2008 Stelson Lecture - Simon Levin

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Professor Simon Levin is the George Moffett Professor of Biology and a professor of ecology and environmental biology. He is currently director of Princeton University's Center for BioComplexity. Professor Levin, a leader in biological conservation and ecosystem management, received the 2005 basic science Kyoto Prize from the Inamori Foundation of Japan in honor of his contributions to environmental science. Other awards and honors include the A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004 and the Distinguished Landscape Ecologist Award from the U.S. Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology in 2003. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Professor Levin specializes in using mathematical modeling and empirical studies in the understanding of macroscopic patterns of ecosystems and biological diversities. His work has included applying mathematical approaches to studies of ecosystems across a wide range of scales, from the behavior and genetics of individual organisms to the dynamics of large populations. Current systems of study include plant communities, as well as marine open-ocean and intertidal systems.


Individual Choices, Cooperation and the Global Commons: Mathematical Challenges in Uniting Ecology and Socioeconomics for a Sustainable Environment

We live in a Global Commons, in which the actions of individuals bear costs for society as a whole. The resources we extract for our own uses are no longer available to others, and the toxicants we discharge affect others. The result of this mismatch between individual actions and individual costs is evidenced in the depletion of common resources, the toxification of the environment, and even the frightening loss of effectiveness of the antibiotics that are so fundamental to public health. In the terminology of economists, conventional markets have failed to restrain our harmful activities, like overconsumption, because those markets do not adequately incorporate the social costs, the externalities. How can we resolve this situation, and develop patterns of social behavior that hold out greater hope for a sustainable future? What can we learn from evolutionary theory, and how can mathematical approaches improve our ability to devise strategies? Ecological and socioeconomic systems alike are complex adaptive systems, in which patterns at the macroscopic level emerge from interactions and selection mechanisms mediated at many levels of organization, from individual agents to collectives to whole systems and even above. Not only individuals, but societies and nations also, act in their own selfish interest, leading to problems for the biosphere as a whole. This lecture will explore mathematical challenges in dealing with such problems. In particular, it will address our understanding of how, and under what conditions, cooperation and altruism have arisen in the process of evolution; why social norms, including punishment, have arisen to reinforce socially beneficial behavior; and how those social norms can lead to inter-group conflicts. Attention will be addressed to the socioeconomic systems in which environmental management is based, and ask what lessons can be learned from our examination of natural systems, and how we can modify social norms to achieve global cooperation in managing our common future.


Crossing Scales: Evolutionary approaches to ecological interactions

There is a long history of mathematical research into the dynamics of populations, their ecological relationships, and their patterns of movement. There is a similarly rich literature in the dynamics of infectious diseases. In both cases, the bulk of the literature assumes particular relationships and asks what the consequences will be. But these relationships and the parameters that govern them have been shaped and continue to be shaped by evolution; this is, for example, why influenza A continues to be a scourge despite the fact that it confers lifetime immunity, why bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics, and why collective behavior exists in societies from bacteria to humans. In this lecture, I will elucidate some of these issues, and suggest mathematical approaches to addressing them.


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