The Next Great Migration Book Summary - The Next Great Migration Book explained in key points
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The Next Great Migration summary

Sonia Shah

The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

4.1 (70 ratings)
26 mins
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    The Next Great Migration
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    It took a long time for people to understand that nature is always on the move.

    We know that animals go on great migratory journeys. In fact, every autumn, eels from European ponds swim across the Atlantic all the way to the Sargasso Sea to breed. Millions of monarch butterflies famously migrate three thousand miles from Canada to overwinter in Mexico. 

    But for centuries, people didn’t believe in migration, or even understand the concept. They assumed that animals were sedentary and remained in the region where they had been discovered.

    The key message here is: It took a long time for people to understand that nature is always on the move.

    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.

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    What is The Next Great Migration about?

    The Next Great Migration (2020) reveals how humans have always moved across oceans and continents, just like any other migratory species on Earth. Sonia Shah upends the notion that we’ve ever been a stationary species. She also demonstrates how racist and xenophobic belief systems have led us to erect artificial borders and walls. 

    Who should read The Next Great Migration?

    • Anyone interested in the history, present, and future of migration
    • Campaigners against racism and discriminatory borders 
    • Ecologists, biologists, and naturalists looking for a more holistic view of the world

    About the Author

    Sonia Shah is a science journalist and prize-winning author. Her previous works include Pandemic, and a chronicle of the history of malaria, The Fever. Shah was born in 1969 in New York City to Indian immigrants. 

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