Aviv Bergman. Self-portrait

Imagine that we rewound life’s tape to a distant past and let evolution play out again. Which species and traits would succeed the second time? Which characteristics would emerge over and over again, invariant to random chance?

Aviv Bergman of the Albert Einstein Institute of Medicine has come to the Santa Fe Institute to develop computational models designed to answer those questions. He points to a few traits we would expect to emerge consistently: Most animal species have bilateral symmetry, for example, suggesting that this feature is likely to be preserved. Another example he points to is that, while humans might have evolved to typically have seven fingers rather than five, it’s likely that whatever the number is, it would be consistent over nearly all people. Systemic properties like this are robust — in other words, they emerge consistently, even as the underlying system they’re part of gets perturbed.

More generally, Bergman is trying to identify the laws, beyond natural selection, that govern the evolution not just of species but of all kinds of things that evolve: corporations, societies, political and economic structures, and even languages. 

After decades of affiliation with SFI as an External Professor, Bergman is spending six months on campus. “It’s a very, very unique environment that enables you to sit back and think about questions that are ‘forbidden’ to be asked within normal academic environments,” he says.

After his time at SFI, Bergman is launching a new institute, the Albert Einstein Institute for Advanced Study, which aims to solve major problems in the life sciences through much greater integration between pure scientific inquiry and the humanities. He points out that compared to physics, life sciences aren’t yet rigorous. “The best way we know how to move forward is, for example, through the creation of narratives. Who is better than creating narratives than philosophers, historians, people in the humanities?”