The Knowledge Gene

Dr Lynne Kelly AM

Over 300,000 years ago, a single gene mutated. It spread rapidly, becoming a supergene. It transformed our earliest ancestors into fully modern humans, capable of navigating every ecosystem on the planet.

This is the extraordinary story of the discovery of the gene that separates us from our closest cousins,the chimpanzees. Lynne Kelly recounts how she and two American researchers made a link between a genetic disorder and the prodigious memory skills of Indigenous people around the world. This enabled them to identify an ancient gene which gives all humans the unique power to learn vast amounts of information. They have dubbed it the ‘knowledge gene’.

The knowledge gene is long and fragile. Tens of thousands of babies are born each year with damage to this gene causing neurofibromatosis. What is lost when a gene goes wrong helps us understand what it does when it is functioning properly. People with neurofibromatosis have impaired cognitive, spatial, artistic and musical capacity, the crucial clue that has long eluded researchers into human cognition.

Oral cultures the world over use landscape as a powerful memory tool: Australian Aboriginal songlines, Native American pilgrimage trails, Inca ceques and African sung paths. Alaskan elder Dave Kanosh showed Lynne Kelly how Tlingit memory trails, art and music are the foundation for his tribe’s knowledge. These are skills other modern humans have largely lost.

Socrates predicted that writing would devastate the use of memory, and he was right. But The Knowledge Gene shows that even today we can all access the full power of our memories, without giving up any ofthe advantages of writing and technology. The implications for education are profound.

The discovery of the knowledge gene unlocks many puzzles. It explains for the first time why humans are the only species to make art, offering stunning insights into the earliest cave art. It offers a new perspective on the prehistory of music and story, and their importance for us today. It also provides an evolutionary perspective on neurodiversity, throwing new light on the cognitive strengths of people with autism, dyslexia and ADHD.

Popular Science

Dr Lynne Kelly AM

Dr Lynne Kelly AM is an educator and Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Over the past decade, shehas focused on Indigenous knowledge systems and the use of story, song, placeand art as mnemonic devices. She is an Australian Senior Memory Championship winner, and her work is used widely in schools and universities. She is the author of 20 books on science, including the bestselling Memory Code, Memory Craft and Songlines.

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The Knowledge Gene
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