I just finished reading Sonia Shah’s “The Next Great Migration” [Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020], and found it to be truly eye-opening. She writes about various migrations of humans, animals and plants throughout time, and highlights many recent discoveries that have yet to disseminate into the culture at large, or indeed throughout the scientific world (which tends to silo knowledge through specialization). For me, the theme that stood out the most was that Western culture operates on the assumption that the planet is stable, even though it isn’t. Early on, she refers to this as the “Christian paradigm of an unchanging, orderly world.” That is, God created the world as it is, and put all the animals and plants where they are now. It’s all been the same since the Eighth Day.
Nowadays, we know this isn’t true. Or do we?
Plate tectonics have split apart and smashed together continental masses; ice age sheets have expanded and receded, with the accompanying retreat and expansion of flora and fauna; humans themselves evolved first in Africa and radiated outwards from there; millions of species, like the dinosaurs, have flourished and gone extinct. The only constant on Earth has been change. Now the climate itself is destabilizing, threatening our survival.
Yet, as individuals and as a society, we make choices as if nothing has ever been different or ever will be. Despite evidence to the contrary, we view the world as essentially fixed. As a result, we’re not seeing the world as it is.
We could perhaps cut ourselves some slack. After all, the Christian paradigm held sway for many centuries, and mainstream European science didn’t recognize dinosaurs until the 1840s, ice ages until the 1870s, plate tectonics until the 1960s, and the out-of-Africa migration of humans until 1970s. As Shah points out in her book, bird migration was unknown to European science prior to 1943, when flocks were picked up on the new invention of radar. As Shah also details, much has come to light about the current and historical movements of plants, animals and humans only in the last twenty-five years thanks to new technology like DNA analysis and GPS tracking, and scientists have been surprised by the distances covered by individuals and species.
On the other hand, we also don’t engage in enough self-examination—culturally or individually—to recognize our own preconceptions and how they color our observations and worldviews. So, for example, what is a “native species” in a world in constant flux? During the last Glacial Maximum, only 20,000 years ago—less than a blink in geological time—all the ecosystems north of the Tropics in North America hosted entirely different assemblages of plants and animals than they do today: the now arid Mojave Desert was filled with lakes and streams. The Great Lake States and New England were buried under ice. Nebraska had a boreal Spruce forest. Alaska, interestingly, was mostly free of ice and hosted grassland. Florida was about double its current size. It was a starkly different world and very little that is “native” now was in the same place then.
Contemporaneously, the label “native species” is bestowed as if it’s a holy benediction, and conversely “non-native,” “exotic,” and “introduced” are applied like curse words. Scientists can demonstrate through sediment cores that the mix of plants at a given location are always going through cycles and never repeat, but we will insist that what’s there now—or what we think was there in 1492 or 1768 or whatever—is the only thing that really “belongs” there.
So, have we moved beyond the Christian paradigm or not?
Is the planet a place of unceasing dynamic change—as all available evidence demonstrates—or is it the idealized solid-state construct of Bronze Age superstition?
I am continually amazed by how many supposedly rational ideas embraced by ostensibly skeptical people are actually anchored in the Victorian Age or the Abrahamic religious legacy. The “Progress” myth is a Victorian invention, unsupported by facts or history, that is still clung to by every technophile out there, including many rich and powerful Silicon Valley oligarchs. The “evil” of humans—often expressed with sentiments like “people suck”—is nothing but Christianity’s “original sin” BS rehashed. The alleged superiority of agricultural civilization over traditional gatherer/hunter culture is nearly universal, though this claim, too, is unsupported by the record.
“Native” and “non-native” is a real distinction only at a scale of time and place that is very limited. We have to blinder ourselves to all but the immediate past and future to make it meaningful.
The migrations of humans, plants and animals in the current interglacial period—over the last 12,0000 years—have been intertwined. The “native” ranges of countless edible and medicinal plants were expanded by human propagation, whether intentional or accidental. We can trace ancient trade routes in the locations of fruit and nut trees, and identify abandoned settlements from the density of food species still growing in the area. Much of the “wild” Amazon was tended as a vast garden back in the day. Tobacco made its way from Brazil to New England before the Europeans arrived, traveling a comparable distance as any of the “invasive” weeds from Europe.
So, we must also carve out an exception for ourselves, now, as being the one case when it hasn’t been okay for humans to be involved in plant migration. Either that, or ignore the rich history of humans having done so, which is what most people tend to do: pretend that the world is “unchanging” and “orderly” and that our species is somehow separate from it.
With “The Next Great Migration,” Shah blows the lid off such conceits, and does so with an accessible book that is very well sourced and cited, and easy to read. You don’t need to be an expert in anything to follow her stories and her arguments. The politically minded will appreciate her sharp criticisms of national immigration policies, right up through the Trump era. I was personally more interested in the natural history, but I appreciated how she showed that current and past prejudices against both humans and non-humans for being “foreign” are related, both in spirit and in the same faulty logic.
When I put the book down, my view of our world felt noticeably expanded. Having read it, I have a deeper understanding not only of our planet, but of my own worldviews and how they’ve been shaped by the culture I’ve been subjected to since birth. I can also tell that my perceptions of various issues will continue to be shifted as I apply the revelations I gleaned. I definitely recommend this book.