John Rock Professor of Population Sciences
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