The term race—when applied to humans—carries connotations of a fixed way of being that is often used to imply the superiority of one group of humans over another. Yet the term has its origins in the Renaissance belief in the changeability of nature and in the attempts of Europeans in the sixteenth century to breed superior types of animals. How race went from a being a descriptor for the progeny of controlled animal breeding programs to a categorization of human phenotypes illustrates the intertwined nature of early-modern human, animal, and environmental history, according to Mackenzie A. Cooley, Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow.
“Topics like race are often discussed in historiography separately,” Cooley says, “but I am bringing race together with other aspects of history because they are so deeply intertwined. I am connecting early-modern human, animal, and environmental history because that is exactly how Renaissance thinkers envisioned their world. More often than not, they were husbandmen and patrons who sponsored agricultural, artistic, and scientific projects all at the same time.”
Cooley joined the Cornell community in the spring of 2018 as part of the inaugural group of Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows. She works with her faculty sponsor, Peter R. Dear, History/Science and Technology Studies, along with other researchers at Cornell and elsewhere.
Perfecting Nature: Breeding and the Idea of Race
Cooley is expanding her dissertation into her first book, Artifice Embodied. “This book is about the creation of the idea of race from zoological experiments and experiences,” she says. “In sixteenth-century Italy, the very same nobles who were invested in Leonardo de Vinci’s artistic works and who sent explorers to the Americas also invested large sums of money in animals. They believed nature could be perfected and improved and that breeding was a tool to that improvement. They would often create house breeds of domesticated animals, such as dogs or horses, that they would then call their house race.”
In particular, Cooley has focused on one noble family, the Gonzagas of Mantua, Italy. Francesco Gonzaga imported animals from throughout the Renaissance world in his bid to breed the fastest horses and the best dogs. “His wife, Isabella d’Este, was a famous patron of the arts, who then began applying the same techniques for understanding horse and dog breeding to people,” Cooley explains. “Isabella wanted to breed a race of dwarves who would be as small as possible. Here is where you see this idea of race percolating out from describing animals to describing people.”
“Isabella wanted to breed a race of dwarves who would be as small as possible. Here is where you see this idea of race percolating out from describing animals to describing people.”
Uncovering the Concept of Race
Ultimately Cooley is interested in showing how the language of race influenced the European encounter with the Americas. “Race as species or breed was a concept under development in taxonomy in the history of science at that time,” she says. “It is inexorably linked with how the conquistadors and natural historians of the time understood difference. The creators of race as a term were very aware that it was not something essential to any given body—to the body of their horses, say—but was something that was the result of careful choices and a lot of labor. It required policing to keep it; otherwise, they believed, everything would ultimately devolve into one.”
For her dissertation, Cooley visited archives and libraries in a half dozen countries, especially those in Italy and Spain. During her time at Cornell, she plans to give a more global context to her research by expanding it to include the Azores, Canaries, and Philippines—once island colonies of Spain and Portugal. “If this discussion of race and human difference is all tied up in husbandry, then that means that husbandry projects have another layer of social weight,” she says. “They are invested in creating specific animals to suit these colonial societies and to reinforce European norms. They are generating the fixity and racialization you then see used elsewhere in the empire.”
Environmental Transformations: Lost Species and Human Populations
Another aspect of Cooley’s research focuses on the contributions of the Aztecs and Incas to natural history. In the summer of 2018 she will be learning Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, in order to read first-hand Spanish colonial documents written in a phonetic version of Nahuatl. “These understudied or unstudied sources from the Nahua can show the contributions Mesoamericans made to ideas of nature that the Spanish started to believe in as they developed their colonies in Latin America,” Cooley says.
In particular, Cooley will be looking at writings about the human populations and natural species that were lost when the Spanish drained the lagoon around the Aztec island-capital, Tenochtitlan, in order to create Mexico City. “Species started disappearing, populations transformed,” she says. “We think awareness of environmental change is solely a modern conception, but that was not true for these people who were living this environmental transformation in the sixteenth century. Here we can chart the loss of Mexican species at a very particular moment as the result of colonial encounter.”
Cooley’s interest in the history of animals and how that history fits into the natural sciences made the Cornell postdoctoral fellowship especially attractive to her. Along with Peter Dear, she will also be working with scholars in the areas of Italian Renaissance studies, Mesoamerican studies, population genetics, and at the veterinary school. “I can’t imagine a better place to pursue my research,” she says. “I am excited to learn about population genetics in particular. Charles Aquadro in Molecular Biology and Genetics is opening up a whole world of knowledge for me. One of my goals here at Cornell is to develop a greater proficiency in reading other types of evidence that aren’t simply documents. I believe, as historians, we should not be limited in our sources.”
The highlight of Cooley’s time at Cornell will be working with Dear, who had a big influence on her when she was an undergraduate in comparative literature and history at Cornell.
“He’s one of the field-defining figures for understanding the role society plays in the creation of knowledge,” she says. “He very early alerted me to the existence of the history of science, and that conversation stayed with me and was at the heart of a lot of my graduate work. And now I’m back working with him; I’ve come full circle.”