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Richard "Dick" Levins is a mathematical ecologist, university professor at Harvard School of Public Health, and political activist. He is best known for his work on evolution 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 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 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. An influential article of his 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, 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.
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.
Richard Levins was born in New York on June 1, 1930. He recorded reminiscences of his politically and scientifically precocious childhood in an article in Red Diapers. At the age of 10, Levins was 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 got his PhD at Columbia University. 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 moved to Chicago, where he taught at the University of Chicago and constantly interacted with Lewontin. Both 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.
Levins is John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health. He has been a member of the US and Puerto Rican Communist Parties, the Movimiento Pro Independencia (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.
Evolution in changing environments
Prior to Levins' work, population genetics 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.
The term metapopulation was coined by Levins in 1969 to describe a "population of populations". 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.
- Edinburgh Medal in Science and Society
- Lukács 21st Century Award (for his contributions to mathematical ecology)
- Numerous awards in Puerto Rico and Cuba (for contributions to ecology and agriculture; most recently, the 30th Anniversary Medal of the Cuban Academy of Sciences)
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 'Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research', 1995
- Honorary Doctorate in Environmental Science from the University of Havana
- American Public Health Association's 2007 Milton Terris Global Health Award: Lecture: "One Foot in, One Foot out"
- "The Truth is the Whole" 85th Birthday Celebration at Harvard School of Public Health, May 21-23, 2015.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,  , 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
- Historia del Movimiento Pro Independencia--antecesor historico del MINH
- Americas Summit Sans United States: Venezuela, Argentina To Push For Puerto Rican Independence, January 28, 2014Fox News Latino
- Levins, R. (1969), "Some demographic and genetic consequences of environmental heterogeneity for biological control", Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America 15: 237–240
- Hanski, Ilkka (ed.); Gaggiotti, Oscar E. (ed.) (2004). Ecology, genetics, and evolution of metapopulations. Elsevier Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-323448-3.
- Nouhuys, S. (2009). "Metapopulation Ecology". Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. doi:10.1002/9780470015902.a0021905. ISBN 0470016175.
- Article on Richard Levins on website of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity, accessed July 1, 2014
- 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.”
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 'Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research' page on Richard Levins
- Education in Latin America: Challenges for Latin Americans, U.S. Latinos. Spring 1999, Richard Levins: Honorary Degree
- Richard Levins and his wife succinctly outline their understanding of the Cuban revolution.
- Abstract of Milton Terris Global Health Award lecture: "One Foot in, One Foot out"