Skip to content

Dick Levins, Scientist, Marxist, Mathematical Ecologist

January 23, 2016 pm31 4:34 pm

When I was a boy I always assumed that I would grow up to be both a scientist and a Red. Rather than face a problem of combining activism and scholarship, I would have had a very difficult time trying to separate them.” — Richard Levins, Scientist, Marxist, Mathematical Ecologist, Puerto Rican Independence activist, friend of Cuba… who died this past Tuesday.

These are just some notes I collected. It’s worth hunting down his work, his articles, his talks – many are available on the web – to begin to gain some understanding of this remarkable socialist and scientist. That’s what I have just started to do, and I encourage you to do the same.

Levins was a professor at the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.  His work combining population genetics with climate change, with advanced mathematical modeling, anticipated today’s leading-edge research by decades.

He was fascinated and devoted to Cuba:

“I first went to Cuba in 1964 to help develop their population genetics and get a look at the Cuban Revolution. Over the years I became in­volved in the ongoing Cuban struggle for ecological agriculture and an ecological pathway of economic development that was just, egalitarian, and sustainable.

“Progressivist thinking, so powerful in the socialist tradition, expected that developing countries had to catch up with advanced countries along the single pathway of modernization. It dismissed critics of the high-tech pathway of industrial agriculture as “idealists,” urban sentimentalists nostalgic for a bucolic rural golden age that never really existed. But there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency.

“This discussion raged in Cuba in the 1970s and by the 1980s the ecological model had basically won although implementation was still a long process. The Special Period, that time of economic crisis af­ter the collapse of the Soviet Union when the materials for high-tech became unavailable, allowed ecologists by conviction to recruit the ecologists by necessity. This was possible only because the ecologists by conviction had prepared the way.”

His daughter, Aurora Levins Morales wrote:

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been his child.   My father came from a long line of Jewish radicals.  He became fascinated with biology at an early age, and it was always integrated with his political passions.  He became one of the world’s most influential ecologists and philosophers of science.  He also played a significant leadership role in the Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1950s and 60s, and for more than fifty years, helped to develop Cuban science, mentoring generations of ecologists, teaching and advising.  He was raised by a feminist grandmother, and was a strong ally to women, starting with my mother, but extending to many women scientists whom he mentored and supported, and to me, his daughter.  And, he would want me to add, he spent a period of his life as a blacklisted farmer in the mountains of western Puerto Rico, and won second prize for carrots.

You can read his blog at Richard Levins . com, or look at the Facebook page set up for him.

I only met him once, and briefly, but I gave away my first copy of Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations (David Montgomery, 2007), and I think that copy eventually got into Dick Levins’ hands. I heard, second hand, the reaction of someone who met him and was asking about ecology – he was amazed, Levins was going on and on about worms!  That’s from Chapter 1 of “Dirt…” Makes me feel like a shared something interesting with a great…

Here’s a talk on left and right radicalism from 1995, half an hour. He really is so clear… Take a look.

Here’s an obituary/tribute from Jacobin magazine, by a physicist and activist living near Boston.

His page at the Harvard School for Public Health will soon be taken down. Here’s what it says today:


Richard Levins


John Rock Professor of Population Sciences

* Please take notice that Professor Richard Levins is deceased.

This web page will be removed in the very near future, so
readers are encouraged to honor/capture the remaining
links to his references at this time.

Department of Global Health and Population

665 Huntington Avenue
Building I Room 1109
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617.432.1484


Richard Levins is an ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, biomathematician and philosopher of science whose central intellectual concern has been the understanding and influencing of processes in complex systems, both abstractly and as applied to evolutionary ecology, economic development, agriculture and health. He has carried out this program at the theoretical level by framing the problems of adaptation to the structure of the environment in space and time, the metapopulation concept for interpreting populations in biogeography, human physiology as a socialized physiology, and the interpenetration of model building as juggling the partially opposing requirements of realism, generality and precision.

His mathematical research has had the goal of making the obscure obvious by finding the appropriate ways to visualize complex phenomena. He developed the use of signed digraphs, time averaging and pre-image sets for qualitative analysis of complex systems. A major goal is the integration of evolutionary ecology and critical social theory into a broad epidemiology that can prepare for surprises. Current research examines the variability of health outcomes as an indicator of vulnerability to multiple non-specific stressors in human communities, interactions among herbivores and their natural enemies in multispecies systems on citrus trees, and short term (transient) dynamics of model epidemiological and pathological systems.

His theoretical interests have been applied to problems of community development as part of the Board of Directors of OXFAM-America and chair of their subcommittee on Latin America and the Caribbean from 1989 to 1995. Working from a critique of the industrial-commercial pathway of development, he promoted alternative development pathways that emphasize economic viability with equity, ecological and social sustainability and empowerment of the dispossessed. As part of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group, he has helped to develop modern agroecology, concentrating on the whole-system approaches to gentle pest management. The “Dialectical Biologist,” co-authored with Richard Lewontin, presented the authors’ approach to the study of the philosophy, sociology and history of science.

He studied plant breeding and mathematics at Cornell University, farmed in Puerto Rico and obtained his doctorate in zoology from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Chicago before coming to his present position as John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health. Levins is currently on the Advisory Board of the International Society for Ecosystem Health and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received awards as a pioneer of the ecology movement of Puerto Rico, for his long term contributions to the development of ecological agriculture in Cuba, and the Edinburgh Science Medal (Scotland) for contributions to science and the broader society. He has received awards as a pioneer of the ecology movement in Puerto Rico, for long term contributions to the development of agricultural ecology in Cuba, the Edinburgh Science Medal(Scotland) for contributions to science and the broader society, the Lukacs 21st Century Award for contributions to statistical and mathematical ecology, and an honarary doctorate in environmental science from the University of Havana.


Ph.D., 1965, Columbia University

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: