Missing Link: Nikolai Vavilov’s Genogeography and History’s Past Future
Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of California-Santa Barbara
In the historical memory of the twentieth century science the figure of the Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov looms large. Here, I tell a less familiar story, one that reveals how Vavilov’s genetic geography research has become entangled with the beginnings of the Annales school of historiography. The congruence of Vavilov’s scientific interests and the Bolsheviks’ political interests not only enabled Vavilov’s ambitious program but also made Vavilov’s work widely known across national, linguistic, political and disciplinary boundaries. Vavilov’s work on the centers of origin of plant genetic diversity shed light on the prehistory of human settlements in such understudied regions as Afghanistan and Vavilov himself explicated the implications of his research for the way historians came to think about deep past at such occasions as the Second International Congress for the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931. In the 1930s, the historians associated with the Annales, such as Lucien Febvre, followed Vavilov’s work closely and drew inspiration from Vavilov’s insights into human prehistory. 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 have been lost in the disciplinary memories of both biology and those of the historiography. Recovering this “missing link,” the paper will reconstruct the many worlds Vavilov inhabited, and ways in which the epistemologies, material cultures and political agendas of his project were closely intertwined and reinforced each other.