Dr. Simon A. Levin, the George M. Moffett professor of biology at Princeton University, has recently been honored with the 2014 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for his work “revealing the complexity of, and relationships between, species and ecosystems.” Over his long and distinguished career, Dr. Levin’s research interests have spanned infectious diseases and their evolutionary adaptations, the evolution of cooperation and the maintenance of social norms, and the ways in which ecology can be applied to other interconnected systems such as finance or healthcare. As Dr. Levin explains: “I’ve never been satisfied focusing on one topic, so I love being able to jump back and forth between big problems.”

At Cornell University, where he worked for three decades, Dr. Levin was chair of one of the world’s first departments of ecology. He is also the editor of both The Princeton Guide to Ecology and the Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Dr. Levin received his PhD in mathematics from the University of Maryland.

Dr. Levin, who or what had the most influence on your career?

I went to graduate school doing what I knew came easiest to me, which was mathematics. Then for my post-graduate fellowship I went to Berkeley to work with George Dantzig, another mathematician applying the methods of mathematics to address some critical problems in human physiology. My interests, at that time, quickly began moving toward environmental problems: it was the time of Rachel Carson and others who were alerting us to the environmental challenges that were facing us. George was a great applied mathematician so I learned some techniques from him, but more importantly I learned from George that one didn’t have to be constrained: if you had talents and the interest, you could address almost any problems as long as you were willing to make the investment to learn the essential facts of the problem.

You recently won the Tyler Prize for your work on the relationships between individuals and a system as a whole–what was that research?

The Tyler Prize is a career achievement award, and obviously I wasn’t on the committee, but I think there were two key aspects. One of them is that most of these ecological studies are carried out on very specific scales. How do we accumulate all of the information from these more local studies that scientists have been performing for centuries out and draw conclusions about the biosphere, a scale at which until recently no one has been working? Obviously the problems we’re having at the global level are the consequences of individual actions at local levels, but understanding those scaling relationships, I think, is the greatest challenge in ecology.

I wrote a paper in 1992, which was highly cited called “The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology” which began to address these problems. Related to that was that since the scaling is going from individuals to ecosystems, this took into account that ecosystems and the biosphere are what we call complex adaptive systems. They’re made up of individual agents who interact with each other with their own selfish agendas, and this leads to problems of “how do we sustain the biosphere knowing that individuals are going to be selfish in their actions?” I wrote a book in 1999 called Fragile Dominion in which I address how we deal with selfishness and trying to get collective agreement on problems of sustainability, and that I think was the other factor in the award.


Eneas De Troya / CC-BY-2.0
Health experts are warning world leaders we will need new ways to fight the rising threat from drug-resistant bugs.

Your research has applications not just to ecology but to antibiotic resistance, healthcare, finance, bioterror… did you ever imagine that this was going to be so broadly applicable?

No. I started out wanting to understand ecological systems and their dynamics. I began working with economists especially about 25 years ago largely through the Beijer institute in Sweden, because I thought that in order to address ecological problems I would have to know the economics of it, why people do what they did. But I quickly realized economic systems are ecological systems, in which individuals are competing for common currencies. That’s when I began thinking more broadly, and after two of us attended a meeting at the New York Federal Reserve on systemic risk in banking, George Sugihara, Bob May, and I wrote an article called “Ecology for Bankers” for Nature in 2008, pointing out that the financial system seemed to us as ecologists poised on the brink of collapse.

There’s an obvious lesson from the immune system in how we should design health care systems or address bioterrorism. We know our bodies are going to be confronted with a range of pathogens, we just don’t know which ones they’re going to be. Evolution has addressed this problem by creating a system with early warning indicators, quick and generalized responses, and an adaptive response involving producing antibodies. I sat on committees on responses to bioterrorism years ago and people were mostly worried about what vaccines and antidotes were going to be stockpiled. I said, in addition to that, we have to recognize that whatever you plan to protect yourself against, there will be surprises that come along (especially if you’re dealing with terrorists), so we need a system that will be adaptive.

If we should be reacting to bioterror like the immune system, what does that look like?

I sat on a Royal Society Commission to examine the UK’s responses to Hoof and Mouth disease. The first thing they do when they discover new cases is to shut down transport from that region where they’ve discovered this problem and to other regions so they don’t spread the disease. Secondly, they begin eliminating the problem locally by killing the infected cattle. Third they build a ring around it by killing animals in nearby areas. Now that they’ve bought time they can begin to look to vaccinations and other strategies that take longer to implement. When Toronto was hit by SARS it shut down much of the transport in and out of Toronto airport, it began isolating people and dealing in similar ways while people worked to identify what the specific virus was that was involved in SARS and what they might do about it.

What does an adaptive response look like for financial systems?

I think you need regulations, I think we’ve removed too many regulations, Glass-Steagall, things of that sort. But whatever regulations you put in, someone is going to find a way around it, a way that today is legal but is going to cause problems for the system. High-frequency trading for example: this was perhaps unpredictable as a problem even 10 years ago. So you have to allow an adaptive component of the system, and I’m afraid Congress is not a good way to do that; we’ve seen how deadlocked they’ve become. The adaptive feature must be part of the regulatory structure.

Congress was supposed to be the original adaptive component of the US Government. If it’s this gridlocked, does that sound warning bells to you as an ecologist in the same way the financial markets did?

Absolutely, no question about it. Congress even under the best of times takes time to respond, and so does our legal system. Increasingly, as the world becomes more interconnected and things operate on faster and faster timescales, need ways to deal with it. The gridlock that is happening means that Congress is not going to be able to find adaptive solutions, and certainly the judicial system can’t move fast enough; things can be drawn out for years. This is not fast enough. We’re going to get breakdowns in the financial and social and environmental systems unless there are ways that regulators can adapt on a much more rapid timescale. We do that when it comes to problems of military intervention. While a lot of our recent military actions have not been ones that I supported, I recognize that unless the executive branch has the power to make these decisions and take these intermediate adaptive actions, we’re not going to be able to deal with global crises.

Speaking of crises, the WHO recently released a statement saying antibiotic resistance was a “grave global problem.”

We forget what things were like before antibiotics like penicillin, when people going into even routine surgery were at great risk. Well, as we lose the effectiveness of our antibiotics, we risk returning to that pre-antibiotic era. I think the largest reason is absence of adequate protocols that are followed in hospitals. A lot of this could be prevented by better protocols, better followed.

Are those protocols the modern-day equivalent of the Ignaz Semmelweis discovery that handwashing prevented puerperal fever?

It’s not only the modern-day equivalent, that is the problem. Doctors and nurses may have protocols that they’re supposed to be washing their hands between patients, but they don’t always do it. Another example, a doctor wearing a tie during rounds. A tie is a place where you can pick up bacteria and transfer it to the next patient. A doctor’s not going to change ties going from bed to bed, so just don’t let the doctor wear ties. Antibiotic resistance- to me, it’s very clear what steps we could take to reduce the problem, and we could do a lot about it with reasonable economic costs.

One of the biggest issues in coordinating to combat climate change is the collective action problem. How can we use your research on individuals and their effect on the collective whole to improve cooperation?

In terms of climate change, the individual isn’t a person, it’s the individual nations as players that have to live together in a global commons. There are a variety of difficulties in reaching agreements, some of which are the ones that you find in any collective action, but some of them are exacerbated by the fact that there’s great heterogeneity in terms of who can and can’t contribute to solving the problem. The late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom; and her husband Vincent talked about polycentric approaches. If you have 200 nations that you want to agree, it’s going to be very hard if not impossible to implement de novo; you have to build up to it by getting local cooperation. “Local” here doesn’t have to mean geographically local, it could be the US and China, major players. That’s one of the advantages of heterogeneity, major players could agree to something that then becomes a node or a module, becomes a bargaining unit in the bigger picture. I would encourage these multiple modules, multiple centers, that then become building blocks to larger agreements. I hope that 10 years from now, if we have this interview, I can tell you that it worked and that we built international climate agreements extrapolating from these systems.

What is the most interesting question that you are unequipped to answer?

The most interesting question is why people make the decisions they do, under what circumstances they are willing to sacrifice for the public good, why and how they discount the future. These are all questions that involve how humans are influenced by other humans, how they decide things, and how we can use this information to influence decision-making in the greater good. I’m not equipped to answer this question, but I’m doing everything I can to improve my ability to do so. So it’s about people. They’re the most interesting question.


Christina Asquith

Christina Asquith joined Solutions in 2009 as one of the founding editors. She has been an investigative reporter, war reporter, and narrative nonfiction author; working both as a staff writer and freelancer...

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