We were saddened to hear that Richard Levins died on January 19. An outstanding scientist and veteran Marxist, Richard would have been 86 in June this year. We were delighted to notice some time back that Richard sometimes looked at material on Redline and even commented on a couple of articles. Below we reprint a short tribute to him and his life well-lived that appeared on facebook.
by Rob Wallace
Richard Levins, the dialectical biologist extraordinaire, has passed. He revolutionized population biology multiple times, making foundational contributions to modeling evolution in changing environments, the theory of biological control, the philosophy of biology, modeling complex systems, mathematical biology, disease ecology, public health, and agroecology. He coined the term “metapopulation”.
His thinking remains profound enough to keep us busy for many decades to come. So much so, I think, that he reads like a traveler from another timeline. Imagine a working class Charles Darwin showing up in King Arthur’s court. He collaborated with evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin to develop, via a series of beautifully written essays, a modern-day dialectical biology that attacked the most basic of our premises of the nature of nature and the sciences that study it, including the biological vs the social, determinism vs chance, the natural sciences vs the social sciences, and other false dichotomies at the heart of modern science.
Levins was as perspicacious in his political action as in his intellectual output. To the consternation of many of his professional colleagues, he rejected the is-ought fallacy: If a regime or policy or idea is unjust, he argued, it isn’t true.
In the 1950s Levins was blacklisted for his membership in the Communist Party and his work as a
part of the Puerto Rican left, walking out on House Un-American Activities Committee mid-testimony. After exile for nearly a decade in Puerto Rico, where his daughter reports FBI agents warned off potential employers, Levins returned to the U.S. to model his dissertation work on evolution in changing environments on Karl Marx’s Grundrisse.
He was denied tenure at the University of Puerto Rico for his participation in the independence movement. He helped found Science for the People and fought E.O. Wilson over sociobiology. He was a long-term scientific adviser to Cuba and resigned his membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for its role advising the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
I am honored to have been able to present at his Festschrift last year and will remember his kind face, his sharp mind, his quick wit – he was very funny – and his ‘Black Lives Matter’ button. And I am not the only one. His Festschrift was filled with loving testimonials from around the world. He was, perhaps most importantly, a deeply kind-hearted man, who rarely let the travails of a life of resistance curdle his good humor.