With the availability of quantitative data on the transcriptome and proteome level, there is an increasing interest in formal mathematical models of gene expression and regulation. International conferences, research institutes and research groups concerned with systems biology have appeared in recent years and systems theory, the study of organisation and behaviour per se, is indeed a natural conceptual framework for such a task. This is, however, not the first time that systems theory has been applied in modelling cellular processes. Notably in the 1960s systems theory and biology enjoyed considerable interest among eminent scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Why did these early attempts vanish from research agendas? Here we shall review the domain of systems theory, its application to biology and the lessons that can be learned from the work of Robert Rosen. Rosen emerged from the early developments in the 1960s as a main critic but also developed a new alternative perspective to living systems, a concept that deserves a fresh look in the post-genome era of bioinformatics.