Life, time, and the organism: Temporal registers in the construction of life forms

Dominic J. Berry*, Paolo Palladino

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this paper we articulate how time and temporalities are involved in the making of living things. For these purposes, we draw on an instructive episode concerning Norfolk Horn sheep. We attend to historical debates over the nature of the breed, whether it is extinct or not, and whether presently living exemplars are faithful copies of those that came before. We argue that there are features to these debates that are important to understanding contemporary configurations of life, time, and the organism, especially as these are articulated within the field of synthetic biology. In particular, we highlight how organisms are configured within different material and semiotic assemblages that are always structured temporally. While we identify three distinct structures, namely the historical, phyletic, and molecular registers, we do not regard the list as exhaustive. We also highlight how these structures are related to the care and value invested in the organisms at issue. Finally, because we are interested ultimately in ways of producing time, our subject matter requires us to think about historiographical practice reflexively. This draws us into dialogue with other scholars interested in time, not just historians, but also philosophers and sociologists, and into conversations with them about time as always multiple and never an inert background
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223–243
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number2
Early online date30 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2019


  • breeding
  • organism
  • synthetic biology
  • time
  • value


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