The Dialectical Legacy of Richard Levins (1930-2016)

LevinsThe ecologist Richard Levins, who passed away in January, was a revolutionary in more ways than one. He made numerous scientific contributions in population genetics, biomathematics, and community ecology, and he served as the head of the human ecology program at the Harvard School of Public Health. He was also blacklisted under McCarthyism in the 1950s, and, in the 1960s, faced FBI harassment for his activism with the Puerto Rican left. For Levins, science and politics were inseparable. His grandfather taught him that every worker socialist should, at a minimum, be familiar with cosmology, evolution, and history. The struggle to change the world was part and parcel of the struggle to understand it.

For Levins, science was for the people. His first book, Evolution in Changing Environments (1968), was full of mathematical formulas modeling complex ecological phenomena. But he never treated mathematics as a form of absolute truth that only experts could comprehend. Rather he used mathematics as a tool to comprehend the complexity of nature. He always strove to clarify the limitations of his own models, and he could always translate the lessons of his research for a broad audience.

He rejected the “common sense” view that saw science as purely objective and independent of political considerations. He also rejected the postmodernist view that denies any form of scientific objectivity. Instead, he saw a dialectical synthesis of the two, going by the motto: “Things are similar: this makes science possible. Things are different: this makes science necessary.” (The Dialectical Biologist). As scientific “neutrality” has increasingly been used to justify dubious politics, Levins defended the legitimate value in the scientific method while pointing to its potential for abuse:

“The development of scientific method is aimed at avoiding the kinds of errors we have learned to worry about. And indeed, it has been successful in catching ordinary sloppiness, dirty glassware, division by zero, wishful thinking, and the individual idiosyncratic biases of scientists or their economic stake in the findings. It has been less successful at recognizing the shared biases of a whole scientific community, the beliefs that are so much a part of the common sense of the community that they are not even recognized as biases.” (Talking About Trees)

The Dialectical Biologist

Levins was best known for reintroducing a Marxist dialectical approach to science, operating in the tradition of Friedrich Engels’s writings on nature. This represented a challenge to the dominant positivist and reductionist ideology within the scientific community, which views nature as a fixed entity to be studied by objective observers. Under a positivist approach to nature, complex phenomena are best understood by studying their components in isolation. Science is proclaimed to be politically neutral and anybody who challenges the political biases of scientists is accused of smuggling in ideology.

There were political implications to this ideology that Levins called into question. Biological determinism was used to justify all of the ills of capitalism by claiming that war, inequality, and racial and sexual oppression were all hardwired into our DNA. Meanwhile, the positivist approach to science proclaimed all scientific and technological endeavors as inherently good regardless of the environmental cost.

Marxism adopts a different approach, dialectical materialism. As a materialist philosophy, it recognizes that society and nature must be understood as material reality, independent of external spirits or abstract ideas. As a dialectical philosophy, it recognizes that, at any time, we are capable of only perceiving a partial mental representation of a complex universe in a constant state of flux. While a fixed picture of nature or society can provide useful insights, it also papers over contradictions that can break out into the open later on. Treating capitalism as an eternal social order ignores the class struggles brewing underneath. And treating nature as a fixed entity populated by perfectly adapted organisms ignores the ongoing evolutionary process and potential for ecological crisis.

The fruit fly, or Drosophila, has long been the archetypal laboratory specimen for genetic research because its DNA is simple to modify and its short lifespan allows for generational study. Levins recognized the value in this research. But, at the suggestion Rosario Morales, the Puerto Rican author and activist he married, Levins took to studying Drosophila in nature, observing how different phenotypes (observable characteristics) were selected in the various microhabitats across Puerto Rico.

Rather than being perfectly adapted to a specific  environment, he found that the Drosophila were constantly being selected for different traits as they selected and adapted to a constantly changing environment. And when the environment fluctuated between extremes, such as hot and cold, the results challenged the prevailing scientific wisdom regarding evolutionary adaptation:

“The commonsense of ‘folk liberalism’ suggests a middle course, an intermediate size between those adapted to the extremes of heat and cold. But . . . this is only sometimes the case. In other circumstances a species may adapt completely to one of the extreme environments even at the expense of near lethality in the other.” (Evolution in Changing Environments)

Much of Levins’s work was carried out in collaboration with the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin. The result was an infusion of evolutionary ideas into Levins’s ecological research, as well as ecological ideas into Lewontin’s evolutionary research. The two of them helped challenge the popular misinterpretations of Darwinism that saw species as passively reacting to environmental changes. Levins and Lewontin revealed that organisms are active and participants in their evolution. Even as organisms adapt to their environment through natural selection, they are constantly changing that environment, from beavers building dams, to pine trees blocking the sun from their seedlings, to the early photosynthetic organisms which released a deadly poison called oxygen into the atmosphere for the first time.

Levins’s dialectical materialist approach to science not only took on official science, but official “Marxism” as well. Under Stalinism, dialectics had become ossified into a lifeless dogma. In the field of biology in particular, the Stalinist caricature of dialectics had become discredited through the experience of Lysenkoism, which denied the existence of genes altogether. Meanwhile, western academic Marxism, under the influence of figures like György Lukács, embraced an idealist approach that saw dialectics as limited to social phenomena, and not applicable to nature. Through this, Lukács sought to divorce Marx from Engels and deny that scientific socialism was the result of their collaboration. Lukács accused Engels of positivism for bringing science into Marxism. But, in fact, Lukács’s approach ceded science to the positivists.

Levins was part of a new generation of scientists, including Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen Rose, who sought to consciously apply Marxist dialectical materialist methods to serious scientific research. In 1985, Levins and Lewontin wrote The Dialectical Biologist, which put forward dialectical approaches to evolution, genetics, ecology, and a number of other fields. The two continued to collaborate afterwards, leading to a follow-up book, Biology Under the Influence (2007). Reading these books you will not only accept the validity of dialectical materialism, you will wonder how anybody could be so thick-headed as to think otherwise.

Ecological Science and Environmental Struggle

Levins’s work on ecological science occurred as a new political movement was developing around ecological ideas. A few years before Levins wrote Evolution in Changing Environments, Rachael Carson published Silent Spring, an exposé of the environmental destruction inflicted by the chemical industry. A mass environmental movement developed around fighting pollution, especially in poor and oppressed communities. Later on, the discovery of man-made climate change transformed the environment into an issue impacting the very fate of humanity.

Given Levins’s activity as both a scientist and a revolutionary, it’s understandable that he would take an interest in the relationship between the ecological science he studied and the environmental struggles he took part in. This was the subject of his 1992 book Humanity and Nature, co-written with the Finnish ecologist Yrjö Haila. Humanity and Nature represented the most coherent synthesis of Levins’s dialectical philosophy, his revolutionary politics, and his scientific studies. The book begins with a frog surveying the forest tundra of Lapland and ends with the socialist transformation of society. Along the way, there’s discussion of the scientific method, descriptions of ecological field research, and condemnation of capitalism’s destruction of our own ecosystem.

Humanity and Nature was a challenge to the capitalist justification of the pillaging of the environment. But it provoked debate within the environmental movement itself. Specifically, Levins challenged the notion of humanity as an outside force trampling on a delicate “balance of nature”. While discussing the Lapland forest tundra, Levins pointed to the environmental catastrophes wreaked by outbreaks of the autumnal moth, independent of human activity. He also pointed to the creation of new ecosystems that formed in human settlements.

This doesn’t mean there is no environmental crisis. Nor does it mean that the current environmental crisis is just a continuation of the outbreak of the autumnal moths. But the problem isn’t merely humanity. The narrow-minded capitalist drive for profit threatens the livability of humanity’s own ecosystems. “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.” (Biology Under the Influence)

Two areas of particular concern for Levins were agriculture and the ecology of human health. Here the undialectical methodology of science under capitalism goes from merely thick-headed to dangerous. Undialectical, reductionist science views the issues as follows: diseases are caused by germs and famine by pests. Medicine kills germs and chemical pesticides kill pests. Therefore medicine will abolish disease and chemical pesticides will abolish hunger.

In the field of human health, this lead scientists to believe that infectious disease would be abolished in the near future as each individual disease would eventually find its cure. But this overlooked the ecosystems in which pathogens thrive, as the fight against germs overlooked the study of the mosquitoes, snails, and bats that spread them. Moreover, attributing each disease to a single pathogen ignored the role played by the social stress of life under capitalism in making people more susceptible to disease in general.

The reliance on chemical pesticides in agriculture represents a similar problem. But this, along with capitalist agriculture’s promotion of large monocultures, poses even greater dangers. The pesticides that kill the pests may also kill their natural predators, leading to an increase of pests, who can then develop immunity to the pesticides. This environmental damage wasn’t simply a result of the evils of humanity, however. “It is not that integrated control is inherently more difficult, but rather that the past history of research, as created by economic interest and theoretical biases, has conspired to give a pattern of knowledge and ignorance that reinforces the continued concentration on the search for ‘magic bullets.’” (The Dialectical Biologist).

Rather than seeing human needs as incompatible with nature, Levins argued that the two were interdependent: “Maybe the slogan ‘living in harmony with nature’ could mean acting in such a way that our actions really support our goals. If we intend to continue producing crops in a region, we have to protect the soil. If we expect to maintain a city, there must be sources of fresh water.” (Humanity and Nature)

Organisms, humans included, are constantly changing their environments. This gives us the ability to blindly destroy our soil, water, and means of survival. But we can also be conscious of how we change our environment, learning from science and applying that knowledge so that we interact with nature in ways that ensure humanity and nature thrive. It is social forces that are hindering our ability to do this. And it was with this in mind that Levins called capitalism into question.

Fighting for Socialism

Throughout his life, Levins was a committed socialist. He was active in the Communist Party in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He even wrote the agrarian program of the Puerto Rican Communist Party. But the Stalinist regimes the Communist Parties defended were not only brutal dictatorships, they were decidedly un-ecological. The experience of the Soviet Union has often been held up by opponents of Marxism as proof that you can’t develop the productive forces and defend the environment simultaneously. Levins correctly rejected this. But, as he fought for socialism, he often came into conflict with his own Stalinist upbringing.

He wasn’t always consistent. For instance, Stalinism was based on the stages theory, which saw each country as progressing from feudalism to capitalism to socialism in neat succession. This was tied to the theory of socialism in one country, which saw the struggle for socialism as something to be achieved purely within national boundaries. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky rejected both of these conceptions with his theory of permanent revolution. Levins adopted a half-way-house position. He rejected the stages theory, since it expected neo-colonial countries to adopt the environmentally destructive policies of the advanced capitalist world. But he also accepted socialism in one country, and failed to see its role in fostering bureaucratism.

The strengths and weaknesses of Levins’s politics came out in his attitude towards Cuba. Like many other radicals, he took inspiration from the Cuban revolution of 1959. After visiting Cuba in 1964, Levins served as a scientific adviser to the Cuban government, where he put forward alternate, ecological planning methods to those accepted by the Stalinist movement. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba went through its “Special Period” in which it was deprived of high-tech imports from Russia while still facing an embargo from the U.S. Under this crisis, many of Levins’s proposals were adopted, resulting in a massive ecological restructuring of Cuban agriculture.

The monocultures that had dominated Cuban farming were replaced with a mosaic of smaller plots, each adapted to their local ecological niches. Farms were integrated with wooded areas that would attract predators to feed on the pests. Economic planning on a national level was closely integrated with the work of local bodies, so the needs of a local region wouldn’t conflict with the needs of the population as a whole. Thanks in part to Levins’s involvement, Cuba has been spared the environmental destruction found in other deformed workers’ states.

The Cuban experience shows how a planned economy, even a bureaucratically planned one, can not only avoid the ecological disasters that confronted the Soviet Union, but can put capitalism to shame. But Cuba remains a repressive, bureaucratic, one-party state and democracy is still necessary for a planned economy to survive. The same Special Period that brought about Cuba’s agricultural restructuring also gave impetus to the parallel dollar economy and the increasing encroachment of capitalism into Cuban society. With the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., capitalist restoration is a more serious threat that could reverse many of Cuba’s ecological accomplishments.

Nonetheless, Levins’s view of science, politics, and the connections between them, are of immense importance for activists today. We are living in an age where capitalism destroys the environment while plunging its population into poverty. A world where workers are forced to choose between the means of life and the means of living. Levins understood that this dilemma was a feature of capitalism, but not of humanity or modern civilization in general. And, in Talking About Trees, he responded to that false dilemma in a typically dialectical fashion: “when two equally just goals are in conflict, we are asking too little and accepting constraints we need not accept.”