The travel writer Bruce Chatwin believed that man’s “migratory drive” led him to wander the world in search of novelty. Restlessness also forms the central thesis of Sonia Shah’s latest book The Next Great Migration, an examination of relocation in all its forms—human and wild—in the context of impending climate-related disruption.
Shah, an American investigative journalist and author of the prescient Pandemic (2017), delves into the origins of anti-immigrant rhetoric—starting from Carl Linnaeus’s early attempts to sort humans into colour-coded sub-species—and unpicks the notion of a static world, in which organisms are native to one place. She sketches the development of the fields of biogeography, invasion biology and scientific racism, building a convincing case against nativism.
It’s a dazzling tour through 300 years of scientific history, though occasionally disconcerting. She raises theories aloft, supported by cast-iron evidence, then demolishes them in the next breath. The studies were flawed, she says, and so they were. But after the umpteenth instance, one loses faith not only in the thinkers of the past but in science altogether. What other houses are we building on the sand?
Sometimes her approach lands awkwardly. Shah contrasts, for example, the gradual inching of the checkerspot butterfly with Afghan refugees fleeing persecution and Haitians struggling through the rainforested Darién Gap in Panama up towards the US border. This habit of conflation muddies the argument. What do annually migrating seabirds truly have in common with Syrian refugees?
Chatwin’s own rambling book on wanderlust grew huge, amorphous and finally—as Chatwin admitted—unreadable. Shah’s book is far from unreadable (indeed, it is engrossing) but she has fallen into a similar trap.
The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move by Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury, £14.99)