Schrödinger’s History (TIME 100)

How can you say something is historically important or not unless you observe it? What happens if you set up conditions where you intentionally cannot observe a site’s historical importance?

I said in the opening post that some sites might have been chosen as a deliberate trolling for comment, and I think the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of them.

Entrance to the seed vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The seed vault is set up in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe. They happen so it’s best to be prepared. I’m not sure exactly what side-effects a global catastrophe big enough to use it will have. If it has to be used then the stocking of the seed bank is a major historic event, but it’s probable that many historians of science will be too busy dying to notice. On the other hand a truly civilisation-destroying event like major asteroid strike could mean that the location of the bank and the ability to get there is lost. If nothing much happens then maybe it simply becomes a historic curiosity, like the defensive castles in England built to fight a Napoleonic invasion that never happened.

Even if it doesn’t need to be used it could still be a very shrewd choice for a historical site. The seeds are intended to be stored for hundreds of years. Crops change so effectively this is a time capsule of the early 21st century being kept for the future. It’s not unreasonable to think they will have historic value, and might even have uses for scientific experiments in the future. if you are going to have a site with historical value when should you start collecting evidence.

This hits a problem in history of science head-on. Obviously a lot of the historical evidence for an event is easiest to gather close in time to the event. Still, this gives you the least hindsight, are you too close to the event to appreciate what it is that historic? If you’re defining what is and isn’t important now are destroying what might prove significant in the future?

Of course funding councils have exactly the same problem. I don’t know if anyone has managed to run an experiment comparing the predictive capabilities of funding councils and science historians. If there has been one, please tell me about it. Or tell me what overlooked current event will be the major historical event of the future.

  • As someone very much involved with the Seed Vault, I would first like to say “thanks” for the thoughtful attention. I would, however, like to clarify two common misconceptions.

    1. “The seed vault is set up in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe.” It might indeed be useful in such a situation, but in fact the Seed Vault was established as a back-up, an insurance policy, for seed collections held in hundreds of seedbanks around the world. In other words, the “catastrophe” we expect to address will usually be a very local one. Not an asteroid or some such thing. For instance, right now several seedbanks in Thailand are literally flooded. The Greek seedbank’s collections are endangered by their financial crisis. And recently an Egyptian seedbank was wrecked and looted during the upheavals there. Such local catastrophes occur with depressing frequency. The strategy of the Seed Vault is to hold duplicate copies of such collections and then be in a position to return seeds in case of loss. And by the way, when a seedbank loses all or part of its collection, it won’t have to find its way to Svalbard to retrieve its duplicate sample there. Those who manage the facility will happily send it to them.

    2. “…this is a time capsule of the early 21st century being kept for the future.” Well, yes and no. Yes, the seeds in the Seed Vault were, by necessity, collected in recent years. But, collecting continues and new types will be added to the Seed Vault regularly. And, when depositor seedbanks refresh/regrow their stocks, they will send fresh new seed to the Seed Vault, so the facility will always be very much an active, living, evolving institution, underpinning a network of seedbanks around the world that will play an increasingly critical role in the development of crop varieties that are adapted to climate change, and productive.

    For more information on the Seed Vault, check out:

  • Thank you for the clarifications. I am the non-botanist on the blog, so I imagine a few in the office cringed at this post. 🙂

    So it seems clear that not only is it potentially historic, it is indeed doing important work right now. Yes, I hadn’t thought about how frequently local catastrophes occur.

  • Cary,
    Many thanks for these valuable comments and clarifications. It is shocking that you are able to give three examples from current news where there is likely to be a call on the reserve collections.

  • Yes, Pat, it’s shocking and sad. In fact, I could have given a couple more examples. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, those of us working with conservation of crop diversity live in a “world of wounds.”

    The Seed Vault is an insurance policy, and as with all insurance policies you hope you never need it. Success for me would be never sending a seed sample back to a depositor. Unfortunately, I think the Seed Vault will be called upon too often.

  • >