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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.


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.


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.


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.


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


- 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 -

It is argued on this web site that science is best served when human minded agency is treated as a highly evolved form of mindless biological agency. Also, that agency, purpose, and value are more scientifically coherent concepts when considered as part of the real fabric of life, not creations of the human mind.

The brief points below constitute a defense of agential realism, teleological realism, and biological normativity.  They outline: the key characteristics of life; how mindless purpose, agency, and normativity are possible; how to discriminate between the minded and mindless in both language and the world; the relationship between biological normativity and human ethics; why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as real agents rather than being agent-like; and why reference to 'adaptive significance', 'functional adaptation', and 'cognitive metaphor' are no longer necessary.

Biology is the study of life - as viewed from many perspectives and on many scales. The organism is the basic physical unit of life, and the species is the basic unit of biological classification.

Organisms are autonomous biological agents with a unity of purpose.

The goal-directed behaviour of organisms is an objective fact.[41]  Organisms behave in an integrated, unified, and purposeful way that tends to preserve and further their existence. This unity of purpose is the temporary agential propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom, see below).

It is this agency that distinguishes the matter of living organisms from the matter of the inanimate and dead.

The biological axiom
The biological axiom - that life is predicated on the temporary survival, reproduction, and flourishing of organisms as autonomous agents - is our most economical scientific statement of biological purpose. It provides the universal, objective, and ultimate goal-directed preconditions for life, referred to here as biological agency. These goals are: temporary because death is a precondition for life: all organisms die; universal because they are expressed by all living organisms; objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact; and ultimate because they are a summation and unification of all proximate goals, including those of minded organisms. 

As a foundational statement of biological agency the biological axiom is simultaneously a statement of mindless agency, purpose, and normativity - of biological activity and its reason including its mindless behavioural orientation and minded intention.  That is, it is not only a statement about the way organisms are, and what they do, it is also a statement of rudimentary valuation, because it describes the ultimate mindless goals that motivate the behaviour of all living organisms, including their expression as minded and proximate human intentions. 

As a universal statement about living organisms, the biological axiom is also a statement of biological necessity.

Biological agency
Mindless living organisms have the capacity to (mindlessly) discriminate between the objects and processes of their inner and outer environments, adapting to these circumstances with a goal-directed unity of purpose. It is this goal-directed and autonomously unified behavioural flexibility - as biological agency - that most simply and obviously circumscribes biological science and its explanations of the natural world.

It is also the behavioural flexibility and agential autonomy that evolved into our human conscious discrimination between 'self' and 'other'.

Parts of organisms do not have goals in the same way that autonomous organisms have goals. It is helpful to distinguish between the purposes, interests, and goals of autonomous organisms and the functions of their parts (structures, processes, and behaviours) - these functions being a contribution towards the attainment of the organism's universal biological goals.

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) 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 subjected to environmental selection.

The emergent properties of biological agency arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way (inherited variation with feedback) that did not imply either backward causation or the intentions of either humans or gods. These agential, purposive, and normative properties of organisms preceded people in evolutionary time: they existed in nature mindlessly. That is, the notions of 'purpose', 'value', and 'agency' as described here, can refer to both minded and mind-independent conditions.

The reality of biological agency 
Because the purpose, agency, and values 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. From this error of reasoning it follows 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 biological substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Agency & purpose
Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviors) are ‘for’ (the purpose of organisms and the functions of their parts),  biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts. The objective goals of biological agency (the biological axiom) state the purpose (necessary and sufficient conditions, or reasons for) life.

We ask about purposes and functions precisely because organisms are agents. We do not ask what the moon or rocks are 'for', because they do not behave in an agential way.

Mindless biological purposes preceded, and gave rise to, the minded purposes we associate with human agency. That is, minded human agency evolved out of mindless biological agency. People did not create purpose and agency, it was the purpose and agency inherent in nature that gave rise to people - their bodies, brains, and minds.

Biological agency & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the same way that we regard organisms with minds as distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one (human) evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency. That is, uniquely human agency shares (includes) the general grounding characteristics of biological agency.

For example, we accept that sexuality exists (almost) universally across the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Simply 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.

Proximate & ultimate goals
Human agency is a minded evolutionary development of mindless biological agency. Human minded goals are, in this sense, 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 gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We develop moral and political systems seeking the minded proximate ends of happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure, while serving the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

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 patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the miraculous and intricately integrated human body, including the brain that 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 ‘prefer’ or ‘believe’ - words that are used uncomfortably outside the context of the human mind. Thus, the word ‘design’ is only used nervously in relation to organisms because it implies that either they have minds, or they were created by god. So, we overcome the real design with verbal obfuscation. We say that nature is 'design-like' or 'designoid'.

But the implication that without minds design is not possible is simply, and obviously, mistaken. Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, 'agency', ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' (and other concepts attributed to human intention that emerged out of the evolutionary process) 'bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top'.

Biological agency created human agency: human agency did not invent biological agency.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how have science and philosophy persisted for so long with its denial?

Biological agency is frequently described using the language of human agency (the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology using words like 'desires', 'knows', 'wants', 'prefers' etc.). This is generally known as anthropomorphism, and it is discussed on this web site as human-talk. Since most organisms do not have minds, this language is diagnosed as being either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or, perhaps, a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). But a mistake is made when the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is presumed to infer the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency (see 'technical language'  below)?

Biological normativity
The biological axiom is a statement of biological normativity as the temporary, objective, universal, and ultimate  behavioural orientation of all living organisms towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom). This ultimate mindless behavioural orientation is expressed in humans as proximate minded intention.

This mindless behavioural orientation (referred to here as biological normativity) was the evolutionary precursor to human minded ‘perspectives’ or ‘points of view’, including the human reasoning faculty that self-consciously and critically examines these motivations.

This behavioural orientation is like (because evolutionarily related to) a human perspective or point of view. But the likeness is not the ‘as if’ similarity of metaphor but the reality of an evolutionary connection that warrants scientific recognition, since it is out of mindless biological values that human minded values evolved.

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive.

Aristotle's normative imperative
Biological agency expresses the 'values' (the quotes indicate an objective behavioural orientation) of survival, reproduction, and flourishing as a necessary condition for life. This is what it means to be a living organism - it is a biological necessity.

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. Humans describe such statements as subjective value judgements that have no logical necessity. But as statements expressing the objective nature of all organisms, including humans, (but not in inanimate objects) they do express biological necessity.

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 subjective minded values); it is the way that they are (objective biological 'values'). It is out of these mindless values that evolution forged minded values.

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to temporarily resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make the 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. But humans, since they express both mindless biological agency (objective behavioural orientation) and minded human agency (subjective value) thus express both fact and value simultaneously (cf. the philosophical distinction between fact and value).

Fact, value, & ethics
Our anthropocentric emphasis on the uniquely human trait of mindedness has contributed to an artificial intellectual gulf between humans and other organisms that has diminished the significance of our real biological connection. This can be attributed, in part, to the anthropocentric elevation of mindedness into a realm of values as a special mental and linguistic domain that stands in stark contrast to an unconnected realm of discourse that we call facts.

This putative difference between facts and values is widely respected within the scientific and philosophical communities. It not only sets humans apart from nature, it also separates ethics from science, and science from the humanities. But it has always been a topic of philosophical contention.

Given that the biological axiom is a statement about agents and goals, an ethical naturalist (someone who believes that ethical statements are substantiated by objective features of the world) might claim that a statement like ‘in order for agent X to achieve goal Y, X ought (would reasonably) do Z’ is a value judgement that can be empirically investigated. However, this prompts a follow-up question in relation to goals,  ‘Ought’ we to pursue these goals, are they ‘good’ goals'. For example, the fact that I crave sugar does not mean I ought to eat sugar, or that it is good to eat sugar.

The distinction between facts and values can be addressed from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Let us assume, reasonably, that human minded agency and its subjective values evolved out of the objective goals of the biological axiom. One simple answer to a question about the way this occurred is to say that human values arrived with human brains, thus reinforcing the fact-value distinction.

A more thorough answer would point out that both our values and ethical decisions are derived in a complex way that has both minded and mindless ingredients. Both biological and human values are established primarily through behaviour with human mindless (unconscious) behaviour including physiological responses (sweating, digesting) as well as impulses, instincts, intuitions, and other unconscious drivers emanating from the evolutionarily earlier structures of the brain. These sources are, in effect, the objective remnants of our biological agency still exerting an objective (unconscious) influence on our values, including our ethical decisions. However, human conscious values communicated by language include both unconscious and conscious elements that are moderated by our reasoning which occurs in the most recently evolved part of our brain, the frontal cortex.

We respect reason, in part, because it can substantially, but not wholly, override the influences of our mindless and unconscious biological agency.

But when we understand our subjective values from this perspective we see that they are a mixture of our inherited ancient and objective biological values (the mindless and unconscious influences on our behaviour) and the application of reason to our knowledge of these and other factors. What we call our subjective values as established by reason, include an admixture of varying quantities of objective biological value depending on circumstance. Our biology has inseparably entangled both fact and value.

Such a proposal triggers a cognitive dissonance because we both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being identical) the universal, objective, and ultimate facts of biological agency, and the uniquely human values of human agency. We fail to realize that it is possible for values to simultaneously express both similarity and difference: the shared features of biological normativity and the unique features of human agency including the use of reason with other advanced cognitive faculties.

We all (but especially intellectuals and ethicists) like to think of morality as demonstrating the supremacy of reason (morality established by pure reason), but our inclination (necessarily locked into our reason) in both politics and ethics, is to fall back on the proximate human values of maximizing happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure as influenced by the ultimate biological value of flourishing.

Biological normativity is not prescriptive in the way that moral language is prescriptive. But the faculty of reason that we proudly and rightly regard as a uniquely distinguishing feature of human agency is still grounded in biological agency and biological normativity. Though reason attempts to transcend, overcome, or be detached from biological normativity, it can only ever be partially successful. Reason itself is, of evolutionary necessity, still ultimately grounded in the biological values that give it purchase. The moral decisions that we think overcome biological normativity simply fall back on second order biological normativity.

We can and do override our biological impulses with our ethical systems (Thou shalt not kill) but the reasons I observe this moral injunction still derived from my biological normativity.  Without its foundation in biological normativity, the use of reason in moral decision-making is an incoherent and empty concept.

Since reason can never fully extricate itself from biological normativity, we must face the fact that moral discourse reduces to biological facts, that human proximate and subjective valuing evolved out of ultimate and objective biological facts. The differentiation of facts and values, the descriptive and prescriptive is, at least, exaggerated. Organisms have biological values in human-like way because that is the way they (objectively) are, and that is what led to our own subjective values.

The acceptance of the reality of biological values provides us with a more compelling scientific account of nature since the assimilation of human values to biological values acknowledges the uniquely mindful properties of human values while at the same time recognizing that they evolved out of, and share major characteristics with, their mindless evolutionary antecedents.

Technical language
We humans describe our own form of agency using the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology (needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) This is, in effect, a set of technical terms for the uniquely minded agency manifested by Homo sapiens.

Since the species Homo sapiens has its own agential vocabulary, a thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies for the unique modes of agency expressed by every other individual species – an impossible task. This is one major reason why we fall back on the use of human-talk as cognitive metaphor - simply because it is the agential language that is most familiar to us.

It is tempting to create a vocabulary of technical terms expressing, on the one hand, biological agency and, on the other, human agency, but this would be speciesism in the extreme.

But there is a further difficulty because, as already pointed out, biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive concepts. 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.

Mindedness is not a precondition for agency in living organisms: mindedness is simply one expression of biological agency. 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. More simply, the objective behavioural orientation of mindless organisms (mindless purpose) created minds: minds did not create purpose.

There is only one possible scientific solution - an acknowledgement that if current linguistic usage is to reflect nature, then minded concepts like 'agent',  'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', and 'value', which are currently restricted to discourse about humans, are extended into the realm of mindless agency. This also means that what is currently regarded as metaphor is more aptly treated in literary terms (assuming literary analagies are appropriate here) as simile (see 'metaphor fallacy' below).

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
We frequently apply to non-human organisms the language that is usually preserved for humans. This is known as anthropomorphism, but referred to here as human-talk.

We use human-talk for many reasons including: brevity, our human cognitive bias, as an educational heuristic, and as literary flourish.

When we apply the language of human intentional psychology to mindless organisms this is not, in most cases, because we think that they experience cognitive states, but because we empathize with their biological values we intuitively acknowledge our (evolutionary) biological connection.

Cognitive metaphor
The use of minded language in relation to mindless organisms is a particular kind of anthropomorphism that is called cognitive metaphor, because it gifts organisms with cognitive faculties that they do not possess.

We humans have emphasized our uniquely human kind of agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (we speak of needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) that expresses conscious intentions, sometimes called the language of intentional psychology. A thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task.

However, in many cases of so-called cognitive metaphor, the language is clearly intended to convey the biological likeness associated with the grounding characteristics of biological agency, not inferring that the organism has cognitive faculties. In other words, 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. It expresses a meeting of shared biological agency, not a meeting of minds.

We say that a plant needs 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 (the objective behavioural orientation of all organisms) 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).

The denial of biological agency, purpose, and values
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.

This downplaying of biological agency probably dates from a time before evolutionary theory, when each species was considered a unique and special creation with ‘ensouled’ humans biologically distinct from all the other organisms that had been placed on earth for human benefit.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on several interrelated confusions concerning the distinction between, 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. We assume that since humans are aware of their own agency (their goals, purposes, intentions, values etc.) and we know that non-human organisms do not share this same awareness, then they either have no agency or are, at best, only agent-like. We currently hold the scientifically unjustified conviction that agency is necessarily mind dependent. We mistakenly believe that undifferentiated and mindless biological goals play no role in their evolved and differentiated minded forms.

We mistakenly assume that because biological goals can only be represented in human minds, they only exist in human minds and are therefore a creation of human minds. But the goals (purposes, values, reasons for the behaviour) of non-human organisms are not spoken or thought; they are demonstrated in their behaviour, and they existed (were real) in nature long before their minded evolutionary human development occurred.

Second, converse reasoning that denies the evolutionary development of minded human agency (purpose, values, etc.) out of real and mindless biological agency while conversely claiming that biological agency is a fictitious creation (cognitive or other metaphor) of human agency.

Biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human minds: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor, and minded humanizing language as 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 comparison then, in strict literary terms, the likeness is not metaphor but simile.

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. This is the traditional and mistaken assumption that the agency we imply when using anthropomorphic language is the unique agency of humans when, in fact, its intended meaning relates to the universal biological agency that is present in all living organisms.

When we say that a plant ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ water we are not suggesting that plants experience intentional mental states, but that they share with us the universal biological agential disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is a form of biological empathy - but not a communion of minds, more a recognition of shared biological values.

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, our inherent human cognitive bias, or the convenience of brevity, but more because of the empathy we feel in the face of the biological agency and biological values expressed by other species in the community of life.

Sixth, our lack of understanding of the reasons why we resort to human-talk, that is, the reasons why we are strongly persuaded to use intentional language when describing agential but non-intentional organisms, especially because we have inadequate technical language to describe biological agency, meaning we resort to anthropomorphism.

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.

Forms of biological agency
For humans, autonomy entails a conscious distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Our minds provide a sense of self as they segregate the world into objects of experience, focus on a limited range of these, group them according to similarities and differences, and prioritize them according to purpose, interest, or preparation for action. For simplicity we can refer to this complex agential process as mental adaptation, which is a form of human agency.

This minded human agency evolved out of the capacity of mindless organisms (as revealed by their behaviour) to discriminate between objects of their environment and to prioritize these in relation to themselves and their behaviour. That mindless adaptation is a demonstration of both autonomy and agency. And it is clearly out of this mindless process of adaptation that minded adaptation evolved.

Biological agency is manifest through agential behaviour as expressed by each biological body.  This behaviour is relatively uniform within a species due to their similarity of physical form. The agency of a plant is expressed in very different ways from from that of a fish.  However, since all organisms arose from a common ancestor the agential similarities between organisms is always a matter of degree.

When considering agency as it relates to minds, five kinds can be distinguished each building on the former:

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

mindless biological agency - agential (goal-directed) behaviour that is not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms e.g. unconscious sweating)

unconscious minded agency - the unconscious, intuitive or instinctive behaviour of minded creatures e.g. fear of snakes

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

collective or cultural agency - behaviour that is a product of collective learning usually communicated through symbolic language as socio-cultural norms



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 agency) the mostly mindless autonomous capacity to act on, and react to, inner and outer environments with a goal-directed unity of purpose as stated by the biological axiom. (Human agency) biological agency as directed y all the resources of the human mind, including reason
Agent - something that acts or brings things about. Mindless inorganic agents include objects like missiles, cities, and computers. In biology - an organism as autonomous matter with the capacity to behave in a unified goal-directed way as stated by the biological axiom (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 inner and outer environments. 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
Behaviour (biology) - actions performed by a biological agent (or, rarely, its parts)
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
Bioteleological realism - the claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
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 novel objects, properties, or relations in the universe that warrant 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
Function - also referred to as adaptive significance or purpose. In agential terms it helps to regard the characters of organisms as having functions while organisms themselves, as independent agents, have purposes and goals
Genotype - the genetic constitution of an individual organism, encoded in the nucleus of every cell
Goal - the object towards which behaviour is orientated (goals may be mindless, minded but unconscious, or conscious)
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
Organism - autonomous agential matter with a behavioual orientation towards survival, reproduction, and 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)
Values – (biological agency) the motivation for the behaviour of all living organisms grounded in the ultimate, universal and objective goals of the biological axiom. (Human agency) – the attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations that guide human behaviour

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

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