In the face of extinction and genetic manipulation, is it time to change the way we classify living organisms?
Sitting in the fortified yard of Castello di Fosdinovo, Tuscany, accompanied by a dozy emerald green lizard and with the rare sound of the Hoopoe (Upupa Epops) feeding its chicks through a hole in the castle wall, I find myself in a good position to share a few thoughts on the much-debated term ‘species’.
In my mind’s eye, I see the great variation of all non-human life, known as well as unknown, on earth. Up until today, zoologists and biologists have classified 1.7 million species and an estimated further five million are yet to be discovered – that is, if the current Anthropocene age hasn’t interrupted these unknown species habitations for good before they even can be discovered. Between one and 130 species per day become extinct. There’s no hope for them unless you’re a technoid believer of Jurassic Park scenarios. Given today’s conservation strategies in ecosystem hotspots and the zoo’s increasing role in bio-diversity conservation, one could argue that we are witnessing such a dystopia – with one fundamental difference: Otherness is represented by sheer bio-diversity, not by the decadent re-animation of a T. rex. With this in mind, one may have a hard time believing in the possibility of joint co-habitation.
Strong tropes within science – separation, selection, classification – have structured our idea of species into a hierarchy of life forms. This hierarchy can be seen as a fundamental part of a larger problem, which relates to the way we think of and understand our own position within life. We humans seem to believe that we stand atop, if not outside, this hierarchy which can be traced back to religious and scientific divisions between the mind and the body. A Cartesian smile of arrogance accompanies our simplified understanding of biological otherness.
Tue Greenfort lives and works in Berlin and Denmark. Greenfort has had solo presentations at South London Gallery (2011), Kunstverein Braunschweig (2008), Secession, Vienna (2007) and Witte de With, Rotterdam (2006). He has co-curated an archive of work concerning the relationship between humans and non-human species for dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel. Upcoming solo presentations include Kunstraum Dornbirn, Austria (from 14 September 2012), and Berlinische Galerie (GASAG Kunstpreis, from 2 November).
In the days of transgenic organisms, ‘species’ has become susceptible to unexpected mixings and connections, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes perverse, sometimes both. In contem‑
porary art and critical theory, species is a sexy word. That’s intriguing to contemplate because of the shifting history of the relation of species to sex.
In 1942, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr formulated the biological species concept, which held that ‘species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups’. That definition was keyed to sexually reproducing creatures – and, more, as philosopher Ladelle McWhorter suggested in 2010, to groups of endogamously reproducing organisms: ‘Mayr’s definition is all about sex — all about who has sex with whom. … In order to become and remain a ‘good species’ (Mayr’s phrase) rather than a mere variety, a gene pool must dam itself off from alien gene flows’.
Just as the mid-20th-century ideas of race purity were a social illusion, so species turned out to be a biological one. Mayr rested too much of his definition on the imagined isolation of populations. The definition was immediately unsatisfying for the rhizomatic sexways of plants and fungi. And it didn’t work at all for the microbial majority, single-celled organisms that reproduce asexually – or that sometimes move genes around laterally among themselves with no reproductive boundary in sight.
Today, ‘sex’ has become everywhere fungible and fractured – from its rearrangement in cloning, to its bypassing in gene splicing, to its strategic deployment in a world of IVF, surrogacy, and queer family-making. ‘Sex’ hasn’t disappeared (and its operation as a token of power hasn’t vanished either), but it is harder to pin down, coming in and out of focus in, for example, what Eva Hayward and Lindsay Kelley call ‘tranimals’, enmeshments of trans and animals that include sex-switching coral, but also rabbits bioengineered to express jellyfish genes.
If the unwinding of ‘sex’ has unwound ‘species’, a revised definition seems in order, perhaps a resurrection of this obsolete meaning recorded by the OED: ‘species, n. 4. A thing seen; a spectacle; esp. an unreal or imaginary object of sight; a phantom or illusion. Obs.’ This is a useful bait-and-switch definition, with species as something empirical but then also fantastical – just like ‘sex’. Species has become a sexy word precisely because sex and species are not what they used to be.
First published in Issue 6