Richard Levins

Richard Levins

Richard 'Dick' Levins, PhD
Richard Levins - Richard 'Dick' Levins, PhD, during applause at his 5-23-2015 85th Birthday Symposium Tribute Dinner
Born June 1, 1930
Brooklyn, New York, United States[1]
Nationality American
Fields mathematical ecology, evolutionary biology, scientific modelling, loop analysis, complexity
Institutions University of Puerto Rico (1961 to 1967),
University of Havana,
New York University,
University of Chicago,
Harvard University,
Harvard School of Public Health
Alma mater Cornell University (agriculture and mathematics),
Columbia University
Thesis Theory of fitness in a heterogeneous environment, published by Essex Institute, New York, 1965 (1965)
Known for mathematical ecology, political activism, population genetics,
evolution in changing environments, farming in Cuba, and metapopulations (a Marxist theory of biology)
Spouse Rosario Morales (1950), died 2011; 3 children: Aurora Levins Morales, born February 24, 1954, Indiera Baja, Maricao, Puerto Rico, Ricardo Levins Morales,[2] Alejandro 'Jandro' Levins[3]
External images
Dr. Richard Levins, teaching

Richard "Dick" Levins (born June 1, 1930) is an ecologist, a population geneticist, and a mathematical ecologist who has researched diversity in human populations. He is a university professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a long-time political activist. He is best known for his work on evolution and complexity in changing environments and on metapopulations.

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 graduate students had 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 the subtleties and profundities.

Levins also has 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 is a Marxist and has said that the methodology in his Evolution in Changing Environments is based on the introduction to Marx's Grundrisse, the rough draft of Das Kapital. With the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin (1929–), Levins has 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.[4]

Also with Lewontin, Levins has 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.


  • Biography 1
  • Evolution in changing environments 2
  • Metapopulation theory 3
  • Awards 4
  • Selected bibliography 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Richard Levins was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 1, 1930, and is of Ukrainian Jewish heritage.[5] 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 1932). 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 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,[6] Ricardo,[7] and Alejandro[8] - moved to Chicago, where he taught at the University of Chicago and constantly interacted with Lewontin. For a while, the family lived in New Hampshire.[9] 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.

Levins is John Rock Professor of Population Sciences[10] and head of the Human Ecology program[11][12] in the Department of Global Health and Population of the Harvard School of Public Health.[13] He has been a member of the US and Puerto Rican Communist Parties, the Movimiento Pro Independencia[14][15] (the Independence movement in Puerto Rico), and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and he was on an FBI surveillance list. During the last two decades, Levins has concentrated on application of ecology to agriculture, particularly in the economically less-well-developed nations of this planet.

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.[16][17]

Evolution in changing environments

A Map of the Loop Current

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".[18] Populations inhabit a landscape of suitable habitat patches, each capable of hosting a local sub-population. Local populations may go 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.[19][20]


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. "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology", American Scientist, 54:421-431, 1966
  • 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)[29]
  • 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. and Levins R. "Periodicity in a simple genotype selection model" in Diff Eq and Dynamical Systems 1(1):35-50, 1993.
  • 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, I., Epstein, P., Makhaoul, N., Possas, C.A., Puccia, C., Spielman, A., and Wilson, M., Preparing for new diseases. American Scientist, 82: 52-60, 1994.
  • Levins, R. "Ten propositions on science and antiscience" in Social Text, 46/47:101–111, 1996.
  • 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. Dialectics and systems theory in Science and Society 62(3):373-399, 1998.
  • Levins, R. "The internal and external in explanatory theories", Science as Culture, 7(4):557–582, 1998.
  • Levins, R. and Lopez C. "Toward an ecosocial view of health", International Journal of Health Services 29(2):261-293, 1999.
  • 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. "Whose Scientific Method? Scientific Methods for a Complex World, New Solutions", "A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy" 13(3) 261-274 (2003)
  • Karpati A., Galea S., Awerbuch T., and Levins, R. Variability and vulnerability at the ecological level: Implications for understanding the social determinants of health American Journal of Public Health, 92:1768- 1772, 2002.
  • 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., and Predescu, M., The Role of Seasonality in the Dynamics of Deer Tick Populations. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology; 67(3):467-486. 2005 (May).
  • 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., and Awerbuch T.E., 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, 2006.
  • 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, [1] , 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

See also


  1. ^ Aurora Levins Morales Blog:
  2. ^ RLM Art Studio web site and store, Art for Social Justice by Ricardo Levins Morales
  3. ^ LinkedIn profile of Alejandro Levins
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Levins Morales Blog:
  6. ^ Cengage Learning profile of Aurora Levins Morales
  7. ^ RLM Art Studio web site and store, Art for Social Justice by Ricardo Levins Morales
  8. ^ LinkedIn profile of Alejandro Levins
  9. ^ Cengage Learning profile of Aurora Levins Morales
  10. ^ Harvard Catalyst page for the named chair position, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences
  11. ^ Stephen Jay Gould: What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?,, Jul 25 2009 16:39
  12. ^ Human Ecology, Course #: GHP253-01, basic course in the HSPH Program in Human Ecology
  13. ^ HSPH Faculty page for Richard Levins
  14. ^ Historia del Movimiento Pro Independencia--antecesor historico del MINH
  15. ^ Americas Summit Sans United States: Venezuela, Argentina To Push For Puerto Rican Independence, January 28, 2014Fox News Latino
  16. ^ Tran, Kyle "New Local Music" MN Daily Planet
  17. ^ Thompson, Eric "Top 10 Must See Music Videos This Week" retrieved (8/4/15) City Pages
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Article on Richard Levins on website of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity, accessed July 1, 2014
  22. ^ Is human behavior controlled by our genes? Richard Levins reviews 'The Social Conquest of Earth' - "Failing to take class division into account is not simply a political bias; It also distorts how we look at human evolution as intrinsically bio-social and human biology as socialized biology."
  23. ^ Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 'Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research' page on Richard Levins
  24. ^ Education in Latin America: Challenges for Latin Americans, U.S. Latinos. Spring 1999, Richard Levins: Honorary Degree
  25. ^ Richard Levins and his wife succinctly outline their understanding of the Cuban revolution.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Abstract of Milton Terris Global Health Award lecture: "One Foot in, One Foot out"
  28. ^ "The Truth is the Whole" 85th Birthday Celebration at Harvard School of Public Health, May 21–23, 2015.
  29. ^

External links

  • Personal Website of Prof. Richard Levins, PhD
  • Harvard webpage
  • In "Living the 11th Thesis" Richard Levins discusses his own biography
  • Personal narrative of political activity in Puerto Rico
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 'Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research' page on Richard Levins
  • Finding truth in ‘the whole’, Amy Roeder, October 15, 2015, Featured News Stories, Harvard T.H. Chan website, accessed 10/16/2015 - Includes a good current photo of Dr. Levins
  • , 75th Anniversary Issue, Volume II, 1985-1997, pp. 16-18, accessed 10/16/2015Harvard Public Health ReviewDialectics of disease: Richard Levins,