This blog by Catherine Oliver was first published in the new Snapshots section of Environment and History (May 2022).
The chicken: orange and white feathers, red comb, splayed dinosaurian feet. Almost everybody is familiar with this bird, and with good reason. On the planet today, there are estimated to be up to 33 billion of them. The chicken is the most populous bird on earth, with a biomass outweighing that of every other bird species alive three times over. The contemporary chicken is likely the largest standing population of a bird species in Earth’s history. These numbers are incomprehensible, but they point towards chickens being the furthest from extinct that an animal could possibly be. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story. This bird’s ubiquity obscures the fact that the threat of extinction cannot escape even the most prolific species.
The domestication of chickens has been traced through DNA analysis of archaeological chicken bones to Northern China in the early Holocene, about 10,000 years ago. For centuries, chickens have been traded across the world, as collector’s items and food, and the species now lives in every part of the world, aside from Antarctica and Vatican City. Things changed for the chicken again in the mid-nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria’s love for exotic fowl produced a ‘hen fever’ with some British and North American middle classes clamouring to breed and buy increasingly unusual breeds.This period saw the birth of some of Britain’s heritage breeds, such as the Orpington, a show chicken first bred by William Cook in Kent in 1886 – and a royal favourite to this day.
Even before ‘hen fever’ brought a desire to create new breeds, the chicken had hundreds of distinguishable breeds from its 10,000-year history of domestication. These breeds developed through both geographical isolation and selection for specific physical and behavioural traits. Many of these heritage and landrace breeds have been or will be lost to the production powerhouse that is the modern broiler hybrid.
Farmed chickens today are mostly derived from the genome stock of just three companies: Aviagen Broiler Breeders, Cobb-Vantress and Hubbard. This homogeneity can be traced back to the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow contest – a US Department of Agriculture competition to produce a ‘superior meat-type bird’. The contest ostensibly aimed to produce a chicken that could feed a growing population, aiming to create ‘chickens [with] broader-breasts, bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs, and above all, more white meat … so that the consumer would eventually come to depend on the bird as a reliable kitchen staple’.
In 2004, the completion of the genome sequencing of the chicken revealed that the species had split into what would become ‘broiler’ and ‘layer’ birds with a mutation in the TBC1D1 (glucose regulating) gene around 1900, creating ‘obese’ broiler birds. Chickens then ‘evolved genetic adaptations to a new environment, the farm, and subjected to strong human-driven selection leading to remarkable phenotypic changes in morphology, physiology and behaviour’.
Figure 1. A flock of industrial laying chickens in Cambridgeshire, England. Copyright Catherine Oliver, 2021.
In the century and a half since, the chicken has been transformed into a genetically modified creature who is put to work producing drastically increased quantities of meat and eggs. These transformations of chickens at the hands of human and capital led to the prediction in the epigraph of this essay that the chickens of the twenty-first century would no longer be chickens, and their eggs no longer eggs. This prediction seems to have been confirmed when the broiler chicken was designated a novel morphotype: morphologically, genetically and isotopically distinctive from domestic chickens of the past. Today’s broiler chickens are a symbol of a ‘human reconfigured biosphere’.
This metabolic rift at the turn of the twentieth century, when ‘systematic research on poultry inheritance began’, did not just coincidentally produce a mutation in the chicken genome. Experimental agricultural researchers in the USA were producing and using intimate knowledges of galline biology to ‘select for valuable economic traits.’ The chicken was perfect for laboratory work, being small and easily handled, and nutritional experiments with them advanced quickly. Making chicken meat popular meant making chicken meat cheap, and making chicken cheap meant creating a bird that could grow big and fast. Monoculture logics permeated the poultry industry, with uniformity and efficiency at the centre of scaling-up. The chicken became a ‘singular inward laboratory’ that could be intensively fine-tuned to become a conduit for, and synthesiser of, nutritional value for humans.
The transformation of the chicken into a vast monoculture is imbued with familiar logics ‘of environmental modernization, homogeneity, and control, developed on historical plantations’. The control of the genetic stock of billions of birds by three companies, the standardisation of life, the smoothing-out of difference and diversity: modern chicken farming is nothing short of a plantation system. These vast factories of chickens are in poorer, rural areas across the world, conscripting human labour in industrial behemoths to control and produce capitalist animality.Galline life is, within the remit of these industrial farms, robust, but the consequences of this production system are well-known. As galline gene pool diversity has been reduced, disease has flourished. Closed systems leak poisonous gases into the air and the soil, driving habitat loss and environmental degradation. These closely compacted centres are also increasingly looking likely to be reservoirs for virulent zoonoses.
‘Scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature’ and it takes messy work to try to scale nature: ‘cloned parenting stock, coerced labour’ to maximise growth, limit interference, and alienate labour. That thriving of galline numbers is predicated on the obliteration of diversity, and all that comes with it, is just part of the story of galline life in the Plantationocene – life predicated on ‘new commodity monocultures that translate into regimes of racialized violence, land appropriation, and biodiversity loss’. As Chao recently contended, ‘the capitalist ecologies of monocrops, the growth of organisms – human and nonhuman, native and foreign – are entangled in material, moral, and metaphorical ways’. The chicken is a long-standing monoculture, one whose fate has been written into its cells and onto the biosphere at least a century ago. But while the appropriation and disappearing of chickens goes on, their place in extinction narratives and environmental history is only as antagonists.
These strange and familiar birds, abundant in number – albeit in bleak conditions – are far from flourishing. Kept in closed factory systems, separated from the land and carefully controlled, chickens have received no consideration in conservation or ecological circles. Over the last century, chickens have moved from being domestic animals kept in homes or by communities, to small farm flocks, to massive industrial property, where ‘rows upon rows of birds with their mutilated beaks, in the small cages, were like a glimpse into an Inferno as terrible as any of the circles of Dante’s hell’. And still, no one has asked, when will the chicken become extinct? Or has the chicken already been lost?
The chicken is a ‘kind of avian Zelig … an uncanny mirror of our changing human desires, goals, and intentions – a prestige object, a truth teller, a miraculous elixir, a tool of the devil, an exorcist, or the source of fabulous wealth’. The chicken teaches us about who we are, because the chicken is part of who we, as humans, are. As much as humans have rewritten the galline genome, chickens have shaped centuries of human exploration, experimentation and technological advancement. With the advent of morphologically distinct chickens, evidence seems to be stacking up that the ‘feathered bipeds bearing a superficial resemblance to the chicken’ of today signal the extinction of a bird that has lived side-by-side with humans for 10,000 years. And yet, no-one will mourn, perhaps no-one will even notice, the loss of this magical creature, because inside those factories, they continue to ‘thrive’.
What is the opposite of extinction? In the case of the chicken, the opposite of extinction might actually be its equivalent. If extinction is the catastrophic interruption of entangled ecological and social life, then we lost the chicken long ago. Rethinking this galline history through the lens of extinction challenges and expands scales and remits to finally acknowledge these unloved feathered bodies.
 Page Smith and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 299
 Yinon M Bar-On, Rob Phillips and Ron Milo, ‘The biomass distribution on Earth’, Proceedings of the. National Academy of Sciences. USA 115(2018): 6506–11. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711842115
 Carys E. Bennett, Richard Thomas, Mark Williams et al. ‘The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere’, Royal Society Open Science 5 (12): 180325. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180325
 Hai Xiang, Jianqiang Gao, Baoquan Yu et al., ‘Early Holocene chicken domestication in northern China’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (49) (2014): 17564–69. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1411882111
 Andrew Lawler, How the Chicken Crossed the World (New York: Duckworth Overlook, 2016).
 George P. Burnham , The History of the Hen Fever: A Humorous Record (Michigan: University of Michigan Historical Reprints, 2006).
 Pam Percy, The Field Guide to Chickens (Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 2006).
 Carol Ekarius, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds (North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2007).
Sipke Joost Hiemstra and Jan Ten Napel, Study Of The Impact Of Genetic Selection On The Welfare Of Chickens Bred And Kept For Meat Production. IBF. (2013) https://www.responsiblebreeding.eu/uploads/2/3/1/3/23133976/final_report_impact_genetic_selection_welfare_broilers_2013_-_hiemstra_ten_napel.pdf
 Alexis Coe, ‘Today we’re eating the winners of the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow Contest’, Modern Farmer (2014) https://modernfarmer.com/2014/05/today-eating-winners-1948-chicken-tomorrow-contest/ (accessed 25 Feb. 2022).
 Carl-Johan Rubin, Michael C. Zody, Jonas Eriksson et al., ‘Whole-genome resequencing reveals loci under selection during chicken domestication’, Nature 464 (7288) (2010): 587–91. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08832
 Bennett et al., ‘The broiler chicken’.
 William J. Boyd, ‘Making meat: Science, technology and American poultry production’, Technology and Culture 42 (4) (2001): 631–64, at 652. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25147798
 Ibid., 653.
 Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015).
 Hannah Landecker, ‘A metabolic history of manufacturing waste: food commodities and their outsides’, Food, Culture & Society 22 (5) (2019): 530–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/15528014.2019.1638110
 Hannah Landecker, ‘Food as exposure: Nutritional epigenetics and the new metabolism’, BioSocieties 6 (2) (2011): 167–94. https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2011.1
 Catherine Oliver and Jonathon Turnbull, ‘A conduit for value: more-than-human experiments with chicken metabolisms’, CRASSH 2021. https://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/blog/a-conduit-for-value-more-than-human-experiments-with-chicken-metabolisms/
 Janae Davis, Alex A. Moulton, Levi Van Sant and Brian Williams, ‘Anthropocene, capitalocene, … plantationocene? A manifesto for ecological justice in an age of global crises’, Geography Compass 13 (5) (2019): e12438. https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12438
 Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Gregg Mitman, Reflections on the Plantationocene (Edge Effects. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019).
 For example, in the USA, see Karen Morin, Carceral Space, Prisoners, and Animals (Oxon: Routledge, 2018); and, in China, see Ke Bingsheng and Han Yijun, ‘Poultry sector in China: Structural changes during the past decade and future trends’, in Poultry in the 21st Century: Avian Influenza and Beyond (Bangkok: FOA, 2007), pp. 5–7.
 cf. Alex Blanchette, Porkopolis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
 William M. Muir, Gane Ka-Shu Wong, Yong Zhang et al., ‘Genome-wide assessment of world-wide chicken SNP genetic diversity indicates significant absence of rare alleles in commercial breeds’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 3 Nov. 2008. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081103192314.htm
 Karen Davis, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (Tennessee: Book Publishing Company, 2009).
 Frederic Frédéric Keck, Avian Reservoirs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
 Anna Lowenhaupft Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 38
 Ibid., p.40
 Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).
 Judith A. Carney, ‘Subsistence in the Plantationocene: dooryard gardens, agrobiodiversity, and the subaltern economies of slavery’, Journal of Peasant Studies 48 (5) (2021): 1075–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2020.1725488
 Sophie Chao, ‘Children of the palms: growing plants and growing people in a Papuan Plantationocene’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27 (2) (2021): 245–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.13489
 Smith and Daniel, The Chicken Book, p. 287.
 Thom Van Dooren, Flight Ways (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
 Lawler, How the Chicken Crossed the World, p. 5.
 Smith and Daniel, The Chicken Book, p. 299.
 Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew, Extinction Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
 Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren, ‘Unloved others: Death of the disregarded in the time of extinction’, Australian Humanities Review(Australia: ANU E Press).
One thought on “THE OPPOSITE OF EXTINCTION ￼”
Great text! A critical concern in Brazil, which is considered the worldwide provider of animal protein.