18 September 2020


Anabiosis and the Liminal Geographies of De/extinction' by Adam Searle in (2020) 12(1) Environmental Humanities 321–345 comments

The spectacle of de-extinction is often forward facing at the interface of science fiction and speculative fact, haunted by extinction’s pasts. Missing from this discourse, however, is a robust theorization of de-extinction in the present. This article presents recent developments in the emergent fields of resurrection biology and liminality to conceptualize the anabiotic (not living nor dead) state of de/extinction. Through two stories, this article explores the epistemological perturbation caused by the suspended animation of genetic material. Contrasting the genomic stories of the bucardo, a now extinct subspecies of Iberian ibex whose genome was preserved before the turn of the millennium, and the woolly mammoth, whose genome is still a work in progress, the author poses questions concerning the existential authenticity of this genomic anabiosis. They serve as archetypal illustrations of salvaged and synthesized anabiotic creatures. De/extinction is presented as a liminal state of being, both living and dead, both fact and fiction, a realm that we have growing access to through the proliferation of synthetic biology and cryopreservation. The article concludes through a presentation of anabiotic geographies, postulating on the changing biocultural significances we attach to organisms both extinct and extant, and considering their implications for the contemporary extinction crisis. 

Searle argues

 Extinction is not a moment or singular event. Extinctions, as ecologically and culturally significant as they may be, are difficult to locate, define, understand, or even imagine. Often the term itself assumes some pre-given contextual meaning that masks its polymorphous ambiguity. Amidst narratives of Anthropocenes, the sixth mass extinction, and the emergence of novel technologies in synthetic biology, both conservation and geographical research face a series of epistemic and ontological questions. The multifaceted nature of extinction invites us to make sense of it empirically, in grounded and relatable “stories,” facilitating and affording the affective reimagining of alternatives and capacities for responses. Amidst an emergent ontology between existential extremes of extinct and extant, scientific speculation and practice are reworking the significances of extinction. This article aims to de-speculate biotechnical assemblages unsettling preceding epistemologies of extinction: contingent on the extinct as permanent and non-negotiable within evolutionary time. This article discusses two nonhuman protagonists at the heart of this emergent ontology: the bucardo, the only extinct animal to have ever been cloned; and the woolly mammoth, perhaps the most charismatic de-extinction candidate. 

The promise of de-extinction radically alters the way we perceive the event of extinction, through an introduced potential for the resurrection of extinct species. Some commentators note that it may inspire agnosticism toward extant animals, whereas others openly celebrate the prospect of optimism in public perceptions of conservation.  De-extinction has been perceived by some as active engagement with the Anthropocene,  symptomatic of the emergent role of technoscience in more-than-human relations, or as an extreme on the spectrum of introductory techniques in the conservationist’s toolbox.  Many scholars in the environmental humanities have demonstrated the multiplicities of extinction. Through an approach inspired by this literature, this article explores the various practices and performances at the interface of biology, technology, and culture in grounding the multiplicities of de-extinction, outlining differences between the bucardo and mammoth de-extinction stories. Taking into account these multiplicities of meaning, defining de-extinction becomes increasingly difficult, especially as one comes up against questions such as: are reintroductions (say, for example, of beavers in Scotland) de-extinctions? However, for ease of argument I follow the typology of Sherkow and Greely in their 2013 Science article, which maintains that de-extinction comes in three forms: back-breeding, cloning, and genetic engineering. 

Back-breeding, the practice of selective breeding in an attempt to reverse domestication, is an interesting approach to ecological restoration for extinct biota currently utilized by some practitioners in the rewilding movement.  This article focuses on the cloning and genetic engineering approaches to de-extinction, due to the use of novel technologies in the genetic governance of life, and their active interactions with the genome. The bucardo and the mammoth are perhaps the classic examples for exploring the practices of speculative science in the global de-extinction discourse. Cloning as a de-extinction tool is contingent on the availability of intact genetic material.  The bucardo is the only extinct mammal to be outlived by their cryopreserved material,  and therefore unique in its resurrection subjection to cloning, yet in an age of salvage cryogenics it is likely the first of many. The mammoth, conversely, is de-extinction’s celebrity candidate. As elaborated by Stephanie Turner, “for extinction narratives, the development of molecular biology means that species such as woolly mammoths and Neanderthals are not lost after all, but continue to exist as genetic codes residing in their remains, codes we are getting better and better at reading and interpreting.”  It is speculatively engaged by synthetic biologists owing to the relative abundance of its genomic material; the rate of biological deterioration diminished through the aid of permafrost. Yet intact cells remain fantastical, and as such a mammoth de-extinction would rely on a process of hybridization with the embryonic material of elephants. 

Entanglements with extinction in both of these cases are archetypal and the most developed, both theoretically and empirically, the justification for their inclusion in this essay. Beyond contrasting techniques, their juxtaposition invites reflection on the changing temporalities and materialities of extinction. Charismatic vertebrates have dominated the global de-extinction discourse, with birds and mammals populating candidate lists disproportionately.  Invertebrates and plants are rarely featured, reflecting the broader allocation of attention in wildlife conservation. Acknowledging that drawing upon these examples may further propagate this oversight, I would emphasize that these two de-extinction stories have been selected for their technoscientific peculiarities rather than the spectacle of the animals themselves. 

This article is not an argument for or against de-extinction, which is a blossoming and encapsulating debate in the ecological and environmental sciences,  bioethics,  law,  genetics,  and even tourism studies.  The list goes on in countless other disciplines, the media, and public imaginations. Phillip Seddon speaks for a significant number of people when he affirms that “de-extinction will be pursued—the reality of the idea is too sexy to ignore, and it could be driven by aesthetic, commercial, scientific, or some other hitherto unanticipated imperatives and motivations.”  As noted by Bill Adams, the prospect of de-extinction has the ability to grab headlines, to circulate and multiply to the extent that it has fallen out of contact with the scientific community.  Consequentially, de-extinction has been subject to intense speculation, and the means in which many come to engage it is at the interface of science fiction and speculative fact.  After calls for a social scientific narrative to de-speculate de-extinction,  this article works toward a theorization of de-extinction’s geographies in the present. I begin by introducing key theoretical aspects of this changing landscape, through which to interrogate the empirical stories of the mammoth and bucardo. These changing epistemologies implicate the geographies and ontologies of extinction. 

De-extinction is a speculative practice engaging the anabiotic: the liminal materiality between living and dead. Liminality is an established tradition in geography, initially conceptualized within the anthropology of ritual,  and is commonly understood as a transitional process between and on both sides of a boundary or threshold. Examples of geographical applications have included identities in cyberspace,  theoretical examinations of borders and diplomatic arenas,  international relations,  and diaspora;  the diversity of its conceptual malleability illustrated in a recent edited book called Breaking the Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality.  “Liminality is also a provocation to take process, creativity, and aspiration seriously.”  Liminality is, itself, a conceptual frame that works through “shaking up epistemological assumptions”  by collapsing binaries around constructed ontological borders, such as extinct/extant, dead/alive, immaterial/material, nonlife/life, and technological/vital. Recent scholarship has applied the concept to animals,  or liminanimals, as Clemens Wischermann and Phillip Howell celebrate the creativity of the hybrid encounter.  Through the stories presented later, I will explore the liminal geographies emerging at the heart of narratives encompassing taxa resurrection, those salvaged and the synthesized genomes in the geographies of de-extinction. De-extinction technologies and ideas unsettle, distort, and disfigure the spaces and temporalities of extinction. This liminal state of de/extinction recalibrates genetics and the genome into a multifaceted existence, being both in potentiality as information and in actuality as deoxyribonucleic acids, exceeding and encompassing the aforementioned dualisms. I use a slash (/) to differentiate this existential liminality from the concept or process of resurrecting extinct taxa that is denoted by hyphenation (-). This discursive function of the slash indicates “an active and reiterative (intra-active) rethinking of the binary,”  allowing the conceptualization of binaries as dynamic and enmeshed rather than strictly oppositional,  as liminal and uncanny. Depending on context, a slash can be used in three ways: to denote “and,” “or,” or the spanning of two discrete categories (e.g. 2011/12). De/extinction should be thought of as a proactive and interactive questioning of the extinction concept, one accounting for both extinction and de-extinction as coexisting actions perpetually rethinking one another, forceful and metamorphic. De/extinction is relative and only makes sense with a contemplation of trace; that is, to consider de-extinction is to consider what extinction is not, and vice-versa.  This ontology exists in a plane of potentiality with agency to shape the ways we engage with and perceive the worlds we inhabit, certainly questioning the notion of extinctions as irreversible and indefinite. 

In what follows this article will explore liminal materialities, two anabiotic existences that unsettle the previously held epistemologies of extinct and extant: the bucardo and the mammoth. Through exploring the materialities and agencies of DNA itself, these genomes distort the discreteness of life and death. Biologists engaging de/extinction optimistically make sense of candidate genomes dissimilarly: they are the salvaged ghosts of extinction’s lost pasts, the synthesized ghosts of extinction’s lost futures. The bucardo and the mammoth provide archetypal illustrations of salvaged and synthesized anabiosis, the “not anymore” and “not there yet.” Genomes are simultaneously material amino acids and immaterial codes of semiotic programming, the program of which is referred to as a text by the molecular biologist, the scriptural model of which Derrida contends is central to advances in postwar science.  “Literary metaphors have been woven into the fabric of molecular biology since its inception. The determination of the human genome sequence has brought these metaphors to the forefront of the popular imagination, with the natural extension of the notion of DNA as language to that of the genome as the ‘book of life.’”  These systems of meaning are appropriately engaged through a posthumanist lens, which “expresses multiple ecologies of belonging,”  encompassing the matters of language, discourse, culture; but, most notably, matter itself. Posthumanist thought has been influenced through Derrida’s writings on biology, founded through his conceptualization of trace [trace],  referring to that which formulates difference and its deferral of meaning [différance].  This postponement of action or event creates meaning and presence through absence, and is the opening in which binary oppositions can operate: those aforementioned concepts of life/death, extant/extinct, and nature/culture. Exploring the trace of bucardo and mammoth’s genomes poses to offer insights into what anabiosis ontologically and existentially is at present.