Scientists find gene for love of the sea

What did Thor Heyerdahl, Captain Ahab, and Odysseus have in common? They all may have shared a common variant of a gene for love of the sea.

Researchers at Mystic University in Connecticut have identified a gene associated with seafaringness, according to an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Genetic Determinism Today. Patterns of inheritance of the long-sought gene offers hope for “sailing widows,” and could help explain why the sailing life has tended to run in families and why certain towns and geographical regions tend historically to have disproportionate numbers of sea-going citizens.

The gene is a form of the MAOA-L gene, previously associated with high-risk behavior and thrill-seeking; another form of the gene, found last year, made news as the “warrior gene.” The current variant, dubbed 4C, was found by a genome-wide association study (GWAS) on 290 individuals from Mystic, CT, New Bedford, MA, and Cold Spring Harbor, NY—all traditional nineteenth-century whaling villages. Residents showed the presence of the 4C variant at a frequency more than 20 times above background in neighboring landlocked towns.

C. M. Ishmael, the lead researcher on the study, said the findings could be a boon to medicine. Although the International Whaling Commission outlawed commercial whaling in 1986, the research could benefit literally hundreds of “sailing widows” left alone for Wednesday-evening sailboat races up and down the East Coast. Each year, an average of 11 salt-stained Polo shirts wash up on the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts, the only remains of lantern-jawed investment bankers and their half-million-dollar boats. Ishmael said he is trying to have the irrational urge to sail entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, standard reference for psychiatric diseases, in the next, fifth, edition.

“This receptor is an exciting potential target for new drug therapies,” Ishmael said in a phone interview. “We hope lots of companies will be interested in it. And venture capital, too.” Ishmael is himself CEO of a company, MysticGene, formed to develop such therapies. When asked about potential conflict of interest, he replied cryptically, “Well, duh.” Shares of MysticGene closed higher on Monday following the announcement.

The gene for seafaringness has long been an object of study for human geneticists. The trait was first described in 1919 by Charles Davenport, director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who named it “thalassophilia.” Using pedigree analysis and anecdotal correlation, Davenport identified thalassophilia as a sex-linked recessive gene and distinguished it clinically from wanderlust, or love of adventure. Although one might think naively that people living in towns with good harbors would tend to go to sea, Davenport suggested the reverse: those with the thalassophilia trait have tended to migrate toward regions with good harbors and found settlements there. The current study does nothing to refute Davenport’s analysis.

Further, a tentative expansion of the GWAS analysis to various racial groups largely confirms Davenport’s observations that thalassophilia is more prevalent in Scandinavians and the English, and less common in people of German ancestry.

Thalassophilia joins a rapidly growing list of complex behavioral traits that have been shown to have a genetic basis, thanks to GWAS. Besides the warrior gene, recent studies have found genetic links to promiscuity, aggressive behavior, especially while drinking, religiosity, and bipolar disorder, or manic depression—all traits that Davenport and other early human geneticists were deeply interested in. The difference is that modern science better understands the mechanisms involved.

“Seamen know very well that their cravings for the sea are racial,” Davenport wrote in 1919. “’It is in the blood,’ they say.” Today we know it’s not in the blood—it’s in the genes.

The true bits:

Garland E. Allen, “Is a New Eugenics Afoot?,” Science 294, no. 5540 (October 5, 2001): 59 -61. (

Charles Benedict Davenport and Mary Theresa Scudder, Naval officers: their heredity and development (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919),

Richard Alleyne, “A gene that could explain why the red mist descends,”,

Jeremy Taylor, “Violent-drunk gene discovered,”

Justin R. Garcia et al., “Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity,” ed. Jan Lauwereyns, PLoS ONE 5, no. 11 (11, 2010): e14162.

C. Frydman et al., “MAOA-L carriers are better at making optimal financial decisions under risk,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (12, 2010),



38 thoughts on “Scientists find gene for love of the sea”

  1. Have you no idea of the suffering and agony caused by the seemingly harmless passion for “simply messing about in boats”? The neglected children, yelping for their absentee parent? The spouses pining on the widows’ walks? The vast sums of –consumer!–money thrown down into that hole in the water surrounded by wood? It’s a national travesty, I tell you! Have some compassion!

  2. “C. M. Ishmael, the lead researcher on the study”

    …Call Me Ishmael?

    I see what you did there.

  3. …the quotes from Davenport are real, too, from pp. 26-28 in Naval Officers: Their Heredity and Development.

  4. Was visiting with my Vietnam helicopter commander recently and he said he hadn’t flew aircraft since leaving the army BUT did have a sailboat. Both have ‘wings’. He just did what his ‘gene’ told him to do.

  5. with such a insight and opinion of science guess we should count ourselves lucky you’re not working actively trying to do away with it altogether.

  6. At the age of ten, the very first time I took in my hands the spoked wooden wheel of a proper yacht, the Alden Malabar Jr. of a family friend, and felt the swell of Vineyard Sound rising beneath us, the bone in her teeth falling away to leeward, I knew with profound certainty, “This is the life for me.” The inborn nature of that feeling was confirmed decades later when my parents did a roots trip to the old country and learned I have Viking ancestors. My only real regret in life is that I let practical considerations prevail, such as work, responsibility, masquerading as a practical adult, etc.

    Everyone should know the joy of a true passion. Har, har, maties!

  7. I come by my love of the sea the old-fashioned way … I inherited it. Hey, wait a minute, that can’t be right!

    There hasn’t been a sailor in my family since my namesake crossed the Right-Hand Pond in the 1600’s. At least, not until my Dad discovered sailing was a fine way to get away from fractious kids — that is, until we followed him onto the water. Then it got even worse.

    I was wondering if the campus of Mystic University was located next to Mystic Pizza? Does Mystic U share the same motto as this site: “Here lies truth”?

    Also wondered if someone had hit the “publish” button 23 days too soon?

  8. @ Dutch Sailor, ye scurvy dog…amusingly enough yes, there’s a lot of mystical stuff going on all around the area. And yes, in lies, lie truth, sometimes.

    But no, not an April Fool’s; rather a March spoof.

  9. I probably have had more seawater run over and out of my seaboots than most. I find the report facinating since my Father sailed, my Son has now crossed an Ocean under sail and my late Wife and I actually got engaged on a yacht in the New Harbor on Block Island. I guess it IS true.

  10. Well thank God for the information my for ex-wives will be more than happy to know that it wasn’t their fault it was my jeans no the other kind of genes

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