Finding truth in ‘the whole’

2 min read

Richard Levins, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been known throughout his lengthy career for his ability to make connections between seemingly disparate topics such as biology and political theory. An ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science, Levins describes the subject matter he teaches as “looking at the whole.”

Friends and admirers organized a symposium earlier this year to mark Levins’s 85th birthday and honor a career that has included 40 years at Harvard Chan School. Rather than a traditional event focused around a single topic, researchers presented work that was not obviously related. From the neurobiology of autism to insect communities around a Central American coffee plantation, the underlying theme was research approached with an eye for complexity.

“Biology has become molecular biology and graduates are less likely to tramp through a forest or sniff the earth. They may not even know anything about the animals they study, just the tissue extract,” Levins said. “So throughout my career I have encouraged students to look at such things as connections between human activity and forests, and changes in human population and agriculture. The history of disease shows the co-evolution between us and microorganisms, so we take a step back and look at that complexity.”