Richard Levins, the people's scientist
As a scientist Levins had an incredible ability to analyze complex systems — to examine them from multiple, contradictory viewpoints simultaneously — without falling into the seductive traps of reductionism or static thinking. In the 1960s, Levins authored a series of extraordinary papers that helped launch the field of community ecology — all while facing FBI harassment for his activist work with the Puerto Rican left.
These papers combined sophisticated mathematical techniques with profound ecological insights to investigate the origins of biodiversity and evolution in fluctuating environments. Levins seamlessly shifted intellectual fields, going on to make foundational contributions in areas as varied as mathematical modeling of complex systems, agroecology, and disease ecology.
Levins was inducted into the US National Academy of Sciences — the country’s most prestigious organization of scientists — but resigned shortly afterwards to protest the organization’s role in advising the US military during the Vietnam War. After his first visit to Cuba in 1964, Levins also served as a scientific adviser to the Cuban government.
- Pankaj Mehta