From the Series: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen
In an era of extinction, it has become difficult to understand the scale of loss and to develop responsible practices of intervention. Cultural anthropologists are joining with taxonomic scientists to make critters with a precarious existence visible, audible, tangible, and knowable. We are starting to practice the art of noticing other species (Tsing 2015).
A bubble of hopeful economic speculation surrounded species biodiversity in the 1990s. Drug companies teamed up with conservationists to investigate the potential pharmaceutical value of plants, animals, and microbes. But this bubble quickly burst. Despite the hype, few marketable drugs were actually produced (Hayden 2003). By the turn of the millennium, taxonomy—the branch of science concerned with biological classification—had become “low-status work” (Bowker 2000, 656). Taxonomists using “noncharismatic technology” like microscopes and calipers to measure morphological characteristics “consistently lost out to more ‘exciting’ areas of research that did not try to provide consistent names” (Bowker 2000, 656). Taxonomists who began using charismatic genetic technologies, novel techniques and practices that enabled them to directly read the DNA contained in organisms’ genomes, briefly enjoyed a period of prestige within the scientific community. Yet as genetic tools became cheaper and more ubiquitous, basic taxonomic research again became a low priority for most career-minded biologists.
Categories proliferate when there is active human interest in a given form of life. Economic forces are constantly transforming existing categories and bringing new ones into existence. Breeders of endangered birds and snakes often practice DIY genetics—making hybrids by crossing distinct species and creating mutant strains through inbreeding—to produce novel designer pets (Kirksey 2015a, 134–48). Microbes like MRSA, a flesh-eating bacterium that is resistant to multiple kinds of antibiotics, have been categorized according to the agro-industrial and medical microclimates that they inhabit: HA-MRSA (health care–associated MRSA), CA-MRSA (community-associated), and LA-MRSA (livestock-associated). As new kinds of critters emerge they can rapidly transform human practices, political and economic systems, as well as ecological communities. Novel kinds of critters are generating order-forming assemblages as well as order-destroying disasters (Kirksey 2015b).
Hundreds of known unknowns, novel forms of life that await description as species, live in the laboratory of Joyce Longcore, a chytrid fungus taxonomist at the University of Maine. Chytrids, according to Longcore, perform critical ecological functions. Some chytrids break down chitin, which forms the hard exoskeleton of insects; others help break down dead plant matter in the hind guts of ruminants. Diverse forms of life engage in classification work in multispecies worlds and are often transformed as they are categorized by others. Practices of classification, recognition, and differentiation take place as chytrids and other species bring each other into being in complex, intergenerational dances. Few humans, other than Joyce Longcore, have noticed.
“Pathogens require different descriptors,” Longcore told me. “They need more specific names. It all depends on human need and use.” Longcore’s most widely cited paper, the species description of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, characterized a disease that has driven scores of amphibians extinct. Naming this chytrid species and describing its genetic makeup allowed biotechnology companies to develop inexpensive test kits. Multispecies ethnographers are joining citizens and scientists in using these DNA-detection devices to work against destructive legacies of capitalism and to make this pathogenic chytrid species visible.
Taxonomic scientists are also working to make amphibian species visible. Amidst outbreaks of harmful microbes and the ongoing presence of human enterprises that destroy forests and streams, nearly one-third of all described frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—some 1,950 species—are threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
As large, colorful frogs are featured in conservation campaigns, Jodi Rowley is working at the Australian Museum in Sydney to make certain small brown frogs from Vietnam visible. As she keeps her sights trained on these undescribed species, she notes the bomb craters pockmarking Vietnamese landscapes and speculates on the lasting effects of Agent Orange. Rowley is leveraging her expertise to protect creatures that have survived being blasted by U.S. soldiers, but are under renewed threats on the margins of the modern world system.
Frogs sing their own species into being. The calls of Leptolalax, a frog genus studied by Rowley, sound like crickets, katydids, or grasshoppers. New technologies and modes of listening have helped researchers make diverse frog species tangible and knowable in recent decades. Rowley described her first species of Leptolalax in 2009 by digitally recording its distinctive call. Now her own ears are an important apparatus. Rowley found Botsford’s leaf-litter frog (Leptolalax botsfordi) while climbing Mount Fansipan, a popular destination for tourists to summit the so-called roof of Indochina. “I had a pretty good idea that the species was undescribed the moment I heard its faint chirp,” she told me.
Most species remain undescribed, and many will go extinct before they are noticed by humans. Visibility as a species—for some animals, plants, or fungi—can mean opportunities for new ways of life. Visibility can also mean exposure to exploitation, surveillance, or invasive regimes of control (Star and Strauss 1999, 9–10). Stabilizing the existence of species in technoscientific worlds can nonetheless help them endure hostile or indifferent political and economic forces. We are only dimly aware of how our own existence, as a species, is contingent on the lives and deaths of others. Multispecies ethnographers are just beginning to study how entangled plant, fungal, microbial, and animal communities shape the nature of the human condition.
Bowker, Geoffrey C. 2000. “Biodiversity Datadiversity.” Social Studies of Science 30, no. 5: 643–83.
Hayden, Cori. 2003. When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kirksey, Eben. 2015a. Emergent Ecologies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
_____. 2015b. “Species: A Praxiographic Study.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21, no. 4: 758–80.
Star, Susan Leigh, and Anselm Strauss. 1999. “Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8, nos. 1–2: 9–30.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.