The Return of Vanished Species

99% of the 4 billion species estimated to have populated our planet in the last 3.5 billion years have disappeared (Novacek and Cleland 2001). Extinction is an inescapable component of any species' evolutionary cycle; extinction, the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould explained, is "the normal fate of species" (2007, 46). As such, extinctions occur frequently—about one of a million species vanishes each year (Pimm et al. 2008, 17). However, since 1900, extinction rates have soared to about a thousand-fold the background rate (Pimm et al. 2014).

Extinction defines the limits of life, as extinction is generally assumed to be "final and irreversible" (Belshaw 2014, 163). However, in July 2003, extinction was bio-technologically undone when a hybrid of a domestic goat and a Spanish ibex calved a Pyrenean ibex—a species declared extinct three and a half years prior. As Stewart Brand, the editor of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog (1968–1972), has opined, "That something as irreversible and final as extinction might be reversed is a stunning realization. The imagination soars. Just the thought of mammoths and passenger pigeons alive again invokes the awe and wonder that drives all conversation at its deepest level" (2013).

De-extinction seeks to de- and re-code the preserved DNA of lost species. While, ever since Jurassic Park (1993) hit silver screens across the globe, de-extinction has fueled the popular imagination, it has also come under scrutiny: "Will such experiments ever lead to the creation of populations big enough to be released back into the wild?" and "What ecological consequences would ensue?" Ursula Heise has wondered (2016, 210). Since the ecological niches of now-extinct animals have been occupied by other species (or the ecological niches have disappeared), "would this in fact [turn] the de-extincted species into an introduced, possibly even invasive one?" (Heise 2016, 210). Ashley Dawson has diagnosed nostalgic and capitalist implications in the promise to "wind evolutionary time backwards" (2016, 75), as the contemporary extinction crisis is transformed into "an opportunity to ratchet up the commodification of life itself" (2016, 82). Despite (or maybe because of) this commercial undercurrent, the celebration of resurrection biology has also infiltrated conservationist discourse. After all, in our capitalist world, measures to protect our planet must be profitable in the short run, for "in the long run" (from the perspective of an individual human), when environmental catastrophe might become truly tangible for inhabitants of the Global North, "we are all dead," anyways, to quote John Maynard Keynes out of context (2013, 65).

However, not only individual human lives are at stake in the Anthropocene present—an extinction event of epic proportions is on the horizon, which has driven species revival. Indeed, "the specter of extinction haunts the popular imagination today" (Dawson 2016, 16). But this specter has not only brought forth countless depictions of apocalyptic scenarios and thinly populated post-apocalyptic worlds; the idea of (believed-to-be) extinct species returning has been calming the Western psyche, providing a security blanket to assuage fears evoked by the impending "Anthropocene extinction" (as Earl Saxon has called it; 2008). Pop science outlets seem to be constantly filled with stories about species thought to have has been extinct which are re-discovered. And whenever one such species re-appears "thanks to" humankind's increasing penetration of Earth, the media tend to stress the variety and number of Lazarus taxa, which pales in comparison with all the species lost for the same reason that new ones are discovered—human encroachment upon the nonhuman world.

Spectral Species will draw on these various contexts in order to explore imaginary de-extinction. Imaginary de-extinction describes the reanimation of vanished species within a storyworld in such a way that the (formerly) extinct creatures come to cohabit a world with modern humans. I will restrict this "world" to representations of Earth and thus exclude texts such as the Horizon Alpha book series (2016–2019), which interconnect the (re-)discovery of lost species with the discovery of inhabitable planets, even if these stories draw on the narrative blueprint of the lost world (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World). In view of my (minimalist) definition, imaginary de-extinction includes both fictional representations of resurrection science, such as Jurassic Park and the numerous B-movies and cheap paperbacks it has inspired, and representations of thought-to-be-extinct species re-appearing, such as in the blockbuster The Meg (2018).

The main aim of the proposed book is to provide answers to a relatively straightforward question: Why do we imagine the return of vanished species? Or, to put it differently, what are the meanings and cultural functions of the (imagined) return of extinct species? To be sure, the idea of extinction was established only in the latter half of the eighteenth century. While Europeans had been exterminating wildlife, in particular larger predators, since the Middle Ages, extinction, I would argue, only truly began to become an issue when the decimation of the bison, North American beaver, and Pacific sea otter reduced Euro-Americans' profits in the New World. As bison herds thinned out on the North American plains, prehistoric mammals began to populate the fantastic realm (see Schell 2018). More recently, confronted with the extinction crisis caused by anthropogenic activities, scientists have been envisioning the resurrection of lost species. In different ways, both kinds of speculative tales seek to assuage fears pertaining to (human and nonhuman) extinction and humankind's implication in the eradication of other species.

Publications related to this Project

"De-Extinction: A Gothic Masternarrative for the Anthropocene." Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene, ed. Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund, and Johan Höglund, 26–44. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022.

"Imagining the Becoming-Unextinct of Megalodon: Spectral Animals, Digital Resurrection, and the Vanishing of the Human." Gothic Animals: Uncanny Otherness and the Animal With-Out, ed. Ruth Heholt and Melissa Edmundson, 107–123. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

"Telling Stories about Dying (Out): Thomas Pynchon's Global Novels and the Anthropocene Extinction." Fiction and the Sixth Mass Extinction: Narrative in an Era of Loss, ed. Jonathan Elmore, 13–29. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020.

"Vanishing Glaciers, the Becoming-Unextinct of Microorganisms, and Fathering a More-Than-Human World: Climate Change Horror in the Alps." Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research 6, no. 2 (2019): 11–24. Available Open Access.

"When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth? Digital Animals, Simulation, and the Return of 'Real Nature' in the Jurassic Park Movies." On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture 2 (2016). Available Open Access.