The Principles of Life

With commentary by James Griesemer & Eörs Szathmáry

(Oxford University Press, 2003)

“Professor Gánti describes in accessible language his chief insight about the organization of living systems in this new presentation of his theory of the chemical automaton. The simplest, so-called ‘chemoton’ model of life consists of three coupled subsystems: an autocatalytic metabolism, a genetic molecule and a membrane. Gánti’s chemical perspective captures the fundamentally cyclic organization of the living state, offers a fresh approach to the ancient problem of ‘life criteria’, and articulates a philosophy of the units of life applicable to genetics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, and ‘exact theoretical biology’.

New essays by Eörs Szathmáry and James Griesemer on the biological and philosophical significance of Gánti’s work indicate its enduring theoretical significance, continuing relevance and heuristic power. New notes throughout the text bring this legacy into dialogue with current thoughts in biology and philosophy.”

„Organization of the book

This book is organized into five chapters. The first is a new essay by Professor Gánti, ‘Levels of life and death’, which introduces the reader to some of the concepts central to his main argument as well as illustrating how the core problem of the nature of the living state applies at many levels of life.

The second chapter, ‘The nature of life’, is a revised version of the second part (‘solutions’) of Gánti’s book Contra Crick, or The Essence of Life, published in Hungarian in 1989. Responding to Crick’s ‘panspermia’ hypothesis in his book Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1981), which attributes the chemical origin of life on Earth to innoculations of organic molecules from space, Gánti offers a set of reflections on the parameters of the problems to be solved in both origins of life research and, more broadly, in the search for principles governing the living state in general.

While it may well be true that life on Earth began by innoculation from space, the problem of the chemical conditions for the origin of the living state are not solved by pointing to the place of origin. Gánti’s meditations help to reorganize the problems in terms of his chemical way of thoughts. This is useful in light of the fact that the informational paradigm in molecular biology heralding from Crick’s works with Watson, as well as his development of the ‘central dogma’ of molecular genetics is something to be explained, not presupposed by a theory of the origin of life or the principles by which the living state is to be recognized. Thus, in this chapter, the reader is introduced to the chemoton, to cycle stoichiometry, and to a chemical way of thoughts that transcends whatever chemical model of the moment may be directing (or misdirecting) our attention to fundamental principles.

The third chapter, ‘The unitary theory of life’, comprises the majority of the much revised 6th edition (1987) of Gánti’s book The Principle of Life (published in Hungarian in 1971). We owe a debt of gratitude to L. Vekerdi, who translated Gánti’s Principle into English for the first time (as well as to Erzsébet Czárán for translating Contra Crick and Viktor Müller for translating the Introduction into English). In this chapter Gánti develops his theory of the chemoton in accessible language and without all the technical details of chemical kinetics. Central to this is an account of ‘life criteria’ which builds as the reflections in chapter 2. The life criteria serve to articulate a basic philosophy of units of life which encompasses everything that philosophers have discussed under the restricted heading of ‘units of selection’. He then extends and applies the theory of these fundamental units to considerations of conventional ways of organizing discussion of life principles, such as genetics, chemical synthesis, and the requirements of what he calls ‘exact theoretical biology’ generally.

Chapters 4 and 5 are essays by Eörs Szathmáry and James Griesemer on the biological and philosophical significance, respectively, of Gánti’s works. In these essays we try to indicate not only how Gánti’s work has proved significant to us personally, but why we think it has continuing relevance and heuristic power for theoretical biology. Finally, we include comments by each of us on Gánti’s contributions throughout the book, bringing his work into relation with current literature in biology and philosophy. Comments by Eörs Szathmáry are identified by the prefix S and those by James Griesemer by the prefix G."

Eörs Szathmáry

James Griesemer