Why do we explore? Why do we feel we need to push our limits?

To celebrate National Geographic’s Adventurer of the year, http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/?source=NavAdvHome, I thought I would write a little piece on the concept of pushing one’s limits

Physical, emotional and psychological limits are in all of us. They drive our feelings: stability, comfort and happiness. Testing these limits and surpassing ourselves by running faster, understanding better and connecting with another more clearly, is part of life. Actually, I think it’s the major constituent of Life.

Improvement or progress has led us as a species to break through barriers that others could not even dream of. Usually, I don’t compliment humankind. I would certainly on my good days adhere to Agent Smith (Neo’s nemesis in the Matrix)’s view that the human species “are like a virus, that consumes all and spreads to another place”.

Yes our world is one of unsustainability, war and historically repeated errors. But it is also full of sophistication, artistry and genius. One cannot help but be impressed by the strength and diversity of our accomplishments: we have travelled to the lowest depths and the highest peaks, even different planets; we have devised an artificial network that connects us to people 20,000 miles away; we have created beautiful works of art that reverberate across generations; we’ve even invented little flannel pouches for the perfect poached eggs!

The diversity of human genetics and upbringing guarantees that we can, and will, take up myriad challenges. The new geologic period on earth is the Anthropocene, the time of the human. Arrogant, but true.

The questions I ask myself are: why do we feel the need to take these challenges on? Why can’t we be happy with our little huts in the mountains like past human species? Where does this ambition come from?

Many far brighter theologians, scientists, explorers and philosophers have asked themselves this very question before I have. What do they say?

On an evolutionary level, Richard Dawking’s “Selfish Gene” states that your entire human existence is simply for the transmission of your genes. Hence you push yourselves to be a better person to make you more attractive and improve your chances of transmitting your genes to the next generation. Tried that one and I became less attractive. Don’t like this one

On a more spiritual platform, you are improving yourself in order to fit with a religious belief. If you are a good person, you go to heaven in the Christian faith, or become reincarnated as a higher being following the Vedas of India, eventually to join one of the gods. Personally, I have always found it hard to place my trust in something that I have only read about. In order for me to trust this, I need to feel it, and I haven’t so far. I however sincerely congratulate any person who feels they can.

Another, perhaps considered less erudite, point of view comes from Sir Edmund Hillary:

It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves”.

We exist to experience, and the question of “why” is not relevant. We do it because we can, because it is there. Man’s exploration stems from their boundless curiosity and will to differentiate himself from what has been done before.

Like I said, I am not here to answer the ultimate question, but to simply state which one makes me feel best about why I constantly push myself to be who I want to be. That last one makes sense to me. I don’t know why I climb, backpack or travel to Afghanistan. They are there, the opportunity arises, let’s go for it.


What do you think?


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