Published on People Move

Migration, Human Diversity and the Survival of the Species

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The core of the difficult challenge to migration policy making is replete with a fear of loss of national, cultural and personal identity. So much so that some authors have compared unabsorbed diasporas to the level of unsafe carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (see here).  So I have started reading about identity and human diversity, starting with Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny” to now Richard Lewontin’s “Human Diversity”. I was struck by Sen’s observation that everyone has multiple identities and should have the choice, and responsibility, to prioritize those identities. I am even more struck by Lewontin’s finding that racial classification (Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians, and, Australian Aborigines) has very little correlation with genetic variations between humans, that majority of genetic variation is found within (rather than between) populations. 

To quote Lewontin, a leading population geneticist, on migration:

The unifying forces of migration and common selection have kept human beings all over the world as members of the same species….Had we been less mobile and less adaptable, both as individuals and as cultures, the disruptive processes of local natural selection and drift might have fragmented our species into local units that would become more and more divergent from each other and, in time, might even have formed different species.”

A powerful argument indeed! Lewontin adds:

If anything is clear about the direction of human evolution, it is that the early differentiation of people into local groups, while still very much a part of our biological diversity, is on the decline. The unifying forces of migration and of common selection through common environment and common culture are stronger than they have ever been.” (See his 1982 book, Human Diversity, p 162.)

I am venturing into the unknown, and afraid that I might misunderstand or make wrong statements about an extremely sensitive matter such as identity. But I hope we can start talking about this topic a bit more openly. 

The field of migration has remained highly fragmented even though the phenomenon itself is highly multi-disciplinary. We need to begin informed, policy-oriented conversations with scholars of other disciplines including anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, and population studies.


Dilip Ratha

Lead Economist and Economic Adviser to the Vice President of Operations, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, World Bank

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