Meditation Two

“…those species which arrived before the beginning of the Neolithic period (ca. 5-6000 years B.C.) should be also considered as native, even if introduced by man. Until that time, man was a part of Nature and his influence on species dispersal was equivalent to that of animals”

Pysek, 1995: 72

At the heart of contemporary concerns about human mobility lies a perceived and harnessed tension between embedded ‘natives’ and out of place ‘aliens’, or, as Nandita Sharma calls them, people of a place and people out of place. While in the British Empire, the ‘native’ signified uncivilised and non-European, in contemporary Britain to be a ‘native’ suggests authenticity and racialised belonging. A ‘migrant’ can be naturalised into a citizen, but ideas of race mean that many cannot shake off their alienage but are considered ‘second/third generation’ or ‘of migrant background’ even if they have never crossed an international border.

What counts as a ‘native’ is also disputed in botanically. The distinction between Native and Alien was first codified in 1835 by John Henslow, Cambridge Professor of Botany and mentor of Charles Darwin. It was developed by Hewett Cottrell Watson who adapted the English Common Law on the status of persons to distinguish between native, denizen, colonist, alien and incognita. The mapping across of classifications from humans to non-human species and back also transfers hierarchies of unwantedness associated with (non) nativity from the benign to the invasive. Such an effort today would have to incorporate categories of refugee and the economic migrant foundational to ordering contemporary human mobility. (In Watson’s day, defining the boundary between the forced and the free labourer, the slave and the ‘coolie’ was what mattered, not the distinction between free and forced movement).

Some would consider many of the plants you can see as not native because they did not evolve in situ, despite their familiarity to people who have grown up in England – the Cynara cardunculus, the Leycesteria formosa. But by this logic, Homo sapiens is not native to England either. For some thinkers, crucial to the native/alien distinction is whether the organism was introduced by human beings. But humans have been introducing species since at least the Neolithic period (5,000-6,000 BCE. Unlike a seed carried by a bird across an ocean, one carried on the hull of a boat often connected previously disconnected ecosystems. Both wing and the human made boat are mobile links, but they operate at different speeds and are differently integrated into eco-systems. Thus, some life scientists take as an ecological turning point changes initiated with the 16th century European colonial spread. Growth in trade and empire saw a massive increase in plant collection and thoughtless propagation as transport speed increased and traversed new areas.  

But species can flourish and spread because of human activity without being directly ‘introduced’, and today this is more marked than ever as a result of climate change. According to National Geographic in 2017, this now means that ‘Half of all life is moving’, a ‘forced migration’ of species, required to adapt, move or die. Species move in response to different stimulae and pressures and as with the connection between human mobility and climate change, this movement is often disorderly and difficult to track. Climate change disrupts the framings of nativity and alienage as the conditions of eco-system integration are dramatically altered.

The native/alien distinction assumes certain historical starting points and when applied to migrants naturalises a political position. Does a dichotomous understanding of native and alien position humans as alien to nature, Homo sapiens forever expelled from the paradise of Eden?

Meditation Two: readings

  • Chew, M. and Hamilton, A. (2011) ‘The Rise and Fall of Biotic nativeness: a historical perspective’. Pp. 35-47 in Fifty Years of Invasion Ecology: the legacy of Charles Elton, edited by D. Richardson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Pysek, P. (1995) ‘On the Terminology Used in Plant Invasion Studies’. Pp. 71-81 in Plant Invasions: general aspects and special problems edited by P. PySek, K. Proch, M. Rejmanek and M. Wade. Amsterdam: SPB Academic Publishers.
  • Sharma, N. (2020). Home Rule: national sovereignty and the separation of natives and migrants. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Smout, T. (2014) ‘What’s natural: a species history of Scotland in the last 10,000 years’ The Glasgow Naturalist 26 (1): 11-16.
  • Ticktin, M. (2017) ‘Invasive Others: Towards a contaminated world’. Social Research 84 (1): xxi-xxxiv.