Rolf Sattler

Rolf Sattler, Ph.D., D.Sc. (h.c.), F.L.S., F.R.S.C., (born March 8, 1936) is a Canadian plant morphologist, biologist, philosopher, and educator. He is considered one of the most significant contributors to the field of plant morphology[1] and "one of the foremost plant morphologists in the world."[2] His contributions are not only empirical but involved also a revision of the most fundamental concepts, theories, and philosophical assumptions. He published the award-winning Organogenesis of Flowers (1973) and nearly a hundred scientific papers, mainly on plant morphology. As well he has contributed to many national and international symposia and also organized and chaired symposia at international congresses, edited the proceedings of two of them and published them as books.[3][4]

Besides Biophilosophy (1986), his philosophical contributions include articles on complementarity (perspectivism), process philosophy, the mandala principle, and the convergence of science and spirituality. Additional publications deal with holistic alternative medicine and healing ways of thinking such as fuzzy logic. Yin-Yang thinking (both/and logic), Buddhist and Jain logic.


Sattler was born in Göppingen, Germany. He studied botany, zoology, chemistry, philosophy and pedagogy in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and received his doctorate, with summa cum laude, in systematic botany from the University of Munich. As a postdoctoral fellow, he spent a year with Ludwig von Bertalanffy, one of the founders of general systems theory, at the University of Alberta in Canada. Subsequently, he worked for another year with Ernest M. Gifford and G. Ledyard Stebbins at the University of California. For 33 years, he was first assistant, then associate, and finally full professor in the departments of botany and biology of McGill University in Montreal. He became Emeritus Professor when he retired in 1997. Since retiring he has lived in Kingston, Ontario.

At McGill University he taught botany, biology, the history and philosophy of biology, and biology in relation to the human predicament. As a visiting professor at the University of Berlin in Germany he taught plant morphology and the philosophy of biology. At Cornell University, he was consultant in the Summer Institute on the Philosophy of Biology. And at Naropa Institute he taught a summer course on Modern Biology and Zen.

Sattler has lectured at many universities across the globe, including Harvard and the Universities of California, Paris, Berlin, Bonn, Heidelberg, Zurich, Delhi, Malaya, and Singapore.

As well as his research in plant morphology and the philosophy of biology, he has investigated the relation of science and spirituality and is keenly interested in holistic alternative medicine and healing thinking. He is also interested in developing a process language in which the verb, not the noun or pronoun, plays the primary role.

In 1995, he gave a talk on science and spirituality in a symposium at the 60th birthday celebrations of the Dalai Lama. There he discussed the relation between science and spirituality with special reference to life science.[5]

He enjoys laughing and practices Laughter Yoga and other forms of meditation such as mahamudra.

Plant morphology, science and philosophy

Sattler’s contributions to plant morphology include the empirical, conceptual, theoretical, and philosophical. Together with his coworkers he has contributed a wealth of empirical data on shoot and leaf development[6] and flower development.[7][8]

His empirical findings led him to revision fundamental concepts of comparative morphology. He emphasized that the concepts of homology and homeosis (replacement) should also include partial homology, partial homeosis, and quantitative homology.[9] These revisions led him to question the theoretical and philosophical foundations of comparative morphology. In contrast to mainstream morphology, which tends to be categorical, he provided evidence for a continuum morphology.[10][11] Together with Bernard Jeune, he demonstrated mathematically a continuum of plant forms that spans not only organ categories such as root, stem, and leaf, but also different hierarchical levels of organ systems, organs, and tissues.[12] Rutishauser and Isler regard him as one of the major contemporary proponents of continuum morphology (or Fuzzy Arberian Morphology: FAM).[13]

Furthermore, he developed a dynamic morphology or process morphology that supersedes the structure/process dualism inherent in almost all biological research.[14] According to process morphology, structures do not have process(es), they are process(es). He used principal component analysis and the concept of morphological distance to provide a dynamic approach to structure as process,[15] This approach has placed comparative morphology on a more objective plane[16]

The major focus of his philosophical contributions to plant morphology and our understanding of reality has been on process philosophy, integral philosophy, holism, contextualism, perspectivism, and complementarity. Besides hierarchy (holarchy), he underlines the importance of complementary perspectives such as holism as undivided wholeness, Yin-Yang, continuum and network views.[17] Besides Aristotelian either/or logic, he emphasizes the importance of fuzzy logic. He explores how either/or logic can lead to conflict and even war, whereas fuzzy logic and Yin-Yang thinking can be healing because they connect what either/or logic has torn apart.[18] Finally, he also emphasizes that beyond all perspectives is the unnamable source, emptiness (in the Buddhist sense), mystery, which is of ultimate importance for healing and total Being.[19]

Awards and honors

Sattler is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1974 he was awarded the Lawson Medal (the highest award of the Canadian Botanical Association) for his book Organogenesis of Flowers.

In 1995 he received an honorary doctorate (D.Sc.) from the Open International University at Colombo, Sri Lanka for his contributions to complementary alternative medicine.

A symposium was dedicated to him on the occasion of his retirement.[20]


  1. Vergara-Silva, F. 2003. Plants and the conceptual articulation of evolutionary developmental biology. Biology and Philosophy 18: 262-263
  2. Cavers, P. 1974. Rolf Sattler. The Canadian Botanical Association Bulletin 7(3): 5.
  3. Sattler, R. (ed.). 1978. Theoretical Plant Morphology. The Hague: Leiden University Press.
  4. Sattler, R. (ed.). 1982. Axioms and Principles of Plant Constructions. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff/Junk Publishers.
  5. Sattler, R. 1999. Divergence and convergence of sciences and spirituality: life science and spirituality. Holistic Science and Human Values, Transactions 4: 41-48.
  6. Lacroix, C.; Jeune, B.; Purcell-Macdonald, S. 2003. Shoot and compound leaf comparisons in eudicots: dynamic morphology as an alternative approach. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 143: 219-230.
  7. Greyson, R. I. 1994. Th Development of Flowers. New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Leins, P.; Erbar, C. 2010. Flower and Fruit. Stuttgart: Schweizerbart.
  9. Hall, B. K. (ed.) 1994. Homology: The hierarchical basis of comparative morphology. New York: Academic Press, pp. 15-16
  10. Cusset, G. 1982. The conceptual bases of plant morphology. Acta Biotheoretica 31A, p. 45.
  11. Rutishauser, R.; Moline, P. 2005. Evo-devo and the search for homology ("sameness") in biological systems. Theory in Biosciences 124: 213-241.
  12. Sattler, R. and B. Jeune. 1992. Multivariate analysis confirms the continuum view of plant form. Annals of Botany 69: 249-262
  13. Rutishauser, R. and Isler, B. 2001. Developmental genetics and morphological evolution of flowering plants, especially bladderworts (Utricularia): Fuzzy Arberian Morphology complements Classical Morphology. Annals of Botany Vol. 88, p. 1184)
  14. Kirchoff, B.K.; Pfeifer, E.; Rutishauser, R. 2008. Plant structure ontology: How should we label plant structures with doubtful or mixed identities? Zootaxa 1950: 103-122.
  15. Hall, B.K.(ed). 1994. Homology: The hierarchical basis of comparative biology. New York: Academic Press, pp. 15-16
  16. Greyson, R. I. 1994. The Development of Flowers. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 11
  17. Cuerrier, A. 1997. Rolf Sattler. Le novel esprit scientifique. Interface 18(6):16-21
  18. Rolf Sattler, Healing Thinking and Being
  19. Cusset, G. 1994. Le statut de la morphologie végétale. Canadian Journal of Botany" 72: 605-616.
  20. Plant Morphology – Theory and Practice. A Tribute to Rolf Sattler and his Work, Symposium of the Botanical Society of America, 1997

Bibliography (selected publications)


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