Drift 25, Rm. 204 26 Jul 2019 Organized Session
Tools for Historians of Science 13:30 - 15:30

How have scholars used the methods of science to write stories about the human past and predict humanity's future? How have conceptions of scientific evidence and theory shaped the writing of history across disciplinary and temporal boundaries? This panel considers three such cases from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century, using the history of science as a lens for viewing past moments in what has been called universal or "big" history, and exploring the interplay among science, history, and historiography: in the writings of mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who applied the predictive capacity of hypotheses in natural history to the study of human history and its futures; in the work of Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov, whose "geno-geography" crossed not only physical and political boundaries, but disciplinary ones as well; and in the new popular histories of Africa and the world written in the 1960s, which capitalized on the most recent developments in palaeoanthropology, and in so doing, obscured a very large joint historiographical and scientific tradition that had previously placed the origins of humanity somewhere else. How have scientific developments inspired new historical narratives or new historiographic practices? How have historians drawn on scientific sources when expanding their narratives beyond their present and into the far horizons of the human future? What happens to these histories when the science underpinning them is called into question, or replaced by an alternate theory?

Organized by Emily Kern

Missing Link: Nikolai Vavilov’s Genogeography and History’s Past Future
13:30 - 14:00
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.
"Measuring Instruments" for Language History: Rhetoric and Reality of a Nineteenth-Century Latinist
14:00 - 14:30
Crowning the career of the Munich Latinist Eduard Wölfflin (1831-1908) was his role in founding the Thesaurus linguae Latinae, a massive lexicon that aimed to deliver an unprecedently complete history of the words it treated. The work, begun in the 1890s and still in progress today, is a standard research tool for philologists. For Wölfflin it represented a breakthrough after decades developing and promoting his historical-lexicographical agenda, often by analogy with the work of investigators in other arenas. Philologists, Wölfflin said at various times, were to use a kind of "microscope," were to observe like foresters, were to develop "their own measuring methods and instruments" like the researcher of nature. He invoked meteorology, statistics, biology. Rhetoric only? Perhaps not. A close look at Wölfflin's practices helps to clarify his comparanda and suggests that he did indeed see himself engaged, in some cases, in a parallel enterprise to those studying natural phenomena. At a certain level, philologists really did work like forestry researchers. This paper shows how.
Paleoanthropological Futures and Historical Pasts: Human Origins and Rewriting the Place of Africa in World History
14:30 - 15:00
The science writer Robert Ardrey began his 1961 book African Genesis with the arresting line: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.” But by the end of the decade, it might have been unnecessary to include the second intervening phrase. Although the “out of Asia” hypothesis of human origins dominated models of human origins and prehistoric migration from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, it was rapidly replaced in both scientific circles and public awareness by the theory of African origins in the 1950s and was all but forgotten by the end of the 1960s. This talk explains how the rapid pivot from Asia to Africa could take place and examines the historiographic deployment of African origins in new world history writing in the 1950s and 1960s, in order to understand how the monumental history of the Asian origins hypothesis came to be so rapidly forgotten. In highlighting the position of hominin fossil evidence within this historiography, the goal is not to critique the use of non-textual sources in history writing, or the implications of writing history in a long temporal perspective, but rather to call attention to the “extra-objective” status that certain kinds of scientific knowledge were sometimes granted—and to show the implications of this method for how we understand the intellectual and cultural history of the out of Africa hypothesis.
Commentary: Science, Universal History, and the Future
15:00 - 15:30

University of California, Santa Barbara
Mississippi State University
University of New South Wales, Sydney
Colby College
Colby College
Maastricht University


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