It can neither be overstated nor stated too often that the covert sleight of hand upon which humanist and vitalist ideologies depend is the very same dissimulation that makes possible unfettered instrumentalization on a truly grand scale. Put simply, it is only once we cease to draw lines of exclusion dividing life from its absence that instrumental exploitation in turn ceases to be possible.  This, above all, is the story narrated by the lives and times of countless billions of extremophiles. As the determining order of reason definitive of the Anthropocene continues apace to reduce the entire postindustrial world to nothing more than a stockpile of instrumentalized resources, the recent history of extremophiles provides not only a cautionary tale but also a litmus test of possible and impossible futures insofar as who or what the extremophile is, and who or what he or she or it or they might become, remains always up for dispute. As the very matter of foundational collapse, as we shall see, what will be contested through these sites and these bodies is a battle for posthuman futures playing itself out in the arenas and laboratories of human privilege.

The blanket term ‘extremophile’ refers to any form of being who, by synthesizing protective extremolytes, is able to thrive within environments previously considered too extreme to support life. These include environments with very high or very low temperatures or under extreme pressure, or with drastic concentrations of salt, toxic gases, and/or heavy metals, or with high levels of atomic radiation or which are strongly acidic or alkaline. Defined in this way as the set of specific forms of being capable of living, thriving and evolving within the most inhospitable of environs, it is therefore clear that the concept of the extremophile only makes sense on the basis of their being classified as living beings.[i]

This latter point proves to be of fundamental importance in that, upon being transported to the laboratory, this definitive ontological status afforded to extremophiles abruptly loses all definition, becoming instead uncertain and, above all, categorically indistinct. Crucially, this shift into ontological indistinction is not simply the result of an error or an increase or decrease in our knowledge concerning extremophiles. Rather, this ‘rendering-indistinct’ is the mark of the otherwise obscure machinery and machinations of reason at work. First and foremost, the potential value of extremophiles inheres in their extraordinary ability to live and to evolve in places previously considered incapable of supporting life. Their perceived usefulness, in other words, rests with their evolutionary adaptivity and its potential to unlock posthuman futures unimagined hitherto. Such potential, however, can only be accessed within a laboratory setting, at which point things get a bit tricky. As living beings, extremophiles are, nominally at least, protected subjects of ethical concern, an ontological status that imposes severe constraints on the utopian dreams of technoscience. This presents something of a novel problem, namely that the incalculable value of extremophiles can be unlocked only once they are withdrawn from the realm of ethical culpability and, in so doing, made available for use as simple fabrications lacking ends of their own.

It is here that the operative contradiction comes into play. In the shift from living being to laboratory specimen, extremophiles find themselves abruptly objectified, recast in the role of material resource and thus available for use that henceforth can never become abuse. With nothing more than a reclassification of status, in other words, extremophiles are henceforth determined as mere objects whose every relation and evolutionary pathway into the future is abruptly rendered entirely predictable in accordance with the law of simple cause and effect. Despite being literally unthinkable until only very recently, despite their potential value being premised exclusively on the basis that they are living beings, our interactions with extremophiles in future are guaranteed as fully determinable and thus entirely under our control on the basis of nothing more substantial than a change of nomenclature. Put simply, it is the designation of beings as living subject or inanimate object, as being or thing, as organism or fabrication, which makes the instrumentalization of life possible. It is, however, because extremophiles occupy liminal space between living organism and lifeless artefact that they bear within their coded forms of matter both the promise of bioengineered futures and the promise to exceed all limits and control in the process.


Promises of the Posthuman: More Life and More Death

The process by which a guarantee of future safety is ostensibly established is thus simplicity itself: one need only to ascribe object status to a given being in order to compel that being to henceforth interact within any given environment in an entirely predictable manner, a process largely subordinate to a different mode of production that seeks to flatten all beings beneath the steamroller known as the universal equivalent form of value. Going beyond even the potential production of staggering sums of surplus value, however, the promise encoded within the extremophile is the promise that the capitalist mode of production will itself continue to thrive even while rendering the global climate increasingly inhospitable. To this end, technoscience quickly gets to work on fabricating synthetic extremolytes in the hope of putting extremophiles to work on dissolving—sometimes literally so—various planetary restrictions that currently stymie the expansion that is the modus operandi of global capitalism.

As a whole or in part, extremophiles are thus being manipulated to thrive upon a specific diet of pollutants such as nuclear waste, oil spills, discarded plastics, contaminants in the water table, and the vast lagoons of feces expelled from factory farms and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While both the success and the safety of this project in the long term depend upon extremophiles being always and everywhere predictable, not only are extremophiles themselves necessarily unpredictable, but also the extraordinary sums of money being wagered on the future are premised entirely upon just this fundamental unpredictability. The same unpredictability, ironically, which poses an explicit challenge to the stockpiling of instrumentalized resources that otherwise serves to legitimize the commodification of extremophiles in the first place. In promising to provide exclusive protection from intense heat and extreme cold alike, from ultraviolet rays and radioactive isotopes, from blast damage and even from the damage of time itself in the forms of entropic decay and inevitable death—at least for those wealthy enough to cover cost of purchase—extremophiles potentially encode within their bodies the twin grails of more life for the few, and more death for the rest.

Extremophiles, however, embody a very different promise of the posthuman. What makes extremophiles so potentially valuable to the development of technologies is the very fact of their interruption of the living-nonliving dichotomy and, as such, give lie to the myth of causal determinism. The potential for extracting surplus value, in other words, requires that extremophiles invalidate the account of linear causation as operating exclusively in the case of all beings arbitrarily deemed—by us—to lack the alchemical distinction of an élan-vital. Should it ever become possible in the far distant future to somehow engineer new extremophiles from scratch then, just like their existent kin, they too must adapt themselves to the pressures of hitherto inconceivable selection gradients and, again as in the case of their existent kin, just how these new adaptive relations might play out over time simply cannot be foreseen. Simply put, the structural unforeseeability of systemic evolutionary processes, rather than demonstrating the absence of any ethical dimension, is instead the mark of its absolute necessity irrespective of whether that system is deemed to be biological or technological. Rather, it is the necessary nonlinearity of being in general that makes it impossible to predict what ways of being are likely to emerge in the futures of technical evolution. Moreover, given that potential future effects generally can never be accurately predicted on the basis of the present, technical evolution thus discloses the ethical dimension at the very core of its being—and does so in spite of its assumed absence being the very condition that has hitherto allowed processes of technical evolution to continue largely unchecked.

The demand for accountability is a refusal to countenance the lie of safeguarding from risk that serves both to facilitate extraction of surplus value and simultaneously to obscure this primary function. While the production of manifest risk and, more crucially, of an apparent absence of risk is, as we have seen, a very simple process, the very real risk to which this same process gives rise is quite literally unthinkable. In speaking directly to this risk, the very recent history of extremophiles provides a compelling narrative insofar as, by dint of a simple act of reclassification, time is thus abruptly withdrawn from the set of value-producing extremophiles, deeming them as no longer having a role to play in their future but henceforth only in ours.

Contrary to this established narrative, however, it has long being recognized within the scientific community that genetic and genomic engineering technologies will inevitably give rise to unintended effects as a necessary consequence of ‘unforeseen gene actions, insertions and recombination events.’[1] Crucially, this is true for even the most mundane and seemingly minor technologies as a result of the hugely complex meshwork of enzyme pathways involved in the up-and-down regulation of genes. However, when faced with the promise of unimaginable wealth and power at stake alongside questions of beinghood and thinghood, scientific rationality has a long track record of choosing not to recognize that the very notion of reliable prediction, like that of a deterministic universe upon which it is founded, is a fairytale. Today and tomorrow, however, this failure of recognition is such that risks any chance of posthuman futures beyond imagining.


Suggestions for further reading

Salwan, Richa and Vivek Sharma (eds). Physiological and Biotechnological Aspects of Extremophiles (London: Elsevier, 2020)

Singh, Om V. (ed.). Extremophiles: Sustainable Resources and Biotechnological Implications (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

Iveson, Richard Being and Not Being: End Times of Posthumanism and the Future Undoing of Philosophy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023)


[1] Tyshenko, Michael and William Leiss. “Life in the Fast Lane: An Introduction to Genomics Risks.” CTheory (2005), n.p.

[i] I have previously engaged with extremophiles in various places and with varying degrees of subtlety. See, for example, ‘Technology’ in Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies, eds Ron Broglio, Lynn Turner & Undine Selbech (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 504-517; ‘Ontology After Extremophiles’ (2016), Public Lecture at Queensland School of Continental Philosophy, Griffith University, Brisbane (; and Being and Not Being: End Times of Posthumanism and the Future Undoing of Philosophy, pp. 63-6.