Masterminding Nature: The Breeding of Animals, 1750–2010 by Margaret E. Derry (review)
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Reviewed by
Margaret E. Derry. Masterminding Nature: The Breeding of Animals, 1750–2010. University of Toronto Press. viii, 310. $32.95

Nothing has shaped the relationship between humans and domestic animals over the past 300 years more than the practice and theory of artificial selection. It is the foundation of our long, complicated history with cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, and other domestic animals that we use for food, labour, production, and companionship. We have found traits in these animals useful for our own purposes, and we have struggled to figure out ways to breed for those traits. In Masterminding Nature Margaret E. Derry takes a long view of artificial selection from 1750 to the early twenty-first century to see how practice and theory changed over time and how practical breeders interacted with the developing science of genetics.

Derry is Canada's most distinguished scholar of the history of animal breeding. Her prolific work on the subject includes books on the history of the breeding of horses, cattle, and chickens. In her latest book, she synthesizes much of her knowledge of the history of artificial selection across many species of animals in Canada, the United States, and western Europe to provide one of the most comprehensive surveys of this history. Her main argument regarding the blending of art and science in artificial breeding is one that she has expressed in her earlier work, but it is brought into the wider history of breeding in this book. [End Page 187]

Masterminding Nature begins with a survey of ideas on and methods of artificial selection in western Europe and North America from the mid-eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. Beginning with the development of thoroughbred breeding in horses, Derry traces the emergence of foundational artificial breeding practices that would persist in livestock husbandry into the present, especially the use of intensive inbreeding for true lines, the development of progeny testing, and early experiments with cross-breeding for hybrid vigour. The book continues in a chronological fashion to examine the sometimes contentious relationship between the emerging geneticists and practical breeders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most fascinating chapters of the book examine the development of artificial insemination technology and the rise of genomics in livestock breeding. These two developments in the twentieth century and recent work in the twenty-first century have produced changes in livestock breeding that have reshaped the relationship between people and domestic animals in quite extraordinary ways. Derry concludes the book by examining case studies of the handling of male chicks and the dehorning of cattle as examples of tensions between morality and industry needs that intersect with issues concerning breeding.

As with Derry's other books, Masterminding Nature is dense and comprehensive, illustrative of her expansive knowledge of the history of animal breeding. This book serves as a useful survey of the history of animal breeding and an impressive reference source. As much as is possible with this topic, the author has attempted to make the book accessible to a wide readership. Key concepts, terms, and ideas are often explained without sacrificing necessary detail. However, the topic of this book will appeal mainly to scholars with an interest in agricultural history and the history of science. Those without a background in animal breeding and genetics will struggle with parts of the text, but Derry's book offers a manageable entry-point into this field of study.

Sean Kheraj
Department of History, York University