Max Planck Institute in Jena realigned

The Institute's interdisciplinary approach will bridge the gap between history and natural sciences

June 26, 2014

The Max Planck Society has realigned the former Max Planck Institute of Economics and renamed it Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences. Founding directors will be the geneticist Johannes Krause (Tübingen) and the evolutionist Russell Gray (Auckland, New Zealand). Their interdisciplinary research program will focus on the development and application of new scientific methods to produce an integrated science of human history.

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The directors at the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences, Johannes Krause (left) and Russell Gray.

The new Jena Institute will bridge the gap between history and natural sciences. The Institute will bring together biologists, linguists and social scientists to apply cutting-edge genetic sequencing and computational advances from the natural sciences while still maintaining the highest standards of scholarship from the humanities. This approach will allow long-standing questions about human history that were previously deemed difficult, or even completely intractable, to be resolved. "With Russell Gray and Johannes Krause, we appointed two internationally outstanding researchers to the new Institute. Their previous works impressively demonstrate the potential of this thoroughly interdisciplinary research approach", says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann. The two directors will lead the departments for “archeogenetics” and for “linguistic and culutural evolution”.

Russell Gray has pioneered the application of computational evolutionary methods to questions about linguistic prehistory. This work has provided a new way of addressing the 200 year-old debate on the origin of Indo-European languages, dubbed “the most recalcitrant problem in historical linguistics”. He has also used sophisticated Bayesian phylogenetic methods to test hypotheses about the sequence and timing of the peopling of the Pacific. In striking agreement with the pulse-pause model of Pacific settlement, the language trees placed the origin of Austronesian languages in Taiwan approximately 5200 years ago, and revealed a series of settlement pauses and rapid expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations. In collaboration with colleagues in Europe, Gray has extended this evolutionary approach to test hypotheses about the fundamental constraints on linguistic variation. In contrast to the claims of some generative linguists they found language family specific dependencies rather universal constraints, suggesting that, in this case at least, cultural and linguistic processes trump cognitive biases.

Johannes Krause focusses on the analysis of old to very old genetic material from archaeological remains using High Throughput DNA sequencing. His research interests include human population history and pathogens from historical pandemics. He was able to demonstrate that most of today's bubonic plague pathogens originated during the Middle Ages. He was a main contributor to the deciphering of the Neanderthal genome, and managed to prove that Neanderthals and modern humans share the same language gene (FOXP2). In 2010, while working at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, he discovered the first genetic evidence of the Denisovans, an archaic human group first found in Siberia.

Thuringian-born Johannes Krause looks forward to establishing this new interdisciplinary Institute: "The combination of genetics, computer-based linguistics and historical research will allow us to generate new ideas and insights to the global spread of human populations, historical events and bio-cultural co-evolution of humans, animals, plants and pathogens."

With the realignment of the Institute, two decades of economic research at the former Max Planck Institute of Economics come to an end. However, the Strategic Interaction Group (Director: Werner Güth) remains functional until December 2014. The interdisciplinary International Max Planck Research School on Adapting Behavior in a Fundamentally Uncertain World (IMPRS Uncertainty) continues its work and is already affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn.

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