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Agency & evolution

The article on biological agency described how real biological agency has been treated by both philosophers and scientists as a creation of human minds, mostly because it has been described using the minded language of human agency. The minded language of human-talk, when interpreted through the literary device of cognitive metaphor, implies that the unreal attribution of minds to mindless organisms (the metaphor) brings with it the mistaken logical inference that mindless organisms also lack agency.

When viewed objectively, it makes more scientific sense to regard human agency as an evolutionarily specialized and minded form of biological agency – the ultimate propensity of all life to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

This long philosophical debate, and the abstract nature of agency has left many questions unanswered.

This article looks more closely at the distinction between biological and human agency, and a way of representing the evolution of agency from mindless to minded forms.

Evolution

The theory of evolution explains how all living organisms are physically connected to one-another, no matter how distant that physical connection might be. Descent by modification from a common ancestor explains how, in spite of the vast range of biodiversity we see in the community of life, all organisms still have some features in common, with closely related organisms sharing more features than those that are distantly related.

To establish and analyze evolutionary relationships – to place any object within an evolutionary context – we must know not only those features that uniquely define the object under investigation, but also those characteristics that it shares with its relatives.

Assuming that biological agency is real then a description of the evolutionary relationship between biological agency and human agency will require not only a knowledge of those agential features that uniquely define human intention, but also those agential features that are shared with mindless organisms.

Unique & shared characters

Establishing the evolutionary context of any organism, structure, process, behaviour, or concept, requires two sets of characters: those that it shares with its evolutionary relatives (grounding characteristics that establish evolutionary connection), and those that are unique (that uniquely identify and define the item under investigation), sometimes called derived or emergent characteristics.[1]

Just as different physical structures (e.g. the fins of whales and wings of bats) may appear very different but share the grounding characteristics of their evolutionary history (both have the ground-plan of a pentadactyl limb), so unique mental concepts (minded intentions) share mind-like grounding characteristics with their evolutionary mental antecedents (the mindless but mind-like goals or ‘intentions’ of biological agency).

These mind-like characteristics simply express the real evolutionary continuity and physical connection that exists between the mind-like and the minded. Concepts that are uniquely minded are, as it were, a subset or specialized development of the universal and grounding agential characteristics of biological agency: the minded has a mindless (but mind-like) grounding component. Also, recall that human agency does not consist only of conscious intentions, we express many mindless and unconscious agential characteristics.

This point is laboured here because the logical difference implied by the distinction between ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ seems so logically transparent and impregnable that, over the years, it has swept aside all possibility of miscegenation that might exist in biology itself – in the world. It has ignored or denied the existence of biological agency as an evolutionary grade between the mindlessness of inanimate matter and the mindedness of human intention.

Starting with an understanding of biological agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of the biological axiom, and human agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of conscious intention, scientific clarification begins by recognizing that the minded goals of human agency are not separate from, but particular instances of (extensions or developments of) the more general and mostly mindless goals of biological agency. That the unique and emergent goals of minded conscious intention are grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency.

The conflation of meaning that makes up our intuitive understanding of the concepts ‘agency’ and ‘mind’ is best explained in evolutionary terms, whereby uniquely derived characteristics (such as minds and mental concepts) share ancestral characteristics.

Bodies expressing biological agency evolved into bodies expressing biological agency in a minded form.

Principle – concepts of biological and human agencies are not mutually exclusive in the way that organisms with minds are different from those without minds. Concepts of human agency are grounded in (share similarities with) concepts of biological agency

From biological agency to human agency

When we assume that agency is mind-dependent we study its evolution by confining our attention to the evolution of human cognitive faculties. So, we examine the brains of ancestral primates, the evolutionary changes in brain structures that are revealed by the fossil record, the integration of neuronal networks, and so on, as they relate to contemporary human brains.

But if agency is more widely dispersed across the biological world, then we can explore the in-principle evolutionary changes that must have occurred as biological agency emerged from inanimate matter, sentience emerged from insentient matter, self-conscious minds emerged from sentient ones, and how, subsequently, powerful collective agency was liberated when individual human agencies were connected by the cultural development of sociality and the invention of symbolic languages.

This evolutionary development of agency from inanimate matter to culturally integrated minds can be usefully divided into five phases as biological matter increased in complexity. This is not a description of linear evolutionary development, but of the agential organization of organic matter considered in relation to mind – and it is essentially the same as that devised by Aristotle over 2000 years ago.

What we call ‘agency’, Aristotle called ‘soul’ –  as the totality of activities of an organism – the functional organization that gives every organism its unity of purpose.

One feature of Aristotle’s classification was that it treated novelty not as unique and all-embracing, but as building on an already existing foundation.

Hylomorphism

A modern formulation of Aristotle’s depiction of the soul (agency) might look something like the list below:

1. Inanimate & mindless – e.g. rock

2. Mindless but agential – e.g. plant

3. Minded, agential, & sentient – conscious, can feel pleasure and pain, but without symbolic languages & reason – e.g. domestic animals.

4. Minded, agential, sentient, reasoning – can reason and use symbolic communication: the mental influence on behaviour is both conscious and unconscious – e.g. individual humans

5. Cultural – collectively agreed implementation of social norms facilitated by the use of symbolic systems – e.g. moral and behavioural codes, ideologies, religions, science, laws etc.

Today we think of evolution in terms of the multitude of organic forms that make up the many branches of the vast tree that is the community of life. We know much more than Aristotle about the internal and external factors that are at play when we consider the organism-environment continuum and the evolution of one biological kind from another. But Aristotle was not giving us an account of physical evolution, he was describing the nature of agency across the living world – and in this he displayed his usual remarkable insight.

A brief look at each of these modes of agency gives us some insight into their evolutionary connections.

Inanimate mindlessness

The lifeless world of physical matter is not absolutely agentially inert. The universe is not a place of randomicity and chaos. Physics investigates the order of lifeless matter and it finds that order in physical constants – the laws of the universe. Knowing the behaviour of matter enables us to move from cause to effect, and even predict the future of the universe.

What this means is that we see in inorganic matter the whisper of agency as orientation or ‘direction’. Prediction is primordial purpose, implying both the existence of, and our understanding of, ‘ends’.

This feeble directionality and its hint of agency takes a quantum leap when we consider the goal-directed unity of purpose expressed by each and every living organism.

Mindless agency

As humans we naturally hold dear our own position within the scheme of things, especially our conscious capacity for self-reflection, reason, abstract thought, language, and sociality. But, in biological terms, this is just a form of anthropocentrism since mindedness, though powerful, is but one (albeit special and powerful) manifestation of biological agency.

The goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms is an objective fact.[41]  It is this behaviour that is the source of the objective (mind-independent), universal and ultimate goals (see biological axiom below) referred to here as biological agency. These emergent properties of living organisms arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way; they are the properties that distinguish the living from the inanimate and dead. Since these mind-independent goals and agency preceded people in evolutionary time, they must therefore have existed in a mindless form prior to the arrival of humans on planet Earth. And, as these three goals are general and universal rather than specific, they more closely resemble what, in human-talk, we would refer to as ‘values’ rather than goals (goal = achievable target, value = aspiration), and are therefore referred to on this web site as biological values.

The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms are unified (can be summarized) in the unified, universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish – referred to here as the biological axiom – sometimes expressed in more abstract terms as ‘fitness maximization’.

The biological values (generalized goals) of the biological axiom are universal because they are expressed by all living organisms. They are ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals. They are objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact.

It is typically organisms[43] that express the autonomous agential unity of purpose needed to express biological agency and values.

As open and dynamic agential systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. In the short-term (one generation) this behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) all organisms, as products of natural selection, display species-specific adaptive design and the potential to evolve new forms when heritable variation, transmitted to phenotypes via the chemical DNA, is subject to environmental selection.

We are more closely connected to nature than many of us care to admit. In the wonder we feel for the miracle of our conscious awareness and the rational faculty that has helped our species dominate planet Earth, we can underestimate the mindless ‘purposiveness, creative imagination, and rationality‘ that exists, by degree, in mindless nature. We feel that our minds transcend the meaninglessness, and purposelessness that is mindlessness. But it was this mindless nature that gave us (that created) our brains, consciousness, and reason. This is agency that cannot be ignored.

The facility with which we move from human intention to biological agency in our thinking patterns and language should signal to us the possibility of their close connection in reality. This is hardly surprising when we realize that the unique properties of minded human intentionality evolved out of the universally shared biological properties of mindless biological agency.

Humans, perched at the tip of one branch of the evolutionary tree of life, have minded agential properties that emerged from the more general and shared mindless properties of the biological agency that pervades the entire community of life.

Minded agency

In recent times we see our coming-to-terms with nature existing in a graduated form by our acceptance of both the idea that humans are animals, and that the momentous evolutionary step, the emergence of awareness, of consciousness, is a property that is not unique to humans, it exists in nature by degree.

Since human minded agency evolved out of mindless biological agency it shares many of its characteristics. That is, biological (mostly mindless) agency and human (minded) agency are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

Mindless agency in minded organisms
There is much mindless and unconscious biological agency at work in minded bodies.

The additive aspect of evolution is manifested in the way that minded organisms, just like their mindless ancestors, display the mindless but purposeful processes of physiology and metabolism. Thus, paradoxically, minded organisms display mindless agency. Almost every structure, process and behaviour of our bodies is structured to achieve mindless goals of various kinds.

Unconscious agency in minded organisms
But our minds are themselves are subject to kinds of agency about which we are unaware. The presence of minds does not mean that agency is always a consequence of rational deliberation. Much of our behaviour is motivated by unconscious needs and desires – the intuitive or instinctive responses over which we have little or no control. There are the non-rational responses that are part of our moral psychology, many of which are the reasons for the suppressive aspect of collective codes of behaviour. The perception of humans uniquely guided by reason accounts for just one aspect of human agency.

It is only since the advent of Darwin‘s theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor that it has been possible to provide such an account of agential intergrading. Special Creation, human souls, the emphasis on reason, and the exclusive attribution of agency to humans – all these cultural influences have placed humanity above and beyond nature.

Cultural agency

It is easy to emphasize individual behaviour and forget the powerful agency that can be henerated by collective action. We have only to consider the influence on our behaviour of parents, education, and community, as well as religion, political and other ideologies, to realize the extent to which cultural norms determine our behaviour.

The accumulation of knowledge and cultural tradition is made possible by communication using symbolic languages that permit the storage of information – in spoken, written, printed, and electronic forms. These are powerful collective cognitive tools that are unavailable to the cognitively challenged.

Grounding of human agential concepts

We are more closely connected to nature than many of us care to admit. In the wonder we feel for the miracle of our conscious awareness and the rational faculty that has helped our species dominate planet Earth, we can underestimate the mindless ‘purposiveness, creative imagination, and rationality’ that exists, by degree, in mindless nature. It was this mindless nature that gave us (that created) our brains, consciousness, and reason – the tools that allow us to make such judgements.

The facility with which we move from human intention to biological agency in our thinking patterns and language should signal to us the possibility of their close connection in reality. This is hardly surprising when we realize that the unique properties of minded human intentionality evolved out of the universally shared biological properties of mindless biological agency.

Aristotle’s description of humans as rational animals and religion‘s singling out of humanity as qualitatively different from the rest of Creation has echoed down the millennia and mitigated strongly against a thorough examination of the agential properties that humans share with other organisms.

Our emphasis on the unique and special character of human reason and agency is, in biological terms, an overemphasis. We have ignored the fact that organisms, unlike rocks, are ‘competent without comprehension‘ (Dan Dennett), that they can be ‘for without foresight‘ (Roger Spencer), and that they express ‘knowledge without knowing‘ (David Deutsch).[30] The self-evidence of these alliterative insights remind us of the agency that exists in the space between our own conscious and minded intentions and the agential desert that is inanimate matter.

More importantly, such likenesses seem to apply across much of our intentional discourse.  We don’t have to look far to see ‘memory without remembering‘, ‘normativity without morality‘, and so on. Using the medium of human-talk we can assert that in all organisms the genome brings a physical ‘memory’ to the present. Natural selection then adds ‘reason’ as a process of ‘self-correction’ or ‘adaptation’ which is the ability to ‘learn’ from past mistakes in a mindless form of ‘anticipation’ . . . the capacity for ‘foresight’. We use the medium of human-talk (anthropomorphism) to express these real  (evolutionarily grounded) similarities between pre-minded characteristics and their minded counterparts – but our anthropocentrism tempts us to restrict agency to human mental activity (and the language of human intentional psychology) even though we intuitively recognize and acknowledge (by using human-talk) the real connection between all these mindless properties and their minded equivalents . . . that nature manifests real mindless purpose and agency.

Humans, perched at the tip of one branch of the evolutionary tree of life, have agential properties that emerge from those exhibited by the entire community of life. The likenesses being compared in these sentences, the connections between human and organismic agential relata, remind us that from the perspective of agency, organisms with minds and organisms without minds have much in common and, more importantly, this likeness is not an arbitrary and metaphorical ‘as if’ likeness but a likeness grounded in the physical reality of evolutionary history.

Without a technical vocabulary to describe the agential evolutionary antecedents of human cognitive faculties biological agency has been absorbed by (conflated with) the language of human intentional psychology, then treated as cognitive metaphor.

Human agency

Human agency is a specialized (minded) form of biological agency.

At present it is conventional to treat the language of ‘wants’, ‘strategies’, ‘preferences’ etc. as uniquely minded human faculties, the products of conscious brains.But the human-talk (anthropomorphism) currently interpreted as inappropriate cognitive metaphor can now be understood as a way of communicating the characteristics of universal biological agency by misleadingly using the minded language of human intentional psychology in relation to non-human organisms.

The existence of life presupposes at least survival and reproduction as core properties of biological agency that emerged from the universe as the necessary preconditions for agential life. These properties remain constant in all organisms (biological axiom) while the form of their expression varies with the multiplicity of organismic structures, processes, and behaviours we encounter in the community of life.

Agency in individual humans

Brains evolved in a graduated evolutionary way and, just as we now know that consciousness exists in a graduated form, so it is possible to see in nature the graduated antecedents of the minded agential behaviour. So, what are the characters that uniquely define human agency, and what are the characters that are shared with other organisms?

When we look at the evolution of physical structures and agency we see that their gradation can take on an additive or modular character. Just as the underlying structure of the pentadactyl limb is manifest in diverse ways so new and uniquely derived features of brains and agency do not totally transform what was previously present. Instead, though they can take very different forms, they can builds on what was there before in an additive process of progressive inclusion.

Shared properties of biological agency

A simple (but now contentious) model of the human brain divides it into three parts:

Reptilian or primal brain – (brainstem, the medulla, and the cerebellum) is associated with instincts – survival, including territoriality and the self-preservation of feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction.

Mammalian brain – (limbic system including hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, limbic cortex) emotions and feelings – including social and nurturing behavior, reciprocity

Primate brain (the neocortex) – logical and abstract thinking, thoughts, memory, cognition, language, sense perception, spatial reasoning.

This heuristic presents us with a brain that did not evolve by reconfiguring its structure in its entirety. Rather, new structures evolved on top of pre-existing evolutionarily antecedent ones.

Aristotle understood agency in nature this way (see diagram) and it provides us with a way of understanding that biological and human agencies are not mutually exclusive; that the presence of ancient elements of biological agency exist within human agency.

The following agency heuristic applies to agency as it evolved in biology across the community of life and as it is represented in human agency. In humans it is a whole-of-body agency not just the agency manifest by our cognitive faculties.

Mindless – automatic and mechanical, but regulated and goal-directed, physiological responses – in humans sweating and vomiting

Minded unconscious – instinctive or intuitive responses of minded conscious and sentient organisms – in humans, behaviours like phobias etc.

Minded & conscious – individual deliberation (use of individual reason), self-awareness, abstract thought

Cultural – advanced sociality (influence of parents, peers, schooling, culture etc.), use of symbolic communication

Human mindlessness

Humans have minds so how can they behave in a mindless way?

When we think of human agency as building on the biological agency that is expressed in every aspect of a living organism then it is easy to see how the infinite number of physiological and biochemical regulatory processes that assist in the maintenance of an organisms’s unity of purpose (biological axiom) contribute in a mindless way to that organisms’s existence – whether or not it has a mind. 

Unique properties of human agency

We assess agency in others – whether animals or plants, minded or mindless – by observing their behaviour. But as animals capable of introspection, we humans can look at our own agency and try to describe it as best we can. How can we describe our sense of being an agent?

Can we categorize or divide up in some way the mental aspects of our agency? If we constructed a lexicon of intentional words, would they fall naturally under a few headings? Can we sense, intuitively, the mental forces that drive our behaviour?

If such characteristics are to be found then it seems reasonable to view them as grounding our agency and in this way connecting our agency to that of other organisms.

Though any such taxonomy is contentious, from ancient times it has been evident that we can discern two major mental attributes influencing our decision-making and behaviour. We know this because they are frequently in conflict. Firstly, there are the reactions of impulse, emotion, and intuition which, for simplicity, might fall under the heading of ‘value’. But, as Aristotle noted, this potential influence on our behaviour is frequently subjected the beam of reason.

If we follow the sociologists view of human agency as the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world, then it seems hardly contentious to claim that these choices and are guided by the twin influences of value and reason.

Both value and reason assume the presence of knowledge. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has recently defined rationality as ‘The ability to use knowledge to attain goals’.

The individuation of value and reason is supported by vocabularies that appear to fall under each heading, and the way that these two mental properties can be in conflict. Knowledge has less intuitive appeal but, if we define reason as the ability to use knowledge to attain goals, then value is the other side of the same coin. Human goals clearly depend as much on values as they do on reason.
The assumption, then, is that these three characteristics of intentionality – value, reason, and knowledge – have some foundation in reality. If human agency evolved (emerged) out of biological agency then we might expect to find shared characteristics that are part of the grounding biological substrate?

Minded agential concepts

If we regard human agency as a development of biological agency (sharing many of its properties) rather than being an independent minded phenomenon, then how are we to understand minded concepts like knowledge and value? Can concepts like these be understood by degree in the same way that we think of agency as existing by degree?

In practice, we will of course tend to think of these words in minded contexts, but scientifically we can avoid anthropocentrism by examining them from the perspective of biological agency, not human agency. That is, we can extend their semantic range to include their mindless, unconscious, conscious, and cultural forms.

Value, reason, & knowledge

There was a time in the evolution of organisms when eyes, brains, and legs first evolved and a factual development of their structure, properties, and relations in time.

The properties of agency include knowledge, evaluation, and reason, locked into an organism that is driven to survive, reproduce and flourish. Once these agential properties were present then evolution would begin its exploration of their physical manifestation.

The evolutionary ‘direction’ was promoted by reasons in nature that had ‘beneficiaries’ (with circumstances that promoted the conditions of the biological axiom). The capacity of life to constrain its internal and external circumstances, to direct outcomes, constitutes pre-conscious evaluation. Then, pre-conscious reason in nature can be recognized as the inherent capacity for ‘self-correction’. This is most obvious in the logic of the process of adaptation under natural selection. These precursor purposes, values and reason that emerged at the dawn of life, existed unconsciously in nature long before humanity evolved, even though only humans (as highly evolved purpose-, value-, and reason-representers) are now aware of them.

It is important to distinguish between the faculty of reason and reasons themselves while also recognizing that reasons can exist independently of human minds. There are reasons why the moon circles the Earth (physical reasons), there are reasons why spiders build webs (mindless biological reasons related to biological agency) while the reasons of human agency derive from both conscious deliberation and unconscious response. That is, there is a substantial difference between the reasons why I go shopping, and the reasons why I jump away from snakes although both demonstrate the behaviour of an agent. Unconscious human agency links to not only the instinctive behaviour of sentient creatures but also the mindless behaviour of plants since both share underlying biological agency.

A distinction must be made between biological agency in general and human agency in particular. Human agency evolved out of biological agency and shares its ultimate goals; it is a minded form of biological agency with many shared characteristics.

Two major kinds of agency, and their variants, have can now be usefully distinguished: first, the biological agency that unites all life. This includes both mindless and minded organisms that are grounded in the biological axiom; second, minded human agency that is of two kinds, unconscious (intuitive or instinctive) under the strong control of the biological axiom, and the conscious thought and related behaviour, still grounded in the biological axiom, but as modified by reason.

Reason

Individual conscious deliberation
The capacity for human individuals to use reason has, as Aristotle pointed out (humans are rational animals), differentiated and, in a sense, raised Homo sapiens above other species. The power of reason is surely our greatest human asset since it makes us aware of the contrary forces of mindless and unconscious biological agency, and cultural tradition.

We can view human agency from the perspective of biology and its broad evolutionary context, but we can also ask what it is that uniquely defines human agency.

Principle  – the unique and emergent goals of minded conscious intention are grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency

We like our ideas to be clear and distinct because this simplifies understanding, explanation, and communication. Sometimes, however, physical features in nature are not just present or absent (and statements about them true or false). Rather, they are best represented scientifically as present by degree. We see a rainbow and find it convenient to speak of its discrete colours when, in nature, colour is a continuum of wavelength. The practicality of colour distinction makes it tedious to point out that, scientifically speaking, discrete colours are an illusion. But convenience and human perceptions do not negate the scientific findings. A similar situation pertains in the relationship between biological agency and human agency.

Principle  – biological agency is expressed in both the quantitatively graded differences that occur between species, and the qualitative changes that have occurred in the course of biological and cultural evolutionary history

Principle  – human agency derives from a combination of four major sources: mindless biological agency (physiological function), unconscious behaviour (individual unconscious or instinctive response) behaviour;  individual conscious deliberation; collective cultural public agreements made possible by the use of symbolic languages

We cannot fully transcend our biological agency. Reason, it is often claimed, raises us above animal existence. But for all its undoubted and justly vaunted power, reason is still an adjunct to our biology, a evolutionary tool that evolved in the service of biological agency. This is not to diminish its value but to place it within its scientific rather than aspirational context.

It is also true that writing poetry, playing chess, doing mathematics, composing music, and painting landscapes all appear to have little to do with the biological axiom. But we would no more do these things if they did not give us some kind of biological satisfaction or reward. We would not engage in sex if it gave us no pleasure.

Commentary

Biological agency – as units of matter with the unified, universal, ultimate, and objective behavioural goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing – first emerged on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago. These were the first living organisms whose agential behaviour was readily distinguished from that of the inanimate matter around them.

This can be confusing. Indeed, both biology and philosophy have confused and conflated the distinction between biological agency and human agency generating millennia of scientific, philosophical, and linguistic ambiguity.

Four kinds of biological agency can be usefully distinguished in relation to the familiar minded and intentional agency of humans. First, the mindless automatic and mechanical, but regulated physiological processes of stimulus and response.

Second, the minded but unconscious – instinctive or intuitive responses of minded conscious and sentient organisms – in humans, behaviours like phobias etc.

Minded & conscious – individual deliberation (use of individual reason), self-awareness, abstract thought

Collective deliberation – advanced sociality (influence of parents, peers, schooling, culture etc.), use of symbolic communication

Epilogue

- summary of claims that are argued in more detail in the articles What is life?purpose, biological agency, human-talk, being like-minded, biological values, and morality.

In biology we treat organisms as autonomous agents, even though we know that they could not exist without their environments - that they are part of a physical continuum. What makes the matter of a living organism a special kind of matter - very different from the inanimate matter of, say, a rock - is its capacity to respond to circumstance in an integrated and unified (goal directed, purposeful, agential) way. This biological agency is grounded in the universal, objective, and ultimate biological values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (biological axiom).

Biological agency
The goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms is an objective fact.[41]  It is this behaviour that is the source of the objective (mind-independent), universal and ultimate goals (see biological axiom below) referred to here as biological agency. These emergent properties of living organisms arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way that did not imply either forward causation or the intentions of humans or gods. They are the properties that distinguish the living from the inanimate and dead. Since the mind-independent properties we call 'goals', 'agency' and 'purpose' preceded people in evolutionary time, they therefore existed in nature in mindless form.

Many philosophers and scientists regard 'purpose' and 'agency' as mind-dependent words such that non-human organisms can only display, at best, purpose-like and agent-like behaviour.

The brief points below (discussed in detail in other articles) outline: first, how mindless purpose and agency are possible; second, how to discriminate between the minded and mindless in both language and the world; third, why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as genuine agents rather than being agent-like; fourth, the reduced need for the euphemistic, obfuscating, and semantically vexed language of function and adaptive significance.

The biological axiom
The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms are unified (can be summarized) in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish - referred to here as the biological axiom - sometimes expressed in more abstract terms as 'fitness maximization'.

The biological values (generalized goals) of the biological axiom are universal because they are expressed by all living organisms. They are ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals. They are objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact.

It is typically organisms[43] that express the autonomous agential unity of purpose needed to express biological agency and values.

As open and dynamic agential systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. In the short-term (one generation) this behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) all organisms, as products of natural selection, display species-specific adaptive design and the potential to evolve new forms when heritable variation, transmitted to phenotypes via the chemical DNA, is subject to environmental selection.

It is the short- and long-term autonomous agency of individual organisms that we intuitively recognize as uniquely identifying life in all its diversity.

Forms of biological agency
The forms in which biological agency is expressed are as many as the species that have evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor and are therefore related to one-another by degree.

In considering the complications of agency related to minds there are five modes of being:

mindless inorganic agency - the ordered 'behaviour' of inanimate matter

mindless biological agency - behaviour not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms)

unconscious minded agency - as mind-generated but intuitive or unconscious behaviour

conscious minded agency - as behaviour that is a consequence of conscious deliberation

collective or cultural agency - that is behaviour motivated by socio-cultural norms.

Biological & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the way that organisms with minds are distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency.

The reality of biological agency, goals, purpose, and values
Because the goals of biological agency can only be understood by (represented in) human minds, it is often assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are therefore a creation of human minds - that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like. In fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviors) are ‘for’ (their goals, values, and purposes), biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts.

Anthropocentrism
Consider the sentence, The design we see in nature is only ‘apparent’ design. We say that design in nature is ‘apparent’ (not real) because it is not human design, it is not created by human minds. But nature and organisms are replete with (real) designed structures in real patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the universe’s most miraculous and intricately integrated structure, the human brain, which provides us with conscious representations of nature’s real design.

The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘want’ or ‘need’: these words cannot be used meaningfully outside the context of the human mind.

Thus arises the metaphor fallacy. The word ‘design’ cannot be used to describe nature because it implies that nature is minded (which is clearly an error), but because nature's mindedness is unreal does not mean that the design is unreal.  Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' and many other concepts attributed to human intention 'bubble up from the bottom, not trickle down from the top'.

The usual scientific solution to such a problem would be to devise a technical vocabulary that discriminates between nature's real and mindless design and the minded artefacts of human creation.  Such a threat to human dignity, it appears, just cannot be countenanced.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how is it possible to proceed scientifically as though it does not exist?

Biological agency is currently described using the minded intentional vocabulary of human agency. Since most organisms do not have minds this is then correctly treated as either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or simply a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). However, the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is then mistakenly conflated with the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency?

The reality of biological agency can be recognized by either: developing a new vocabulary of technical agential terms that account for biological agency, or, by acknowledging that human minded agency is evolutionarily grounded in (shares mindless characteristics with) mindless biological agency. That is, the meanings of the concepts of minded agency (like 'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', 'value' and so on) are taken to include mindless properties.

Proximate & ultimate goals
So, for example, since human agency is a minded evolutionary extension of mindless biological agency, human minded goals are only proximate goals that serve the ultimate and mindless goals of biological agency.

So, for example, we humans eat for minded proximate ends (taste and smell stimulation and the satiation of hunger), that have the mindless ultimate biological end of survival. We have sex for minded proximate ends (orgasm, physical and emotional warmth and gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We desire the overall minded proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing, which serve the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

Human & biological values
Human values express a perspective, intention, or point of view. In a world of perspectiveless facts, like the world of physics and inanimate matter, there can be no logical grounds for value. However, the goal-directed characteristics of biological agency (as expressed in the biological axiom), give life a direction, behavioural orientation, and flexibility that is not available to inanimate substance but which cannot be ignored. This warrants scientific recognition.

Scientifically this behavioural orientation also resembles a form of value like a confusingly mindless and objective 'point of view'.

This form of mindless agency could be given its own terminology but since no such terminology exists, and since mindless value is the evolutionary precursor to minded value, it is referred to here as biological value whose characteristics of biological agency called the three ultimate biological values.

If this characterization of life has merit, then it expresses a (mostly) mindless and objective biological normativity (as goal directed behaviour) that is grounded in the ultimate, universal, and objective values of biological agency.

Biological values that are represented in behaviour. Human values are also represented in behaviour but this begaviour may be unrelated to the mind, unconscious (instinctive), or a cosequence of conscious deliberation (reason).

It has been customary to deny or ignore biological agency, or to downgrade its reality by referring to it as being agent-like. The outcome has been that life, in effect, has been accorded the agential status of inanimate matter. Evidence now indicates that this is no longer scientifically acceptable.

Aristotle's normative imperative
To deny biological agency and its values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing, is to deny nature's intrinsic (biologically necessary) behaviourally objective resistance to death, and this is not acceptable to biological science.

Aristotle maintained that the ultimate goals of biological agency drive us to the conclusion that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘, and ‘it is better to live than not live’ – referred to here as Aristotle’s biological normative imperative.

Why do organisms have the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish? . . . ‘Because natural selection made them so‘ (Armand Leroi[40]). Critically, and in apparent contradiction, this is not what organisms need to do, or ought to do (human minded values); it is the way that they are (biological values). It is out of these mindless values that evolution forged minded values.

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make a minded and contestable value judgement, that 'it is good to live', but mindless organisms do not make value judgments, their biological 'normativity' is expressed in the way that they are. Similarly my preference for white wine over red wine is not a moral injunction - something I 'ought' to do - it is simply the way I am.

This characterization of life draws attention to problems that have plagued biology from its earliest days - the confusing relationship that exists between human minds and biological agency.

Minded & mindless agency
By anthropocentric intellectual tradition we refuse to accept that agency (including its purposes, values, reason, knowledge etc.) is present in nature by degree. Instead, we are convinced that these characteristics are mind dependent. How could an oak tree possibly express value?

But biological agency is like sexuality. We accept that sexuality exists throughout the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Because human sexuality is expressed in a uniquely human way does not mean that only human sexuality is real, and that the sexuality of other organisms is only sexual-like. An oak tree expresses value through the physical and behavioural means of its own unique agency. This is nothing like human value, but it is connected to human value through the shared characteristics of biological agency.

We both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being the same) the universal and objective ultimate values of biological agency, and the uniquely minded values and goals of human agency.

Since there is no technical terminology to describe the expression of biological values we fall back on the human vocabulary of intentional psychology.  And, since many organisms do not have minds, this human-talk (anthropomorphic language) is understandably dismissed as cognitive metaphor - which ignores its evolutionary grounding in biological agency.

In other words, we mistakenly presume that biological agency must be minded agency, like human agency – that mindedness is a precondition for agency in living organisms. It is probably for this reason that we mistakenly infer that the unreality associated with the application of minded language to mindless organisms (cognitive metaphor) translates comfortably into the unreality of biological agency. That is, we conflate the simple distinction between the minded and the mindless with the complex distinction between biological agency and human agency. It is not that biological agency is a subjective creation of the human mind (cognitive metaphor or heuristic), rather that the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency.

Purpose created minds: minds did not create purpose.

Purpose

The goals of agents establish not only their individual purposes but the purposes of their structures and behaviours.  Agency and purpose preceded people, so it is more likely that agency and purpose created people, rather than people creating purpose and agency.

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
The use of anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor in biology arises for many reasons including: the convenience of brevity, our cognitive bias, and the attraction of literary flourish. However, it is more likely a consequence of a lack of technical vocabulary to describe biological agency, and our empathy for other living creatures (our recognition of biological agency) that is mostly at play here. Anthropomorphism is an intuitive acknowledgement of our evolutionary connection to nature.

We humans have given precedence to human agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (that of intentional psychology) to describe the uniquely human expression of biological agency. An objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task. We use minded language (cognitive metaphor) in relation to non-minded organisms not because we believe they have cognitive faculties , but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile) and because we do not have the technical scientific vocabulary needed to describe the agency of each individual species.

Anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution, not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device).

The evidence for agential, teleological, and normative realism in nature is cashed out when we examine specific cases.

Human minded valuation brings with it the subjective 'ought' of ethical universality. The following cases illustrate the objectivity of biological values . . . the 'ought' of human valuation is replaced by the 'is' of biological 'value'.

We say that a plant wants water, not because we think that plants experience cognitive states (human agency), but because we intuitively appreciate the significance of survival for all life (biological agency). It is not as if a plant wants water, rather, in terms of the biological agency that plants share with humans they depend on water for their survival. The agency being communicated here is not as if or even like, but the same as our human biological dependency on water. In this sense a plant needs water for exactly the same reasons that humans need water.

We say the purpose of eyes is to see, not because eyes were an intentional creation of God, or that their purpose is a projection of our own intentions, but because, from the perspective of biological agency, we understand the agential significance of sight for all organisms that have eyes. It is not as if the purpose of eyes is to see but, conversely, given the nature of biological agency, eyes have obvious and objective agential significance.

We say a spider knows how to build its web, not because we believe that spiders are consciously aware of the principles of web construction, but because we are amazed at how, without our cognitive powers, spiders instinctively build something as intricate and purposeful as a web, using information that is passed mechanically, and with meticulous precision, from one generation to the next in their genes. Even though the capacity for web building is an adaptive trait encoded in genes, rather than a cognitive attribute, it is a manifestation of biological agency that is so sophisticated that we rightly associate it with our own agency. It is not as if a spider knows how to build a web, rather, that web building (biological agency) is extraordinarily like (and biologically related to) our human cognitive capacity to learn, remember, and apply accumulated knowledge (human agency).

Human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values. We can therefore make a distinction between, on the one hand, mindless biological agency, purpose, and value and, on the other, minded human agency, purpose, and value bearing in mind that human agency is a specialized form of biological agency.

This interpretation of agency, purpose, and value constitutes a radical philosophical realism that implausibly contradicts the mainstream philosophical and scientific view that values, agency, and purpose are creations of human minds and therefore exist only in human minds - a view leading to the conclusion that the language of human intentional psychology (which includes the language of agency, purpose, and normativity), when applied to non-human organisms, cannot be scientifically justified, and must therefore be treated as cognitive metaphor.

It is argued on this web site that, from a scientific perspective, human agency is a form of biological agency and that resort to its description by using the uniquely minded language of human intentional psychology is a form of anthropocentrism

Biological values, human values, & ethics
The words 'ethics', 'morals', and 'values' are often used in a loose and interchangeable way. However, a useful distinction can be made between three key elements: values (as abstract, universal, general, or aspirational objectives – the importance, worth, or usefulness of something - including behaviour - preferences, attitudes, or feelings); goals (as specific objectives of individual organisms); and moral or ethical judgments (as human judgments of right and wrong often made universal by reason and thus countering egoism).

The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.

For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form - its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.

Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.

It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature - that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.

But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the 'ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its 'ought' statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics - the point of view of the universe - but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

The denial of biological agency
Scour biological textbooks, or the web, and you will find little, if anything, about biological agency, biological values, or the purpose that pervades everything in nature.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on at least five related confusions and errors concerning the distinction between and confusion related to, on the one hand, organisms with minds and those without minds and, on the other, biological agency and human agency.

First, an inversion of reasoning that incorrectly assumes that since biological goals (values, purposes etc.) can only be understood (represented) by human minds, then they only exist in human minds, and are therefore a creation of human minds . . . that biological agency is not real.

Second, converse reasoning that treats biological agency, purpose, and value as an unreal fiction (cognitive metaphor) invented by the human mind, rather than the converse - that human agency evolved out of real and mindless biological agency.

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor or, more specifically, cognitive metaphor.[42] This fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an 'as if' (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device the appropriate mechanism for making this comparisonIn then in strict literary terms this would be more like a biological simile than a metaphor.

Fourth, and related to the third, we make an agency error – whereby anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it is evident that, in general, such language is not, in fact, referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry.

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, an inherent cognitive bias, or for its convenience, but more because of our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (objective) biological agency, and the lack of non-human agential scientific vocabulary to describe this agency.

Anthropomorphic analogical language is, in general, not trying to convey the as if language of cognitive metaphor, but the real likeness of biological simile (the result of evolutionary connection).

From an evolutionary perspective human agency evolved out of (is a subset of) biological agency and thus the proximate minded and therefore (often) subjective goals of human agency, are subordinate to the ultimate objective goals of biological agency.

In sum, we have yet to scientifically accept that biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Historically, this philosophical confusion has been perpetuated by a pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism that understood life as Special Creation, rather than evolution with modification from a common ancestor.

If we regard anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor or heuristic, then we not only devalue, but deny, the real evolutionarily graded agential reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life.

If biological agency, goals, purposes, and values are real then their investigation can be transferred out of the realm of philosophical speculation and into the domain of scientific explanation.

Glossary

Adaptation (biological) – the evolution of traits with functions that enhance fitness; the capacity for self-correction - in the short-term through behavioural flexibility, and over the long term by genetic change
Agency (biological) - unity of purpose, goal-directedness. Comprising agents (organisms) their goals or purposes (ultimate goals (biological axiom) of survival and reproduction, proximate goal of flourishing) and their means (including the mindless use of physical and behavioural resources needed to pursue goals, as well as conscious strategies)
Agent - something that acts or brings things about. Mindless inorganic agents include objects like missiles, cities, and computers. In biology - typically an organism as an agent with unity of purpose (sometimes extended to include genes, groups, or other entities, even natural selection itself) as a (semi)autonomous individual with inputs as flows of energy, materials, and information, internal processing, and outputs as energy, waste, action and reaction in relation to surroundings. An organism motivated by real goals (these may be mindless, that is, without conscious intention)
Agential realism - the claim that non-human organisms exhibit agency in a mindless way, and that humans combine both mindless and minded agency: the grounding of cognitive biological metaphors in non-cognitive biological facts
Anthropocentric - to view and interpret circumstances in terms of human experience and values
Anthropomorphism - the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities
Apomorphy - a specialized trait or character that is unique to a group or species: a character state (such as the presence of feathers) that is not present in an ancestral form
Autopoiesis - self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis
Bioteleological realism - the claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
Behavioural ecology – the study of the evolution of animal behavior in response to environmental pressures
Biological agency - life agency as described by the biological axiom
Biological axiom - survival, reproduction, and flourishing as the universal necessary and sufficient agential characteristics of all organisms. The qualities that give organisms autonomy and unity of purpose. The ancestral agential characteristics that define all life. Biology only makes sense when explained in agential terms which, in humans, are those of intentional psychology
Biological simile – a comparison (likeness) of biological phenomena that is based on real evolutionary connection
Cognitive ethology – the study of the influence of conscious awareness and intention on the behaviour of an animal
Cognitive metaphor - a metaphor used in the context of human intentional psychology
Complementary properties – the properties instantiated by the relata of a biological simile
Derived concept – a concept with a narrow semantic range
Emergence - as used here - the origin of of novel objects, properties, or relations in the universe considered worthy of human categorization
Evolutionary biology – the study of evolutionary processes (notably natural selection, common descent, speciation) that created the community of life
Fitness - a measure of reproductive success (survival) in relation to both the genotype and phenotype in a given environment
Genotype - the genetic constitution of an individual organism, encoded in the nucleus of every cell
Function - also referred to as adaptive significance or purpose. In agential terms it is the characters of organisms that have functions or purposes while organisms have goals
Goal - the object towards which behaviour is orientated (goals may be minded or mindless)
Grounding concept – the general ideas that underpin more specific (derived) concepts
Heuristic – stimulating interest and investigation
Human agency - behaviour motivated by conscious intention; the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency that is described using the human agential language of intentional psychology; the capacity to act on the basis of reasons as cognitive and motivational states (beliefs, desires, attitudes) (philosopher Kim)
Human-talk - the application to non-human organisms of language usually restricted to humans and human intentional (agential) psychology
Intention - a minded goal
Intentional idiom - the use of intentional language in a wide range of contexts including those relating to non-human organisms
Metaphor - figurative language as ‘nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain’. An 'as if' direct (not a 'like') comparison that is not grounded in reality e.g. 'You are a rat'.
Natural agency - any agency in the natural world
Normative realism - the view that normativity has its origin in biology through the mindless and mindful ultimate goals of survival and reproduction, and proximate goal of flourishing
Personification - the representation of something in the form of a person
Phenotype - the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment
Physical reductionism - the view that biological phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of physico-chemical entities
Purpose – Aristotle's final cause or telos; the reason why anything is done, or made, or for which it exists; an end, aim, or intention; what something is 'for'; the goal of an agent
Proximate explanation - an explanation dealing with immediate circumstances
Relata – the objects of a comparison
Semantic range – the range of objects and ideas encompassed by the meaning of a word
Synapomorphy - a characteristic present in an ancestral species and shared exclusively (in more or less modified form) by its evolutionary descendants
Trait - a unit of the phenotype (physical or behavioural)
Ultimate explanation - a long-term explanation (e.g. in biology as a measure of the fitness of a particular trait)

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First published on the internet – 1 September 2022 – extracting relevant material from existing articles

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