The natural history of migration …

A few months ago, I read Nick Lane’s new book, The Vital Question.   In it, he tries to explain the early evolution of life in terms of the biochemical processes that cells need to generate energy. Explaining biochemistry to the masses is a tough call but Lane just about pulls it off. That’s not damning with faint praise as I was turned off biochemistry at university by dull lecturers reciting long lists of equations.   This time around (perhaps because no-one expects me to regurgitate those same equations in an exam), I could focus on the implications of what he was saying.

But I was reading his book at the same time as the migrant crisis began to dominate headlines. Boatloads of Africans and Syrians were being pulled from the Mediterranean or washed up on beaches in Greek Islands.   Every news bulletin seemed to have its quotient of pundits offering their opinion on how to deal with the situation.   There seemed to be an assumption, particularly amongst those of the right, that migrants could (or should) be controlled by tighter border controls. This is ironic, as the same politicians can also often be heard pushing for free trade across borders, but it also resonated with some of the messages that I was picking up from Nick Lane’s book.

Nick Lane’s thesis is that to understand life, we first have to understand how cells obtain the energy that they need in order to function.   He then takes a step back and explains how explains how, in nature, there is almost constant movement of molecules in solution. It is not random movement, but follows thermodynamic and electrochemical principles to even out imbalances. Any high concentration of molecules with a particular property (it could be concentration, it could be reactabilty) will naturally disperse until the concentration is the same throughout the solution. Adding sugar to tea is a good example, although the tea will be cold if you leave the sugar to disperse naturally, which is why sweet tea aficionados stir their cups to hasten dispersal.

The same principles apply to molecules with electric charges and, as Lane explains, this is the key to understanding life.   Insert a barrier to this free flow of energy and you create a gradient; make the barrier slightly permeable and the gradient between the two sides will ensure a constant flow that will, in turn, produce the energy that a cell needs.   OK, so you need to read the book to get all the nuances; the point I want to make is that, if we replace “molecules” with “people” and “membranes” with “national borders”, we have a fair model of the migrant crisis.   There are strong gradients across Europe and the near East in prosperity (fuelling economic migrants) and in fear (fuelling the Syrian refugee crisis).   Expressed in these terms, the flow of people is entirely predictable, as is their massing at semi-permeable national borders that can be crossed if you have enough money (to pay smugglers) or initiative.

The response of nationalist politicians is to try to make the borders less permeable (razor-wire fences, more security) but this is not getting to the root of the problem.   If we use the biochemical analogies from Nick Lane’s book, this will just create a barrier to the flow and mean that the migrants accumulate in ever increasing numbers on one side of the border. Country A may have temporarily averted the problem, but Country B now faces an ever bigger problem.   The gradient that drives the flow still exists.

So we need to address the gradient, not the flow?   All credit to the UK government for putting extra money into refugee camps in countries around Syria, as creating safe enclaves in the region has got to be part of the solution to stopping refugees starting their perilous journeys in the first place. The sheer number of refugees and the instability of the region means that this is no easy task.   Making Western Europe a less attractive destination for refugees would also reduce the gradient but the situation in Syria is now so awful that we would seriously compromise our own humanity before we solved the problem from this direction.   Or we could accept that the gradient exists and that barriers are, at best, temporary obstacles to desperate refugees, and adapt.   Ironically, the political right is happy to encourage this option when it suits. There are some on the right (Matt Ridley, for example) who accept the argument for climate change but who argue that we should be prepared to adapt rather than combat it via legislation. Why not apply the same principle to migration, adapt a humane and welcoming approach to those who make it to our borders and react to what transpires, rather than second-guess the outcome of a complex problem?   My surname is a clue to my own family’s origins: our ancestors responded to a famine by migrating across the Irish Sea, along with hundreds of thousands of others who, in turn, made their own contributions to the UK’s economy.   Fighting against nature is never a good idea (see previous post and links therein on invasive alien plants); learning from experience is, in the long-term, a much better bet.


Nick Lane (2015).   The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?   Profile Books, London.