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, Argriculture, 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.
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 age 10, Levins was inspired by the essays of the Marxist biological polymath J. B. S. Haldane, whom Levins considers 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 Moviiento Pro Independencia and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and was on an FBI surveillance list. During the last two decades Levins has concentrated on application of ecology to agriculture, particularly in the less developed nations.
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.
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. "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.
Levins, R. "Ten propositions on science and antiscience" in Social Text, 46/47:101–111, 1996.
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.
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)
R.C. Lewontin and R. Levins, "Biology Under The Influence, Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health," New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007.