Richard Levins

Richard "Dick" Levins (June 1, 1930 – January 19, 2016)[3] was an ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, a population geneticist, biomathematician, mathematical ecologist, and philosopher of science[4][5][6] who had researched diversity in human populations. Until his death, Levins was a university professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a long-time political activist. He was best known for his work on evolution and complexity in changing environments and on metapopulations.

Richard 'Dick' Levins
Levins in 2015
BornJune 1, 1930
DiedJanuary 19, 2016(2016-01-19) (aged 85)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Ukrainian Jewish heritage
Alma materCornell University (agriculture and mathematics),
Columbia University
Known formathematical ecology, political activism, population genetics,
evolution in changing environments, farming in Cuba, and metapopulations (a Marxist theory of biology)
US National Academy of Sciences (resigned), Cuban Academy of Sciences, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
* American Public Health Association
Spouse(s)Rosario Morales (1950), died 2011; 3 children: Aurora Levins Morales, born February 24, 1954, Indiera Baja, Maricao, Puerto Rico, Ricardo Levins Morales,[1] Alejandro 'Jandro' Levins[2]
Scientific career
Fieldsmathematical ecology, evolutionary biology, scientific modelling, loop analysis, complexity, philosophy of science, “looking at the whole”
InstitutionsUniversity of Puerto Rico (1961 to 1967),
University of Havana,
New York University,
University of Chicago,
Harvard University,
Harvard School of Public Health
ThesisTheory of fitness in a heterogeneous environment, published by Essex Institute, New York, 1965 (1965)
External image
Dr. Richard Levins, teaching

Levins' writing and speaking is extremely condensed. This, combined with his Marxism, has made his analyses less well-known than those of some other ecologists and evolutionists who were adept at popularization. One story of his Chicago years is that, in order to understand his lectures, his graduate students each needed to attend Levins' courses three times: the first time to acclimate themselves to the speed of his delivery and the difficulty of his mathematics; the second to get the basic ideas down; and the third to pick up his subtleties and profundities.

Levins also had written on philosophical issues in biology and modelling. One of his influential articles is "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology". He has influenced a number of contemporary philosophers of biology. Levins often boasted publicly that he was a 'fourth generation Marxist' and often had said that the methodology in his Evolution in Changing Environments was based upon the introduction to Marx's Grundrisse, the rough draft of Das Kapital. With the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin, Levins had written a number of articles on methodology, philosophy, and social implications of biology. Many of these are collected in The Dialectical Biologist. In 2007, the duo published a second thematic collection of essays titled Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health.[7]

Also with Lewontin, Levins had co-authored a number of satirical articles criticizing sociobiology, systems modeling in ecology, and other topics under the pseudonym Isadore Nabi. Levins and Lewontin managed to place a ridiculous biography of Nabi and his achievements in American Men of Science, thereby showing how little editorial care and fact-checking work went on in that respected reference work.


Richard Levins was of Ukrainian Jewish heritage and was born on June 1, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York.[8] He recorded reminiscences of his politically and scientifically precocious childhood in an article in Red Diapers. He reportedly had read Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters (1926) at age 8 (in 1938) and his first of Charles Darwin's books at age 12 (in 1942). At the age of 10, Levins had been inspired by the essays of the Marxist biological polymath J. B. S. Haldane, whom Levins considers to be the equal of Albert Einstein in scientific importance.

Levins studied agriculture and mathematics at Cornell. He married Puerto Rican writer Rosario Morales in 1950. Blacklisted on his graduation from Cornell, he and Rosario moved to Puerto Rico, where they farmed and did rural organizing. They returned to New York in 1956, where he earned his PhD at Columbia University (awarded 1965). Levins taught at the University of Puerto Rico from 1961 to 1967 and was a prominent member of the Puerto Rican independence movement. He visited Cuba for the first time in 1964, beginning a lifelong scientific and political collaboration with Cuban biologists. His active participation in the independence and anti-war movements in Puerto Rico led to his being denied tenure at the University of Puerto Rico, and in 1967 he and Rosario and their three children - Aurora,[9] Ricardo,[1] and Alejandro[2] - moved to Chicago, where he taught at the University of Chicago and constantly interacted with Lewontin. Both Richard and Rosario later moved to Harvard with the sponsorship of E. O. Wilson, with whom they had later disputes over sociobiology. Levins was elected member of the US National Academy of Sciences but resigned because of the Academy's role in advising the US military during the war. He had been a member of the US and Puerto Rican Communist Parties, the Movimiento Pro Independencia[10][11] (the Independence movement in Puerto Rico), and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and he was on an FBI surveillance list.

Until his death, Levins was John Rock Professor of Population Sciences[12] and head of the Human Ecology program[13][14] in the Department of Global Health and Population of the Harvard School of Public Health.[15] In the early 1990s, Levins and others formed the Harvard Working Group on New and Resurgent Diseases. Their work showed that alarming new infections had sprung from changes in the environment, either natural or caused by humans (Wilson et al. 1994).[16]

During his final two decades, Levins had concentrated on application of ecology to agriculture, particularly in the economically less-well-developed nations of this planet. As a member of the OXFAM-America Board of Directors and former chair of their subcommittee on Latin America and the Caribbean, Richard Levins worked from a critique of the industrial-commercial pathway of development and promoted alternative development pathways which focused attention upon (a) economic viability with (b) population equity, (c) ecological and social sustainability, and (d) empowerment of the dispossessed.

When his wife Rosario died in 2011, his daughter Aurora moved in with her father in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

One of Levins's grandchildren is Minneapolis-based hip hop artist Manny Phesto.[17][18]

Levins died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 19, 2016.[19][20]

A species of lizard, Sphaerodactylus levinsi, is named in his honor.[21]

Evolution in changing environments

Prior to Levins' work, population genetics had assumed the environment to be constant, while mathematical ecology assumed the genetic makeup of the species involved to be constant. Levins modelled the situation in which evolution is taking place while the environment changes. One of the surprising consequences of his model is that selection need not maximize adaptation, and that species can select themselves to extinction. He encapsulated his major early results in Evolution in Changing Environments, a book based on lectures he delivered in Cuba in the early 1960s. Levins made extensive use of mathematics, some of which he invented himself, although it had been previously developed in other areas of pure mathematics or economics without his awareness of it. For instance, Levins makes extensive use of convex set theory for fitness sets, (resembling the economic formulations of J. R. Hicks) and extends Sewall Wright's path analysis to the analysis of causal feedback loops.

Metapopulation theory

The term metapopulation was coined by Levins in 1969 to describe a "population of populations".[22] Populations inhabit a landscape of suitable habitat patches, each capable of hosting a local sub-population. Local populations may become extinct and be subsequently recolonized by immigration from patches; the fate of such a system of local populations (i.e., the metapopulation) depends on the balance between extinctions and colonizations. Levins introduced a model consisting of a single differential equation, nowadays known as the Levins model, to describe the dynamics of average patch occupancy in such systems. Metapopulation theory has since become an important area of spatial ecology, with applications in conservation biology, population management, and pest control.[23][24]


  • "The world is stranger than we can imagine and surprises are inevitable in science. Thus we found, for example, that pesticides increase pests, antibiotics can create pathogens, agricultural development creates hunger, and flood control leads to flooding. But some of these surprises could have been avoided if the problems had been posed big enough to accommodate solutions in the context of the whole." - Dr. Richard Levins


Selected bibliography

  • Levins, R. "Genetic Consequences of Natural Selection," in Talbot Waterman and Harold Morowitz, eds., Theoretical and Mathematical Biology, Yale, 1965, pp. 372–387.
  • Levins, R (1966). "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology". American Scientist. 54: 421–431.
  • Levins, R. Evolution in Changing Environments, Princeton University Press, 1968.
  • Levins, R. "Some demographic and genetic consequences of environmental heterogeneity for biological control", Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, 15:237–240, 1969. In this historic paper, Levins coined the term 'metapopulation' (now widely used)[22]
  • Levins, R. "Evolution in communities near equilibrium", in M. L. Cody and J.M. Diamond (eds) Ecology and Evolution of Communities, Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • Nabi, I., (pseud.) "An Evolutionary Interpretation of the English Sonnet: First Annual Piltdown Man Lecture on Man and Society," Science and Nature, no. 3, 1980, 71-73.
  • Levinsin, R., Haila, Y. Marxilaisena biologinen Yhdysvalloissa. Richard Levinsin haastattelu [Yrjö Haila]. Tiede & edistys 8(1):29-37 (1983).
  • Levins, R. and R.C. Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Puccia, C.J. and Levins, R. Qualitative Modeling of Complex Systems: An Introduction to Loop Analysis and Time Averaging, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1986.
  • Levins, R. and Vandermeer, J. "The agroecosystem embedded in a complex ecological community" in: Carroll R.C., Vandermeer J. and Rosset P., eds., Agroecology, New York: Wiley and Sons, 1990.
  • Haila, Y., and Levins, R. Humanity and Nature, London: Pluto Press, 1992.
  • Grove, E.A.; Kocic, V.L.; Ladas, G.; Levins, R. (1993). "Periodicity in a simple genotype selection model". Diff Eq and Dynamical Systems. 1 (1): 35–50.
  • Awerbuch T.E. Evolution of mathematical models of epidemics. In: Wilson, Levins, and Spielman (eds).Disease in Evolution. New York Academy of Sciences, New York 1994, 225-231.
  • Wilson, M., Levins, R., and Spielman, A. (eds). Disease in Evolution. New York Academy of Sciences, New York 1994
  • Levins, R.; Awerbuch, T.E.; Brinkman, U.Eckardt; Epstein, P.; Makhaoul, N.; Possas, C.A.; Puccia, C.; Spielman, A.; Wilson, M. (1994). "Preparing for new diseases". American Scientist. 82: 52–60.
  • Levins, R (1996). "Ten propositions on science and antiscience". Social Text. 46 (46/47): 101–111. doi:10.2307/466847. JSTOR 466847.
  • Awerbuch T.E., Brinkman, U., Eckardt, I., Epstein, P., Ford, T., Levins, R., Makhaoul, N., Possas, C.A., Puccia, C., Spielman, A., and Wilson, M., Globalization, development, and the spread of disease. In: Goldsmith and Mander (eds.) The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996, 160–170.
  • Levins, R. "Touch Red," in Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, eds., Red Diapers: Growing up in the Communist Left, U. of Illinois, 1998, pp. 257–266.
  • Levins, R (1998). "Dialectics and systems theory". Science and Society. 62 (3): 373–399.
  • Levins, R (1998). "The internal and external in explanatory theories". Science as Culture. 7 (4): 557–582. doi:10.1080/09505439809526525.
  • Levins, R.; Lopez, C. (1999). "Toward an ecosocial view of health". International Journal of Health Services. 29 (2): 261–293. doi:10.2190/wlvk-d0rr-kvbv-a1dh. PMID 10379454.
  • Awerbuch T., Kiszewski A., and Levins, R., Surprise, Nonlinearity and Complex Behavior. In– Health Impacts of Global Environmental Change: Concepts and Methods; Martens and Mcmichael (eds), 96-102, 2002
  • Levins, R (2003). "Whose Scientific Method? Scientific Methods for a Complex World, New Solutions". New Solutions. 13 (3): 261–274. doi:10.2190/q4tn-q9u2-er56-3t1r. PMID 17208729.
  • Karpati, A.; Galea, S.; Awerbuch, T.; Levins, R. (2002). "Variability and vulnerability at the ecological level: Implications for understanding the social determinants of health". American Journal of Public Health. 92 (11): 1768–1772. doi:10.2105/ajph.92.11.1768. PMC 1447326. PMID 12406806.
  • Awerbuch, T.E., Gonzalez, C., Hernandez, D., Sibat, R., Tapia, J.L., Levins, R., and Sandberg S., The natural control of the scale insect Lepidosaphes gloverii on Cuban citrus. Inter American Citrus Network newsletter No21/22, July 2004.
  • Awerbuch, T.; Levins, R.; Predescu, M. (2005). "The Role of Seasonality in the Dynamics of Deer Tick Populations". Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 67 (3): 467–486. doi:10.1016/j.bulm.2004.08.003. PMID 15820738.
  • Lewontin, R.C. and Levins, R., "Biology Under The Influence, Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health," New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007.
  • Predescu, M.; Levins, R.; Awerbuch, T.E. (2006). "Analysis of non-linear System of Difference Equations Linking Mosquito Breeding Sites and Community Intervention". Discrete and Continuous Dynamical Systems, SerB. 6 (3): 605–622. doi:10.3934/dcdsb.2006.6.605.
  • Awerbuch T., and Levins, R. Mathematical Models for Health Policy. in Mathematical Models, [Eds. Jerzy A. Filar, and Jacek B. Krawczyk], in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford, UK, , 2006
  • Predescu, M., Sirbu, R., Levins, R., and Awerbuch T., On the Dynamics of a Deterministic and Stochastic Model for Mosquito Control. Applied Mathematics Letters, 20, 919-925, 2007.
  • Awerbuch, T.E., Levins, R., The Aging Heart and the Loss of Complexity—a Difference Equation Model. Preliminary report. American Mathematical Society, (1056-39-2059), presented at AMS Convention, San Francisco, California, January 13, 2010
  • Levins, R., Una pierna adentro, una pierna afuera. CopIt ArXives & EditoraC3, Mexico. SC0005ES. ISBN 978-1-938128-073, 2015
  • Levins, R., Scientific Method for Today’s Market, The Mathematical Intelligencer, 37 (1), 47-47, 2015 (March 1).

See also


  1. "Ricardo Levins Morales Art Store - Political Art Posters, Note Cards, Buttons Minneapolis, MN RLM Arts".
  2. LinkedIn profile of Alejandro Levins
  3. In memoriam: Richard Levins, ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science
  4. Weisberg, M. Richard Levins’ Philosophy of Science, Biology and Philosophy, November 2006, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 603-605, First online: 05 January 2007, accessed 1/22/2016
  5. Wimsatt, W. Richard Levins as Philosophical Revolutionary, Biology and Philosophy, January 2001, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 103-108, accessed 1/22/2016
  6. Winther, R.S. On the dangers of making scientific models ontologically independent: taking Richard Levins’ warnings seriously, Biology and Philosophy, November 2006, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 703-724, First online: 16 January 2007, accessed 1/22/2016
  7. Lewontin, R., and Levins, R. 2007 (November 1). Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, Monthly Review Press; First Edition (US), First Printing edition (November 1, 2007) ISBN 978-1583671573
  8. Aurora Levins Morales Blog:
  9. "Heath Anthology of American LiteratureAurora Levins Morales - Author Page".
  10. "Historia del Movimiento Pro Independencia".
  11. "Americas Summit Sans United States: Venezuela, Argentina To Push For Puerto Rican Independence". Fox News Latino.
  12. "John Rock Professor of Population Sciences - Harvard Catalyst Profiles - Harvard Catalyst". Archived from the original on 2014-09-03.
  13. "Stephen Jay Gould: What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?".
  14. Human Ecology, Course #: GHP253-01, basic course in the HSPH Program in Human Ecology Archived 2014-09-11 at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Home - Richard Levins - Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health".
  16. Wilson, M.E., Levins, R., Spielman, A. (eds). 1994. Disease in Evolution: Global Changes and Emergence of Infectious Diseases. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Series. Volume 740. New York Academy of Sciences, New York, NY. Accessed 1/22/2016
  17. Tran, Kyle "New Local Music" MN Daily Planet
  18. Thompson, Eric "Top 10 Must See Music Videos This Week" retrieved (8/4/15) City Pages
  19. In memoriam: Richard Levins, ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science, Harvard Chan School faculty memorial announcement, January 22, 2016
  20. Richard Levins, 1930-2016
  21. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Levins", p. 156).
  22. Levins, R. (1969), "Some demographic and genetic consequences of environmental heterogeneity for biological control", Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, 15 (3): 237–240, doi:10.1093/besa/15.3.237
  23. Hanski, Ilkka (ed.); Gaggiotti, Oscar E. (ed.) (2004). Ecology, genetics, and evolution of metapopulations. Elsevier Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-323448-3.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  24. Nouhuys, S. (2009). "Metapopulation Ecology". Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. doi:10.1002/9780470015902.a0021905. ISBN 978-0470016176.
  26. "Is human behavior controlled by our genes? Richard Levins reviews "The Social Conquest of Earth"". Climate & Capitalism. August 2012.
  27. "Richard Levins - Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research".
  28. Education in Latin America: Challenges for Latin Americans, U.S. Latinos. Spring 1999, Richard Levins: Honorary Degree Archived 2014-07-15 at the Wayback Machine
  29. "Bienvenido a Yahoo Grupos".
  30. "College of the Atlantic commencement closes Bar Harbor school's 40th year". Bangor Daily News. June 3, 2012. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  31. Abstract of Milton Terris Global Health Award lecture: "One Foot in, One Foot out" Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
  32. "The Truth is the Whole" 85th Birthday Celebration at Harvard School of Public Health, May 21–23, 2015.
  33. Awerbuch, T., M. S. Clark, P. J. Taylor (eds), The Truth is the Whole: Essays in Honor of Richard Levins, The Pumping Station, 2018.
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