The Past Futures of the History of Science: the Many Worlds of Nikolai Vavilov

11 Oct 2018
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Elena Aronova
Assistant Professor of History of Science at UCSB

Throughout the twentieth century, different scientists shared an ambition to reconcile scientific and humanistic studies of the past within a coherent interdisciplinary framework. They mined historical data for their research and proposed ways of using their scientific tools to shed light on distant past, particularly where traditional historical sources were missing, or where peoples had left few material remains and no written sources. One of these scientists was Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov. In the 1920s, Vavilov roamed the world building the largest collection of seeds, to revolutionize agriculture in Russia. Vavilov’s work on the origin of genetic diversity also shed light on the prehistory of human settlements in such understudied regions as Afghanistan. To enable his ambitious program and funnel funds from the powerful state into his research empire, Vavilov aligned with different Bolsheviks’ ambitions, ranging from the socialist industrialization of agriculture to the unification of Asia. The congruence of scientific and geopolitical agendas not only enabled Vavilov’s collecting missions but also made his work widely known across national, linguistic, and disciplinary borders. The paper discusses, in particular, how Vavilov’s botanical research has become entangled with the beginnings of the Annales school of historiography. In the 1930s, the historians associated with the Annales, such as Lucien Febvre, followed Vavilov’s work closely. Vavilov, in turn, not only bridged biology and history in his work but also served as a crucial link between biologists in the Soviet Union and the historians in France. These cross-disciplinary connections became lost in the historiographies framed by the very disciplinary divisions that the historians behind the Annales project and the biologists such as Vavilov called into question. The talk recovers this “missing link,” and reveals ways in which epistemologies, material cultures and political agendas of Vavilov’s work were intertwined and reinforced each other.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  CSTMS

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