The Albert Einstein Institute for Advanced Study in the Life Sciences is based on a simple but powerful premise: that to effectively provide answers to the major scientific problems in the life sciences facing researchers today, there must be much greater integration between pure scientific inquiry and the humanities.
This means incorporating the following disciplines to scientific inquiry that range from the exact/hard sciences to the humanities, including: mathematics, physics, evolutionary theory, developmental biology, neuroscience, anthropology, animal behavior, psychology, social science, political theory, history, communication, linguistics, and philosophy.
Why is this necessary?
While science has made great strides in uncovering the components and mechanisms of living systems, our understanding of these systems is still full of unknowns, and new approaches and inquiries are necessary. In particular, current scientific understanding excels at descriptive knowledge, or mechanistic knowledge of specific narrow systems, but the science of generalizable biological laws and principles governing the structure, evolution, dynamics and emergent properties of living systems is still in its infancy.
In particular, there is a need to study such systems of organized complexity touching on the “big unknowns” including cognition, development, language and communication.
Why the humanities? At its current stage of development, mathematical language has not shown the same success at unlocking the laws of living systems as it has with the physical, inanimate world. Unlike physics, where a force like gravitation applies equally to celestial bodies and an apple falling from a tree, universal laws in biology remain elusive.
Part of the difficulty is that life overwhelms us with detail. Within this morass, we strive to identify generalities, invariants, and recurrent properties and principles that constitute hidden structures; the symmetries of life.
Another difficulty, as Warren Weaver observed, is that the life sciences occupy the intermediate realm between the organized simplicity of the pre-1900 classical physics, and the disorganized complexity of post-1900 statistical physics. In between these two extremes lies the "great middle" region of organized complexity, governed by nonlinear dynamics where the whole is more than the sum (or the average) of its parts. Our current scientific methods and mathematical language, while providing some avenues for analyzing and increasing our knowledge of such problems of organized complexity, nevertheless are not equipped to render them completely comprehensible.
These difficulties require a new approach, involving both a breadth of perspectives combining knowledge from a multitude of disciplines and a mode of critical analysis and discourse that does not depend on mathematical formalism, even if such formalization remains an ultimate goal.
The traditional mode of science publication expects results to be communicated in a precise and narrow form. This disincentivizes working on big questions that cannot immediately be formalized. An institute with the explicit aim of studying such questions can push back against this trend.
Because many investigators focus on a narrow area of research, individuals, or even teams working within a single discipline, may lack the breadth of knowledge necessary to draw connections and ask broad, but important, questions. In lieu of one person mastering diverse ideas, we propose bringing together multiple people with expertise in diverse ways of thinking. We hope to create teams that can work together in an environment of intense and productive collaboration.