Richard Levins, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences, died January 19, 2016, at 85. He was known for his ability to make connections between seemingly disparate topics such as biology and political theory. An ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science, Levins described the subject matter he focused on as “looking at the whole.”
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.
His research goal was to make the obscure obvious by finding ways to visualize complex phenomena. Recent work examined the variability of health outcomes as an indicator of vulnerability to multiple nonspecific stressors in human communities.
Levins was a member of the board of directors of Oxfam America and former chair of the board’s subcommittee on Latin America and the Caribbean. As part of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group, he helped develop modern agroecology, concentrating on whole-system approaches to gentle pest management.
He studied plant breeding and mathematics at Cornell University, farmed in Puerto Rico, and in 1965 obtained his doctorate in zoology from Columbia University. He taught at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Chicago before joining Harvard Chan in 1975. Levins was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received multiple honors as a pioneer of the ecology movement.