2005Basic SciencesBiological Sciences (Evolution, Behavior, Ecology, Environment)
Simon Asher Levin photo

Simon Asher Levin

  • U.S.A. / April 22, 1941
  • Ecologist
  • Professor at Princeton University

Establishment of the field of spatial ecology and the proposition of the biosphere as a "complex adaptive system

Professor Levin developed diverse methods of analysis for the spatial aspects of population and ecosystem processes, and founded a field of "spatial ecology". He promoted the view that the biosphere is a "complex adaptive system", and made many fundamental contributions to biological conservation and ecosystem management.


Brief Biography

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.
Johns Hopkins University, B.A. (Mathematics)
University of Maryland, Ph.D. (Mathematics)
Assistant Professor, Cornell University
Associate Professor, Cornell University
Charles A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences, Cornell University
Director, Ecosystems Research Center, Cornell University
Director, Center for Environmental Research, Cornell University
George M. Moffett Professor of Biology, Princeton University
Director, Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University
Director, Center for Biocomplexity, Princeton University

Selected Awards and Honors

MacArthur Award, Ecological Society of America
Okubo Lifetime Achievement Award, Japanese Association for Mathematical Biology/Society for Mathematical Biology
A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Selected Works


Disturbance, patch formation, and community structure, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 71: 2744-47 (with Paine, R. T.)、1974.


The problem of pattern and scale in ecology, Ecology 73: 1943-1967、1992.


Mathematical and computational challenges in population biology and ecosystem science, Science 275: 334-343 (with Grenfell, B. T., Hastings, A. and Perelson, A. S.)、1997.


Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Perseus Books Group, Reading, MA., 1999.


Strategic interactions in multi-institutional epidemics of antibiotic resistance, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 102: 3153-3158 (Smith, D. L. , Levin, S. A. and Laxminarayan, R.)、2005.


Establishment of the field of spatial ecology and the proposition of the biosphere as a "complex adaptive system

A vast number of species live on Earth. In ecology we regard them as parts of a larger system called an ecosystem or the biosphere and analyze fluctuations in their population size, biomass, and material flows. Species however, have diverse life history patterns adapted to their own environments. They engage in interactions such as competition, cooperation, predation, parasitism, or symbiosis with other species and often modify their physical environment. These ecological processes show a range of spatial and temporal patterns occurring on different spatial, temporal, and organizational scales. To properly understand the functioning of an ecosystem or the biosphere, we need to consider different dynamics at vastly different scales and the relationship between different scales. This is the concept of “the biosphere as a complex adaptive system” promoted by Professor Levin.

Professor Levin emphasized the importance of spatial heterogeneity of the environment and the spatial patterns of population and ecosystem processes. In 1974 Professor Levin, with Dr. R. Paine, proposed the “patch dynamics model” which later became the basis of many current ecological models for marine and terrestrial ecosystems. He also demonstrated that high species diversity of competitors, as observed for example in rocky intertidal communities or in tropical rain forests, can be maintained by recurrent disturbances. Since these early achievements, Professor Levin developed numerous analytical methods to understand different aspects of spatial patterns and founded the field of “spatial ecology”.

Professor Levin pointed out that ecosystems and the biosphere are not super-organisms as previously suggested but complex adaptive systems with their apparent regularity emerging from self-organization processes. From this perspective Professor Levin proposed many methods in biological conservation and ecosystem management, making fundamental contributions to environmental science.

In his book “Fragile Dominion” published in 1999 and aimed at the general reader, Professor Levin comprehensively surveyed his outstanding research findings without any mathematical formula. In this book he discussed the future of the Earth’s biosphere based on his concept of the biosphere as a complex adaptive system. His profound philosophy calls for additional thought and courage to cope with many difficult environmental problems we face. From that perspective, his contribution to ecology and environmental science is extremely important.

For these reasons, the Inamori Foundation is pleased to present the 2005 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences to Professor Simon Asher Levin.


Abstract of the Lecture

Building on Strengths and Finding One's Purpose

One enjoys what one does, when one does what one enjoys. This principle has guided my own life, and is central to the way I mentor students. I encourage them to find problems about which they are passionate to be guided by their own convictions, and not by what others think they should do. I suggest problems to students, but I do not assign them. I believe that if students work on my problems, their work will be uninspired, and their contributions minimal. If they work on their own problems, they have the potential to achieve results others could not have envisioned, and that can change disciplines. I have tried to follow this principle in my own career choices, though at times some of the pursuits seemed quixotic.

I was always driven by two, apparently conflicting motivating forces; being able to combine them created synergisms that allowed me to do what I enjoyed, to enjoy what I did, and to be productive in addressing problems I felt were central to bettering society. I loved puzzles, and still do, and was entranced by the power, beauty and abstraction of mathematics. But I also felt a passion to channel my efforts for the betterment of society, in particular regarding the fragile nature of our environment, and the insults upon it from our own activities. Uniting mathematics and biology, in particular ecology and evolution, was a natural goal, but a relatively novel enterprise 40 years ago. This lecture will trace the interlocking development of my own interests, and of mathematical biology, which is by now a rich area of research, of great attractiveness to bright young researchers. I will also discuss some of the great challenges facing us, and my current passions: building strength throughout the world in these areas, especially in the developing nations at most risk from environmental change; building interdisciplinary partnerships with economists and social scientists, as well as physical scientists; and addressing the roots of selfishness in regard to environmental uses, in order to find cooperative solutions to the sustainability of our common resources and heritage.

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Biosphere as a Complex Adaptive System

November 12, 2005
Kyoto International Conference Center
Coordinator and Moderator
Yoh Iwasa (Chairman, Kyoto Prize Selection Committee; Professor, Faculty of Sciences, Kyushu University)


Opening Address Toshitaka Hidaka
(Chairman, Kyoto Prize Committee; Director-General, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature)
Introduction to Laureate Yoh Iwasa
Laureate Lecture Simon Asher Levin (the Laureate in Basic Science)
"Learning to Live in a Global Commons: Socioeconomic Challenges for a Sustainable Environment"
Lecture Nanako Shigesada
(Professor, Faculty of Culture and Information Science, Doshisha University)
"Spatial Dynamics in Ecology"
Lecture Norio Yamamura
(Professor, Center for Ecological Research, Kyoto University)
"Evolution of Interspecific Interaction and Stability of Biological Community"
Lecture Akio Takenaka
(Team Leader, Biodiversity Conservation Research Project Group, National Institute for Environmental Studies)
"Patterns in Forest Ecosystems and Processes at the Tree Level"