- Art and Science in Breeding: Creating Better Chickens by Margaret E. Derry
With her latest book, Margaret Derry has added a useful volume to her body of work on the history of livestock. Her well-researched and extensive history addresses issues of breeding and modern genetics through a “case study” of chickens. In particular, Derry argues that chicken breeding, like other livestock endeavours, was steeped in the culture of farming and as such wasn’t strongly linked with science or scientific research, although livestock breeding inevitably had an impact on more strictly scientific work.
The book starts with eighteenth-century breeders, notably Robert Bakewell and Sir John Seabright, whose work on inbreeding became particularly important to nineteenth- and twentieth-century breeding. In fact, Derry argues that the emerging science of genetics was informed by these early approaches to breeding and did not change them; genetics would not substantially alter or inform breeding practices until late in the second half of the twentieth century. Breed associations, agricultural clubs, and livestock competitions organized much of the thinking about livestock quality until the mid-twentieth century, when big business began providing capital for breeding programs and contributed to the application of changing genetic knowledge to chicken breeding in both egg and meat production. The book emphasizes that craft breeders were sophisticated and capable breeders who considered productivity in the practice of their “art,” despite often finding their work dismissed as too narrow among those who practised “science” at the agricultural colleges.
While Derry’s work is enlightening for historians of science, especially historians of genetics, the value of her work also extends into the broader history of commercial enterprises and agribusiness throughout North America. She argues that business and technology had an impact on the nature of chicken breeding. Corporate involvement increased as part of the effort to apply hybrid breeding methods, drawing on experience with corn in particular, to chickens. Especially interesting from a broad historical perspective is the way that “standardization, mechanization, and subsequently industrialization through business [End Page 596] channels” altered life on both ends of the production scale – from the rural world of the initial producers to the urban and suburban world of consumers (172). Part of this process included the ability to ship live chicks – begun in Canada by W.A. Fisher – which was the equivalent of transporting “superior genetics many miles away from where they had been generated” (129).
Another compelling aspect of the book is the material on women and gender. Derry discusses the early role of women who tended chickens for eggs and raised the stock bred by breeders, who were more often men. As a result of historical gender norms, Derry suggests, production of chickens was seen as “backward, or underdeveloped” (68). The book demonstrates the contemporary bias that has hidden the value of home poultry production from current historical work. She also discusses how scientific and social change influenced, and were influenced by, changing gender roles. For instance, male labour increased as chicken breeding became oriented significantly toward meat production. Derry argues, interestingly, that this “masculinizing of production enhanced the move to making chicken-meat breeding a scientific endeavor.” This, she suggests, along with broiler breeding adjustments, “confirmed the complete demise of a North American breeding culture” (174).
After the introductory material emphasizing European contributions to breeding, Derry’s broad North American perspective includes seminal moments in chicken breeding in the United States and Canada, along with very limited references to Mexico (57 and 133). The two primary national contexts play a roughly equal role in the evidence and argument for the book, though there are differences in emphasis that follow naturally from the material. For instance, key figures from the United States include prominent geneticists Jay Lush, W.E. Castle, L.C. Dunn, and Sewall Wright. This focus reflects, in part, broader evidence that suggests the early “linkage between trained geneticists and agricultural institutions,” something uncommon outside of the United States (123). By contrast, “Canadian breeders were astonished at the depth of the cleavage between craft...