“The continuation of hunger in the modern world is not the result of an intractable problem thwarting our best efforts to feed people. Rather, agriculture in the capitalist world is directly concerned with profit and only indirectly with feeding people.
“Similarly, the organization of health care is directly an economic enterprise and is only secondarily influenced by people’s health needs.
“The irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism, which as a byproduct also aborts human intelligence.”
Richard Levins, The Dialectical Biologist, Harvard University Press (1985)
Richard Levins, the great radical and scientist, passed away on January 19. Levins was a profound thinker who made foundational contributions to scientific and intellectual fields ranging from community ecology and evolutionary theory to mathematical biology, public health, and the philosophy of science.
His extraordinary scientific legacy is matched by his legacy as a radical and activist. Blacklisted in 1950s for his activism, Levins subsequently moved to Puerto Rico with Rosario Morales, his wife and lifelong partner, and became an important member of the Puerto Rican independence and antiwar movements.
Levins was also a leading intellectual figure in the fight against biological determinism and remained an activist to the end of his life, often lecturing on his favorite topic: the use of dialectics to understand complexity and change in both the natural and social sciences.
While I did not know Levins personally, few people have had a greater intellectual and moral influence on me. Levins showed me it was possible to be a serious scientist and a radical — a revelation for a scientifically and mathematically inclined young adult growing up at the “end of history.” He taught me to understand how the prejudices of “bourgeois society” shape our views of science and nature, and gave me the intellectual and moral courage to fight for an emancipatory vision of science.
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.
On my first day of primary school, my grandmother urged me to learn everything they could teach me—but not to believe it all. She was all too aware of the “racial science” of 1930s Germany and the justifications for eugenics and male supremacy that were popular in our own country. Her attitude came from her knowledge of the uses of science for power and profit and from a worker’s generic distrust of the rulers. Her advice formed my stance in academic life: consciously in, but not of, the university. I grew up in a left-wing neighborhood of Brooklyn where the schools were empty on May Day and where I met my first Republican at age twelve. Issues of science, politics, and culture were debated in permanent clusters on the Brighton Beach boardwalk and were the bread and butter of mealtime conversation. Political commitment was assumed, how to act on that commitment was a matter of fierce debate.
As a teenager I became interested in genetics through my fascination with the work of the Soviet scientist Lysenko. He turned out to be dreadfully wrong, especially in trying to reach biological conclusions from philosophical principles. However, his criticism of the genetics of his time turned me toward the work of Waddington and Schmalhausen and others who would not simply dismiss him out of hand in Cold War fashion but had to respond to his challenge by developing a deeper view of the organism–environment interaction.
My wife, Rosario Morales, introduced me to Puerto Rico in 1951, and my eleven years there gave a Latin American perspective to my politics. The various left-wing victories in South America were a source of optimism even in those grim times. FBI surveillance in Puerto Rico blocked me from the jobs I was looking for and I ended up doing vegetable farming for a living on the island’s western mountains.
As an undergraduate at Cornell University’s School of Agriculture, I had been taught that the prime agricultural problem of the United States was the disposal of the farm surplus. But as a farmer in a poor region of Puerto Rico, I saw the significance of agriculture for people’s lives. That experience introduced me to the realities of poverty as it undermines health, shortens lives, closes options, and stultifies personal growth, and to the specific forms that sexism takes among the rural poor. Direct labor organizing on the coffee plantations was combined with study. Rosario and I wrote the agrarian program of the Puerto Rican Communist Party in which we combined rather amateurish economic and social analysis with some firsthand insights into ecological production methods, diversification, conservation, and cooperatives.