Towards the end of this fascinating study, Shah travels to some of the frontlines of the denial of that instinct. She meets the gravediggers of the Greek island of Lesbos, who bury the migrants who wash up on their shores, many of them children, in unmarked graves. She has no easy answers, except to argue that our biology and our history tell us a very different story to our politicians. Nigel Farage’s efforts to police the English Channel are about as likely to succeed as those of King Canute. “Life is on the move, today as in the past,” Shah insists. “For too long, we’ve suppressed the fact of the migration instinct, demonising it as a harbinger of terror. We’ve constructed a story about ourselves, our history, our bodies, and the natural world around us in which migration is the anomaly. It’s an illusion. And once it falls, the entire world shifts.”
This is a vivid and engaging story that weaves in the accounts of refugees Shah has met to illustrate the harm done by today’s border controls. As a writer, she has an eye for the visual metaphor, likening anti-immigration arguments to puffball mushrooms, which grow huge, then burst to release their spores, leaving “an empty, crinkled shell”. Those arguments may indeed be hollow but they spread their spores nonetheless: we need books such as this to expose them.
Shah, a science writer, manages to link questions of migration, race and ecology more fluently than most political or social affairs journalists. Of course, race, nationality and borders are not based on nature, or science – they are social and political constructs. And as an enormous ecological upheaval approaches, part of the point of this book is to warn us that narrow political categorisations may end up being as damaging as the pernicious racial categorisations with which non-white people still struggle.
For those of us who grasp the central truth that human beings are all part of one family, though – born to travel, to meet, to get to know one another and to intermingle – her book is a hugely entertaining, life-affirming and hopeful hymn to the glorious adaptability of life on earth. Always, the argument is threaded through with delicious descriptions of the natural world and its endless mobility, from butterflies to hungry bears. And although Shah’s arguments may not be watertight, her luminous love for this changing world is surely a far better guide, as we face an uncertain future, than the dreary fear-mongering and lies of those she condemns, sometimes without much elegance, but always with a rich measure of gaiety, humour, and hope.
The scope of Shah’s story is vast, and she has taken some scientific shortcuts along the way, including a few that undermine her argument. Biologists recognize a diversity of plant and animal movements: daily movement within a home range, annual cyclic migration, dispersal from natal origin to a place of breeding, gene flow among populations of a species, historical range expansion, species dispersal over a geographic barrier, etc. Shah lumps all of these under the concept of “migration,” which makes some of her discussion confusing. How does the African origin of so much human diversity relate to the challenges cougars face crossing highways in Los Angeles? Or to the myth of altruistic lemmings leaping into the sea to their deaths?