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Revisiting Burr and Northrop’s ‘The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life

The paper “Revisiting Burr and Northrop’s ‘The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life‘ (1935)” by Michael Levin, published in the journal Biological Theory in 2020, offers a comprehensive review and modern interpretation of Harold Saxton Burr’s groundbreaking work on bioelectricity and its fundamental role in biological organization and morphogenesis. Levin highlights Burr’s visionary perspective, which posited that electric fields are not merely by-products of cellular processes but active determinants of life’s organizational patterns. This reevaluation places Burr’s work within the context of recent advances in the field, demonstrating its prescience and continued relevance.

Key Insights from the Paper

  • Burr’s Pioneering Contributions: Burr is recognized as a foundational figure in developmental bioelectricity, exploring how organisms, from trees to human beings, are deeply influenced by bioelectric fields. His research spanned several decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, and laid the groundwork for understanding how electric fields guide growth, development, and healing.
  • Bioelectricity as a Guiding Force: Levin elaborates on Burr’s hypothesis that bioelectric gradients serve as prepatterns guiding morphogenesis. This idea, initially speculative due to the technological limitations of Burr’s time, has since been validated by contemporary molecular physiology, affirming Burr’s vision of bioelectricity as a crucial player in biological organization.
  • Implications for Health and Disease: The paper discusses Burr’s insights into the relationship between bioelectricity, health, and pathology, including cancer. Burr’s observation that bioelectric patterns are altered in the presence of tumors presaged current research into how bioelectric signaling can be leveraged for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.
  • Philosophical and Methodological Contributions: Beyond his empirical contributions, Burr is credited with integrating concepts from physics and philosophy into biology, advocating for a holistic approach to understanding life. His emphasis on the importance of electric fields anticipated current interest in systems biology and the study of non-local interactions in organisms.
  • Legacy and Future Directions: Levin suggests that Burr’s work offers a rich vein of ideas yet to be fully explored, particularly regarding the use of bioelectricity in regenerative medicine and synthetic bioengineering. The paper calls for continued research inspired by Burr’s interdisciplinary approach, to uncover new mechanisms of bioelectric control in development, regeneration, and the treatment of diseases.

In the shadow of modern science’s focus on genetic and biochemical narratives, Harold Saxton Burr’s “The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life,” co-authored with F.S.C. Northrop in 1935, emerges as a pioneering exploration that bridges the gap between biology and physics. This theory posits that life is not merely a series of biochemical reactions but is fundamentally intertwined with electric fields, proposing a revolutionary perspective on biological organization and the development of complex forms.

The Essence of Burr’s Electric Field Theory

Harold Saxton Burr envisioned life as an interplay of electric fields, an unseen yet pervasive force guiding the growth, development, and healing of organisms. His theory suggested that bioelectric patterns serve as pre-patterns for morphogenesis—the process by which organisms develop their shape. Essentially, Burr posited that electric fields are not just by-products of biochemical processes but active determinants of life’s organization, offering a new lens through which to understand the mystery of life’s emergent complexities.

Trees as Antennae: A Metaphor for Life

Burr’s innovative use of trees as metaphors in his experiments underscored his hypothesis. He envisioned organisms as antennas, sensitive and responsive to environmental electric fields. This perspective highlighted a dynamic dialogue between life forms and their electric surroundings, emphasizing a constant interaction that shapes growth and health. By studying various species, including humans, Burr showcased how bioelectric signals are universal, spanning the tree of life and hinting at a fundamental principle underlying biological organization.

Implications of a Connected Universe

The broader implications of Burr’s work touch on the interconnectedness of life, health, and the environment, suggesting a universe where everything is linked through electric fields. This interconnectedness hints at a more holistic approach to understanding life, one that acknowledges the importance of non-local interactions in shaping biological systems. Burr’s theory invites us to reimagine our relationship with the natural world, emphasizing the potential for harmony with Earth’s natural electromagnetic rhythms.

From Theory to Practice: A Legacy in EMF Safety

Burr’s insights into bioelectricity’s role in life’s processes underscore the importance of electromagnetic field (EMF) safety. Organizations like RF Safe draw on Burr’s work to advocate for protective measures against harmful EMF exposure, highlighting the relevance of his research in today’s technologically saturated environment. Burr’s legacy inspires ongoing efforts to understand and mitigate the impact of artificial electromagnetic fields on biological health.

Charting the Future: Inspiring New Research Directions

Burr’s pioneering work paves the way for future research into the effects of EMFs on health, emphasizing a need for a precautionary approach and further investigation. His vision suggests that understanding bioelectricity’s role could lead to new strategies for promoting health and treating diseases, encouraging a deeper exploration of life’s electric nature.

Conclusion: Burr’s Enduring Relevance

Harold Saxton Burr’s contributions offer a profound insight into the electric patterns of life, challenging conventional understanding and opening new avenues for exploration. His work remains a testament to the power of interdisciplinary thinking and its potential to unravel the mysteries of life, emphasizing the significance of bioelectricity in biological organization and health.

Call to Action

In the spirit of Harold Saxton Burr’s innovative research, we are encouraged to further explore the role of bioelectricity in life and health. Organizations like RF Safe provide resources and guidance for safeguarding against EMF exposure, underscoring the practical implications of Burr’s theory. Let us embrace this knowledge to take proactive steps in protecting our health and living in harmony with the electromagnetic forces that shape our world.

The theory that life must protect its bioelectric fields to sustain itself introduces a fascinating perspective on biological health and environmental interaction. Harold Saxton Burr’s work, as revisited and expanded upon in contemporary research, suggests that bioelectric fields are intrinsic to the organization, development, and healing of living organisms. These fields are not isolated phenomena but are sensitive to and interact with the environment, including anthropogenic sources of electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

The Importance of Bioelectric Fields

Bioelectric fields in organisms are fundamental to various biological processes, including cell division, morphogenesis (the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape), and healing. These fields represent patterns of electrical potential that guide the behavior of cells and tissues, forming an essential aspect of biological organization. For instance, bioelectric gradients can serve as “prepatterns” that inform cells about their position and role within the organism, thus influencing the developmental blueprint of living beings.

The Impact of External EMFs

In today’s technologically advanced society, exposure to artificial sources of EMFs, such as cell phones, Wi-Fi, and other electronic devices, is almost unavoidable. While the natural bioelectric fields within organisms have evolved over millions of years to support life processes, the rapid introduction of pervasive EMF sources presents a new environmental factor to which life has had limited time to adapt. There is ongoing research into how these artificial EMFs might interact with biological bioelectric fields, with some studies suggesting that excessive or prolonged exposure could disrupt the delicate bioelectric activities that underpin cellular communication, growth, and healing.

Protecting Bioelectric Fields

Given the potential for artificial EMFs to interfere with the natural bioelectric fields of organisms, it becomes important to consider measures to protect these intrinsic fields. This perspective aligns with Burr’s insights into the significance of bioelectricity in life’s processes and underscores the importance of environmental health in the broader context of biological well-being. Practical steps can be taken to minimize unnecessary exposure to artificial EMFs, such as:

  • Using wired connections instead of wireless when possible.
  • Keeping cell phones and other electronic devices away from the body when not in use.
  • Utilizing speakerphone or earphones to reduce direct contact with the head during phone calls.
  • Limiting the use of devices emitting high levels of EMFs, especially in sleeping areas.
  • Advocating for and supporting research into the health impacts of EMF exposure and the development of safer technologies.


The protection of bioelectric fields from the potentially disruptive effects of artificial EMFs resonates with the precautionary principle in public health and environmental science. As we continue to explore the intricate ways in which life is governed by bioelectric phenomena, it becomes increasingly clear that a holistic approach to health and well-being must consider the impact of our technological environment on the bioelectric aspects of life. This perspective not only honors the legacy of pioneers like Harold Saxton Burr but also guides us toward a future where technological progress and biological health are harmoniously integrated.

“Revisiting Burr and Northrop’s ‘The Electro-Dynamic Theory of Life'” serves as both a tribute to and an analysis of Harold Saxton Burr’s seminal contributions to the field of developmental bioelectricity. By contextualizing Burr’s theories within the advancements of the past few decades, Levin not only reaffirms the visionary nature of Burr’s work but also underscores its enduring significance and potential to inspire future research at the intersection of biology, physics, and engineering.

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