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Open-Ended Stories: Extinction Narratives in Genome Time

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 55-82 | 10.1353/lm.2008.0007


As a mode of narrative, scientific accounts of extinction trace the decline of species into total loss. With anthropogenic extinction, the narrative of loss becomes an apocalyptic mode of expression: extinction, the endpoint in the drama of threatened and endangered species, resists representation in both popular science writing and fiction. This paper examines how techniques of genetic science and assisted reproduction, such as DNA extraction from recently extinct animals and cross-species surrogacy in backbreeding, work within and against the apocalyptic mode of expression in extinction accounts. Hypothetical and fictional scenarios of recuperating extinction through these techniques reflect the bodiless, multi-medial viability of DNA. Developing Jay Clayton's notion of "genome time," the sense of a "perpetual present" created by the infinite mutability of the DNA molecule, I examine woolly mammoth and thylacine recuperation efforts to show how such projects revise evolutionary narratives to fulfill cultural imperatives.