading to policies of racial social control, eugenics, and genocide.

In short, the Bible was — unintentionally perhaps — a bulwark against the most extreme ideas of racial theory. If it promoted ideas of racial origin which now seem naive and far-fetched, it also protected the Atlantic World from some of the full blown horrors of racism realized during the more “scientific” age of the twentieth century.


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