Richard Levins (1930-2016): Farewell to a Mentor

Richard Levins with math equations“Within the left, my task has been to argue that our relations with the rest of nature cannot be separated from a global struggle for human liberation, and within the ecology movement my task has been to challenge the “harmony of nature” idealism of early environmentalism and to insist on identifying the social relations that lead to the present dysfunction.”  (Monthly Review, January 2008)

It shouldn’t have surprised me that I couldn’t summarize the life work of Dick Levins—dialectical ecologist, anti-imperialist, revolutionary fighter—more succinctly than he already had.

It’s like one of the conversations with Dick that I was privileged to participate in, when he gave talks at the NY Marxist School and hung out afterward with its organizers. Dick would speak three or four sentences and it would take you five minutes to digest them. He wasn’t showing off or impatient or arrogant, and he was really interested in what you thought. It’s just that his mind made all these amazing connections and synthesized data, moving from pest population dynamics to public health to electoral politics to disagreements on the left, not one superfluous word, not one tendentious leap, nothing over-simplified.

I would say that I wish we could just replicate his brain if I hadn’t learned from Dick about the common theoretical error of reductionism: reducing a complex phenomenon to its smallest component unit and trying to explain or replicate its functioning in that way (e.g. human behavior is explainable by genes, or brilliant, revolutionary insights by a brain).

The complex phenomenon of Dick Levins was a fourth generation red diaper baby, who fell in love at 18 and partnered for life with a Puerto Rican poet, Rosario Morales; was active in the Communist Party; was blacklisted; farmed in Puerto Rico, theorizing agriculture and pest control through direct practice; internalized perspectives from the Latin American revolutionary struggles he supported; came back to the U.S. for a Ph.D and mentored public health professionals and scientists from all over the world; advised the governments of Cuba and Vietnam on public health, ecology and agricultural policy; helped found Science for the People; teamed up with Richard Lewontin to write our era’s most important works on Marxist approaches to science; opposed imperialist interventions and racist ‘scientific’ practices until his death.

During the 85th birthday conference held in his honor last May at Harvard’s School of Public Health, Dick was already quite ill, in and out of hospitals and rehab over the previous year. “I can’t march anymore but my son [the artist Ricardo Levins Morales] reminded me that I can still wear a button, ” he said, when I noticed his Black Lives Matter button.

The Dialectical Biologist

WHAT I LEARNED

I’m not a natural scientist (and my mind was deformed by 12 years in Catholic schools, where they don’t actually believe in science) but Dick taught me, as an activist, how to think about ecology and health and what dialectical materialism means for our time. So, in addition to avoiding reductionism, here are some of the key lessons I internalized:

Honor nature but avoid romanticism: This goes back to the opening quote from Dick. There is no ‘natural way’ we can follow, and no pure state of nature to go back to. Human beings have been changing nature for hundreds of thousands of years, consciously or unconsciously. Capitalist imperialism has taken it to an unprecedented level, destroying humanity’s conditions of life. We need to target the capitalist social relations that control our interaction with the natural world, and analyze ecological impacts concretely. We need to curb our hubris about how much we humans can control natural phenomena, recognize the complexity and interconnection of nature, and assess the impacts we are having in a much longer time scale than the one dictated by the profit motive. This was an issue that Dick had to raise even with socialist- oriented countries, whose development agenda was often dictated by the need to stave off or compete with surrounding capitalism.

Don’t run away from interconnection and complexity: In Dick’s words,

The complexity of this whole world syndrome can be overwhelming, and yet to evade the complexity by taking the system apart to treat the problems one at a time can produce disasters. The great failings of scientific technology have come from posing problems in too small a way. Agricultural scientists who proposed the Green Revolution without taking pest evolution and insect ecology into account, and therefore expecting pesticides would control pests, have been surprised that pest problems increased with spraying. Similarly, antibiotics create new pathogens, economic development creates hunger, and flood control promotes floods. Problems have to be solved in their rich complexity; the study of complexity itself becomes an urgent practical as well as theoretical problem.

To fight disease and ecological destruction, combat the compartmentalization of academic disciplines.

Dick was proud of helping to found the Harvard Group on New and Resurgent Diseases in the 1990s before the massive outbreaks of diseases like ebola. As he wrote,

Our argument was partly ecological: the rapid adaptation of vectors to changing habitats-to deforestation, irrigation projects, and population displacement by war and famine. But we also criticized the physical, institutional, and intellectual isolation of medical research from plant pathology and veterinary studies which could have shown sooner the broad pattern of upsurge of not only malaria, cholera, and AIDS, but also African swine fever, feline leukemia, tristeza disease of citrus, and bean golden mosaic virus. We have to expect epidemiological changes with growing economic disparities and with changes in land use, economic development, human settlement, and demography. The faith in the efficacy of antibiotics, vaccines, and pesticides against plant, animal, and human pathogens is naive in the light of adaptive evolution.

Combine peasants’ and workers’ practical knowledge with progressive science, for sustainable development.

Dick learned in Puerto Rico to take seriously the understandings that farmers, unschooled and sometimes illiterate, had about the soil, climate and insects they encountered, and to blend it with broader theory and academic research. He often countered the tendencies of the Marxist left to idealize science and progress, and of ecological movements to idealize traditional knowledge, natural healing and low tech. He wrote about selectively choosing techniques and tools from various sources and societies and called for “a gentle, thought-intensive technology,” one that also fostered the human development of those who used it. This has helped me enormously to imagine what life and production could be like under socialism.

FAREWELL

Dick invited me, along with Mary Boger, co-founder of the NY Marxist School, and Dr. Martha Herbert, the pathbreaking autism researcher, to visit him the morning after his 85th birthday events. We went to the rehab facility where he was staying, and he explained in a matter of fact way, with something of a scientific detachment, how his heart was failing and what medical interventions and decisions were under consideration. His voice was faltering and his breathing was labored, but illness hadn’t made him self-absorbed, and he was as curious as ever. He was eager to hear about Martha’s research and clinical practice and Mary’s update on the Marxist Education Project. I filled him in on some Black Lives Matter protests I’d attended in New York and the emergence of Left Roots, which he found hopeful. He hugged each of us as we parted.

There are many qualities of Dick’s that I haven’t mentioned, like his acute attunement to sexism-no doubt Rosario was a great teacher-his commitment and kindness to friends, his sense of humor and literary gift. These were exemplified in his parody of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and the satirical call to save our toxic waste dumps, posted below. Dick could use humor and a kind of whimsical detachment to deal with his rage and frustration at the many injustices that he-and we-couldn’t correct. Again, he summarized it best:

Studying the greed and brutality and smugness of late capitalism is painful and infuriating. Sometimes I have to recite from Jonathan Swift:

Like the boatman on the Thames
I row by and call them names.
Like the ever-laughing sage
In a jest I spend my rage
But it must be understood
I would hang them if I could.

For the most part scholarship and activism have given me an enjoyable and rewarding life, doing work I find intellectually exciting, socially useful, and with people I love.

And weren’t we lucky to be part of that life!

All quotes are from “Living the 11th Thesis” in Monthly Review, January 2008. Check out the MR archives on line for more articles by Dick, and the two books he co-authored with Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist and Biology under the Influence.

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