The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move is a 2020 Book by Sonia Shah

Our knowledge of animal migration is extensive. Every autumn, eels from European ponds swim across the Atlantic to breed in the Sargasso Sea. Monarch butterflies migrate three thousand miles from Canada to Mexico to overwinter. However, people didn’t understand migration or even believe in it for centuries. Their assumption was that animals were sedentary and remained in the region where they were discovered.

The idea of a sedentary natural world stems from the eighteenth century, when European naturalists began to catalog animal and plant species. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, dubbed “The Father of Modern Taxonomy,” is mostly responsible for this misunderstanding.

Linnaeus believed that there had only been one initial migration throughout history – when all creatures from the Garden of Eden ventured out into an empty, virgin world. There, they settled into permanent habitats where they remained for thousands of years, waiting to be discovered. This belief in nature’s sedentariness lasted well into the twentieth century. Even when evidence of migration was discovered, it was viewed as abnormal and destructive behavior.

Here’s an example. The English zoologist Charles Elton helped popularize the myth that lemmings “commit suicide” by leaping into the sea. In his 1924 paper in The British Journal of Experimental Biology, he claimed they did this as a form of population control. But in actuality, the lemmings were migrating to find new habitat – something that often involves swimming across bodies of water.

It was during World War II that proof of animal migration finally started to make its mark. This was thanks to a new technology of the time, radar, which was used to detect enemy planes and ships.

One night in March 1941, British radar operators picked up a huge formation of flying objects across the English Channel. Investigating fighter pilots found nothing but the silent skies. So, dumbfounded, military officials decided that these spooky signals were the ghosts of fallen soldiers, which they called “radar angels.”

But British ornithologist David Lack had a more plausible theory: he claimed that, rather than angels, these signals came from migrating birds – to be precise, starlings. And, of course, David Lack would be proven right. Along with this discovery, Lack had hit on a much broader truth: Nature is a great traveler.

DNA proves human beings are closely related, and have always been migrants.

Though we share 99.9 percent of our DNA, the 0.1 percent is still significant, certain scientists claimed. In a New York Times op-ed, the biologist Armand Marie Leroi wrote that “genetic data show that races clearly do exist.”

And at a conference featuring the race scholar Dorothy Roberts, one attendee argued that, while dogs and wolves are nearly identical at the genetic level, the difference between a dog and a wolf is huge. This 0.1 percent difference was enough to keep the old Linnaean belief of separate races alive. In fact, for white supremacists, it was proof that the “races” developed in isolation after an initial migration out of Africa.

Finally, an ancient discovery shattered this illusion around race. The discovery? The DNA inside an ancient petrous bone. This is the part of the skull that covers the inner ear’s tissue and tunnels. Since it’s the hardest and most durable bone in the human body, scientists were able to find viable ancient DNA for the first time. This DNA revealed that ancient peoples migrated everywhere and never stopped. After they’d traveled from Africa to Eurasia and the Americas, some returned to Africa, leaving their descendants with Eurasian genes.

The story contained in the ancient petrous bone is one of continuous movement – ancient people around the world mixing and merging. Physical differences, like skin color or height, are simply the shifting modifications of the human body reacting to different environments. Rather than homo sapiens, a more fitting name for us would be homo migratio.

The refugee crisis provoked a reactionary response based on lies and exaggeration.

Ten years into the conflict: Syrian integration in Europe

In September 2015, there was an image that caused grief around the world: a little Syrian boy, drowned, on a beach in Turkey. It also alerted the world to the scale of a new refugee migration, from war-torn and climate-ravaged countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. It didn’t take long for this moment of empathy to wear off, however.

Escaping the Syrian civil war or climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, refugees have fled to Europe in droves. By 2015, over a million people had found their way to Europe – mostly to Germany, but to other countries, too.

As they arrived, a reactionary backlash arose. Nationalist sentiment drove political decisions across the West. Populist leaders promised harsh anti-migrant measures. The UK voted to leave the European Union, partly due to the perception of the EU’s, “open borders.” In the US, Donald Trump was elected on a wave of similar nativist sentiment.

Then, during the first few days of January 2016, women in Germany reported assaults by newly-arrived migrants from the Middle East and Africa that took place on New Year’s Eve. Media across the EU targeted these migrants, suggesting that they were especially inclined to assault women. In Poland, one magazine cover read “The Islamic Rape of Europe,” with an image of black and brown hands ripping an EU-print dress off the body of a blond, white woman.

Soon after, media outlets aired a video of migrants who were alleged to be celebrating that one of Germany’s oldest churches was going up in flames. By this point, anti-immigrant feeling was raging.

But not everyone bought into these stories. One National Public Radio journalist examined the reports from New Year’s Eve. He found that while the attacks had occurred, they weren’t necessarily exceptional for New Year’s Eve in Germany. In fact, they were part of an ongoing sexual violence crisis at a global level. The difference in 2016 was that the attackers weren’t the usual type of sexual predators who roamed the country.

This same NPR reporter discovered something else, too. The German church hadn’t been gleefully, and purposefully set ablaze by migrants. Rather, Syrian refugees had been celebrating a ceasefire in Syria’s civil war when a firework accidentally landed on the church’s scaffolding.

There had been no “migrant crime wave,” nor an “Islamic Rape of Europe” – simply a determination to find perpetrators among newly-arrived migrants. In short, just plain old racism and xenophobia.

Migration, for both nature and humanity, can and should be facilitated safely.

In February 2018, Russian cosmonauts attached an antenna to the International Space Station. The antenna’s purpose was to scan the Earth’s surface. It would pick up movement from tags fitted onto hundreds of species on Earth.

This data revealed an intricate network of migration pathways wrapped around the planet – by land, sea, and air. It also revealed a more cardinal truth: migration plays a fundamental role in life on Earth. The author thus argues that we need to make it easier for humans and animals to migrate.

When it comes to animals, human habitation and roads sometimes act as obstacles to migrating species. One way to make the landscape more hospitable for them is to connect fractured habitats with safe, wide “corridors” that support movement.

Some already exist, like the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Initiative in North America. Hundreds of conservation groups have banded together to create a wildlife corridor from northern Canada to Yellowstone Park. That’s five hundred miles of safe passage for migrating animals.

In Canada, special wildlife “bridges” allow grizzly bears, wolverines, and elk safe passage over busy highways. The Netherlands and the US state of Montana have adopted similar structures.

As with nature, so with human beings. The author believes in the possibility of a world where people can move safely across international borders. Having permeable borders would allow those fleeing dangers to avoid drowning at sea or being hunted down by armed border patrol agents. Rather than checkpoints, with their nests of barbed wire, international borders could soften, like those between countries in the European Union, or states in the US.

This doesn’t seem possible, right? Well, initiatives that offer a potential framework for a world like this already exist. For instance, the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration advises countries on creating more legal pathways for migrants looking for new livelihoods.

The truth is that human beings are natural migrants. In the end, not even the highest wall or the deepest sea can hold us back. It’s only right, then, that we envision a world where migration can be made safe and dignified for all.


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