Skip to main content

Scientific History

Experiments in History and Politics from the Bolshevik Revolution to the End of the Cold War

Scientific History

Experiments in History and Politics from the Bolshevik Revolution to the End of the Cold War

Increasingly, scholars in the humanities are calling for a reengagement with the natural sciences. Taking their cues from recent breakthroughs in genetics and the neurosciences, advocates of “big history” are reassessing long-held assumptions about the very definition of history, its methods, and its evidentiary base. In Scientific History, Elena Aronova maps out historians’ continuous engagement with the methods, tools, values, and scale of the natural sciences by examining several waves of their experimentation that surged highest at perceived times of trouble, from the crisis-ridden decades of the early twentieth century to the ruptures of the Cold War. 

The book explores the intertwined trajectories of six intellectuals and the larger programs they set in motion: Henri Berr (1863–1954), Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), Lucien Febvre (1878–1956), Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943), Julian Huxley (1887–1975), and John Desmond Bernal (1901–1971). Though they held different political views, spoke different languages, and pursued different goals, these thinkers are representative of a larger motley crew who joined the techniques, approaches, and values of science with the writing of history, and who created powerful institutions and networks to support their projects. 

In tracing these submerged stories, Aronova reveals encounters that profoundly shaped our knowledge of the past, reminding us that it is often the forgotten parts of history that are the most revealing.

256 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science


"Aronova illuminates intellectual cross-fertilizations of science and historiography by zooming in on the practices of scientists and scientist historians. . . . Aronova's thoroughly researched book uncovers largely submerged historiographical approaches that have emphasized the shared features of all modern knowledge-seeking endeavors ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities. It is a significant contribution to our understanding of both the natural sciences and the humanities. Its originality and sometimes surprising comparisons are thought-provoking for historians of all fields of study, and it is to be hoped that they will stimulate especially the much-needed methodological reflection in the historiography of science."

Journal of the History of Economic Thought

“With extensive source material and broad geographical range, Aronova gives us a tight and interwoven sense of trajectories of past big historical and big data ambitions and practices, relating these to shifting cultural and political contexts and observing the striking historical ironies these trajectories reveal. The book is significant in canvassing so much diverse material so efficiently and expertly, uncovering unexpected and disregarded historical connections while presenting the material engagingly and accessibly. It is a satisfying, impressive piece of scholarship that provides an explicit, extended, transnational historicization of big history."

Nasser Zakariya, author of A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings

"Where do today's dreams of writing history scientifically come from? Not from David Christian and Bill Gates, Anthropocene scholars, apostles of digital humanities, apologists for big data, amateur neuroscientists, or latterday cliometricians. Aronova provides a deeper genealogy of today's data-driven obsessions, rooted instead in twentieth-century Russian ambitions for a scientific Marxism. Using 'Russia-as-method' to examine Soviet visions of history as a materialist science, Aronova's sparklingly subversive narrative excavates foundational fights over how to write the history of science, how to practice the science of history, and how to tell the story of mankind. A work of wit, grace, and profundity."

James Delbourgo, James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Professor of History, Rutgers University

"A captivating tale of Clio becoming a scientist! Animated by a commanding multinational cast of characters, Scientific History offers the first broad-ranging analysis of why and how the methods, approaches, values, and frameworks advanced within the natural sciences—ranging from biogeography to mathematics to genetics—became part of historians’ armamentarium and profoundly influenced twentieth-century historical thought and practice. This engaging account ventures with enviable ease from the editorial offices of the Annales to the sessions of international history congresses, through the corridors of UNESCO to computer rooms at the ‘scientific information’ institutes in Philadelphia and Moscow. Aronova uncovers the forgotten and sometimes deliberately obscured but deep and thoroughly transnational roots of present-day historians’ fascination with ‘big data,’ quantification, and ‘big history.’ Meticulously researched and refreshingly free from Cold War–era polarizing biases, this book is a must read for anyone interested in history, science, and their intricate connections."

Nikolai Krementsov, author of Revolutionary Experiments: The Quest for Immortality in Bolshevik Science and Fiction

“[Aronova] demonstrates the complex interactions between science and history. Vivid passages describe the Soviet government's corruption of academic disciplines: social sciences, biology, and agronomy. A demanding but highly informative read.”


Table of Contents


Russia as Method

1    The Quest for Scientific History
Two Unity of Science Movements
Positivism, History, and Henri Berr’s Historical Synthesis
Historical Synthesis and the History of Science
The Internationalist Politics of Synthesis

2    Scientific History and the Russian Locale
Russia and the West
Russian Historiography on the World Stage
Marxism and History
The Great Break
Bukharin and the History of Science
London 1931

3    Nikolai Vavilov, Genogeography, and History’s Past Future
The Geographies of History and the Genetic Archive
The Mendeleev of Biology
Vavilov’s Genogeography and the Bolsheviks’ Geopolitics
A “New Kind of History”
The Politics of History

4    Julian Huxley’s Cold Wars
Julian Huxley’s Two Careers
A Journey to a Utopian Future
The Crisis in Soviet Genetics and Julian Huxley’s Cold Wars
Huxley’s Evolutionary History

5    The UNESCO “History of Mankind: Cultural and Scientific Development” Project
History by Committee
Febvre’s Cahiers: Historical Journals and the Making of Historical Knowledge
Cold War Internationalism and the Writing of History

6    Information Socialism, Historical Informatics, and the Markets
Bernal’s Information Socialism: From London 1931 to Cold War America, via Russia
Envisioning History as Data Science
Historians and Computers
The Socialist Markets for a Capitalist Data Product

Past Futures of the History of Science

List of Archive Abbreviations



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press