Revisiting Burr and Northrop’s “The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life” (1935)

Abstract: Harold Saxton Burr was a biologist working throughout the 1930s–1950s on an important set of problems related to biological organization and the origin of complex living forms. He was a profound thinker, suggesting a complementary focus on field concepts in addition to the emphasis on particle models and integrating concepts from physics and philosophy in his work. He developed innovations in electrophysiological technique and used them to perform a wide experimental survey of bioelectricity in normal and pathological growth. Here, I briefly review his classic paper with philosopher F. S. C. Northrop, “The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life,” in the context of advances in this field over the last few decades. Based on recent progress, it is now clear that Burr was a prescient and visionary thinker. His main hypothesis, that bioelectric gradients serve as prepatterns guiding morphogenesis, has been confirmed using modern molecular physiology, as have his ideas about the place of cancer and the nervous system in the question of biological organization. With limited technology but deep insight, he derived insights that anticipated many modern discoveries. Even more importantly, Burr’s view of bioelectricity as a convenient entry point for rigorous investigation of the broader question of self-organizing properties of life highlights a frontier of inquiry that awaits today’s researchers. Burr and Northrop’s “The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life,” originally published in the Quarterly Review of Biology (10(3):322–333, 1935), is available as supplementary material in the online version of this essay.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see. —Arthur Schopenhauer

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