Perfect dreams

The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance, Mackenzie Cooley, 2022, University of Chicago Press

We have the hairless Mexican Xoloitzcuintli dog beloved of the Aztecs to thank for the concept of mestizaje, for this word was first used as an early modern zoological term referring to the hybrid offspring of domesticated dog breeds from both sides of the Atlantic. That the term was eventually transformed into a racial category indicating mixing among humans is a neat a summary both of our endless capacity to apply our observations of nature to society, but also of the aim of this fascinating book, which explores the historical evolution of breeding as a concept in Renaissance southern Europe and the Spanish American colonies. As author Mackenzie Cooley notes, as a result of rapid interbreeding with the European shepherd, by the sixteenth century the Xoloitzcuintli had already become a mestizo (mixed) dog—just as its human counterparts increasingly became mixed through miscegenation. Cooley’s book is a compelling, erudite and highly original natural and social history that is, as you might expect from any book that starts with a reference to Plato’s Republic, hard to put down. It explores Renaissance efforts to perfect nature and the aspirations—often utopian—of breeders and scholars, not least when it came to questions of human reproduction. It is a sweeping, learned text brimming with insight and expertise that captures with flair developments and their meanings, but also their intellectual historiography. In this respect, this book itself seems characteristic of the knowledge of yore, straddling disciplines while harking back to antiquity for inspiration. The efforts of the German botanist Johannes Faber to fully understand the lineage and value of Mexican dogs, for example, spanned the emerging science of zoology, Greek philosophy, and then contemporary history. Indeed, The Perfection of Nature might itself be called a mestizo book that mixes knowledge across time and space, the kind of great read that all historical writing should be: engrossing, educational and entertaining all at once.

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