Assistant Professor of History Mackenzie Cooley (center) stands with Ethan Dunn ’20, Kate Biederman ’22, Thomas Anderson ’20, and Max Hernandez-Zapata ’19
 “What happens when natural things—pollen in a gust of wind, a carnivorous pitcher plant, an armadillo’s thick skin—enter human history?” Thus begins the introduction to Natural Things in Early Modern Worlds, a recently published book conceived and co-edited by Assistant Professor of History Mackenzie Cooley

Nature of Things coverThrough its 400 pages and 100 illustrations, the volume unpacks this question, exploring stories spanning over four centuries of human development in diverse corners of the globe. Put simply, said Cooley, Natural Things examines the process by which “nature slips into science by becoming objectified.”  She explained as how scientists and naturalists began exploring ways to transform the complexity of the natural world into something they could break down and study, they initiated “one of the coolest transitions in human history.” 

It was in these moments, Cooley said, that people went from “thinking broadly and not at a very sophisticated level about living nature to coming up with the systems of biology or taking interest in how the circulatory system works.” And while Natural Things certainly focuses on the advent of modern scientific thought, it also considers the many contexts in which this process did not unfold as such—places that “remained stubbornly different” in terms of how they viewed nature, holding onto ways of knowing and conceptions of life dissimilar to those emerging in other, usually more Western, parts of the world. 

The complex and expansive territory covered in Natural Things first materialized during Cooley’s time as a graduate student at Stanford University, where she came to notice underlying similarities between her colleagues’ interests. She recalled that “many of us came back to similar questions surrounding what constitutes natural history, how does natural history relate to collecting and museums, and how does natural history show and obscure movements between societies in this globalizing age.” The emergent working group of academics and eventual co-editors is the “origin story of the book,” she said. “It really came from that environment.” 

Cooley highlighted the significant contributions of several Hamilton students to this project—namely Kate Biederman ’22 and Thomas Anderson ’20, both of whom provided essays for the published volume. Anderson also helped with the revision process; Cooley said that “he copyedited the whole book … one of the reasons it’s such a good read is the work that Thomas put into it.” 

Now a Ph.D. student at Yale University studying—in his own words—“poisons, the development of transatlantic pharmacy, and enslaved ways of healing in the colonial Caribbean,” Anderson recalled how working with Cooley guided his post-Hamilton plans. “I honestly had pretty vague ideas about graduate school … I knew I wanted to do it, but didn’t know how to get there,” he said. “This helped me focus in on what field I wanted to pursue, and the article ended up being my writing sample.”

Cooley’s current and upcoming projects all resonate with the concerns of Natural Things. This summer, she is advising a Levitt project titled “Global Pharmacopoeias,” which traces the establishment of modern medical practices. Beyond this, Cooley is working on several books about world history, natural history, and medicine, which she aims to have published in the next few years.

Listen to Cooley discuss Natural Things on an episode of the Converging Dialogues podcast.

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