Finite Universe of Discourse: The Systems Biology of Walter Elsasser (1904-1991)

Derek Gatherer*
Medical Research Council Virology Unit, Institute of Virology, Church Street, Glasgow, G11 5JR, UK.

© 2008 Gatherer et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Medical Research Council Virology Unit, Institute of Virology, Church Street, Glasgow, G11 5JR, UK; E-mail:


Walter Elsasser (1904-1991), an eminent quantum physicist and geophysicist, was also active in theoretical biology over a 35-year period from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. Although increasingly estranged from the biological establishment during the last fifteen years of his life, Elsasser’s central concern with complexity has resulted in a revival of interest in his theories over the last decade, particularly among those who see biology from a systems holist rather than a molecular reductionist viewpoint. This article reviews the development of Elsasser’s thought from his early opposition to genetic determinism, through the radical epistemology of his middle period, to his later more broadly philosophical ideas. After a summary of existing responses to Elsasser in the literature, a fresh critique and assessment of his work is presented, with particular attention to the implications for systems biology. It is concluded that although Elsasser drew some conclusions from his epistemology that are not justifiable in the light of subsequent research, his insistence on the existence of biotonic phenomena in biology, irreducible (either at present, or in principle) to physics, is correct. Ironically, the most significant biotonic principle is one which Elsasser largely ignored in his own work, that of Natural Selection.