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Darwin’s On the origin . . . (1859) contained, in addition to his theory of natural selection, two profound insights whose significance has been subsequently ignored. One of these insights is slowly gaining recognition in the philosophy of biology though not acknowledged in the popular imagination, while a further and coincidental consequence of his theory is introduced here, with potential that is yet to be fully investigated.

First, Darwin naturalized Aristotelian teleology by demonstrating how purpose and design arise in nature in a straightforward causal way without the need to invoke either the supernatural, or the foresight of human intention. He showed that purpose and design in nature are real, even though they are sometimes described using anthropomorphic language.

Second, and unbeknown or unacknowledged by Darwin himself, the theory of descent with modification showed that much of the anthropomorphic language used in biology is not the ‘as if’ talk of metaphor, but a linguistic device (figure of speech) that is grounded in the biological reality of common ancestry.

see Life as agency

Darwin was interested in a range of human and animal psychological characteristics in the broad context of the ideas that he published in On the origin of species . . . (1859). However, it was the evolution of physical structures, comparative anatomy, and other observable and easily investigated characteristics of organisms, that received his, and other peoples’, overwhelming attention, eventually convincing both scientists and the general public of the veracity of his theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor by means of natural selection.

Theories about the brain and mind were more obscure, intangible, and open to challenge. Traditional conceptual frameworks addressing the link between brain and mind, and theories of their operation, were associated with deeply entrenched religious and academic traditions, making them contentious topics for scientific investigation. Even so, in the 1970s, as evolutionary biology became a mainstream academic discipline in universities, a new academic discipline emerged exploring Darwinian ideas as applied to brains and minds: evolutionary psychology. From one perspective, Darwinian tampering had moved, as it were, from body to soul.

Evolutionary psychology recognized that psychological traits are no different from physical traits in the sense that they are evolved adaptations – the functional products of natural selection. Moreover, human nature is not a metaphysical mystery, but the universal set of evolved psychological adaptations developed in response to ancestral environments.

The incorporation of evolutionary thought into our understanding of the world has been a journey from bodies to brains and minds . . .  but there is one last step – into concepts. This is the final and most challenging stage of an exciting intellectual odyssey.

Concepts seem like wispy and ineffable ghosts of consciousness. However, they can also be understood more concretely as the building blocks of our cognition – the mental objects that populate our thoughts and beliefs.

But in what way are concepts connected to evolution?

When Darwin showed that our human biology is built on evolutionary antecedents this was a new idea. It meant that if we need a full explanation of the human heart, pancreas, or nervous system, then we must look to the evolutionary history of these organs. Prior to Darwin we had managed daily life, biological science, and medicine without the notion of intimate organic continuity and connection.

In the same way, there are occasions when we can consider the evolutionary implications of our concepts. Real connections to our biology must include the connection to its evolution, where that is valid, relevant, or appropriate.

Our human pancreas is, on the one hand, a unique human organ. We can do our medicine and biology without necessarily falling back on a study of its evolutionary history. But if we want to understand it to the best of our knowledge, then we must trace back its evolution to barely recognizable origins. Similarly, consciousness might be regarded as a unique human property, but best explanation demands we consider the evolution of the brain, studies of sentient creatures, and so on. Aristotle considered reason to be the uniquely defining characteristic of humans. But reason, too, must have its antecedents. The connection between consciousness and evolution might seem valid, while that between evolution and reason highly contentious. Why is this?

The scope for research based on this idea is almost limitless – from grand concepts like valuing, knowing, and reasoning, to ideas about consciousness, purpose, intention, and sensation, to the language of human intentional psychology, like ‘wanting’, ‘liking’, ‘choosing’, and much more.

This article introduces what is potentially a new field of research for philosophers, linguists, biologists and others – the critical investigation of anthropomorphism – of human-talk.


What is human-talk

Human-talk is a more digestible way of referring to anthropomorphism – the use of words usually reserved for humans and human activity in relation to non-human objects, notably nature and non-human organisms. Included here is the way we sometimes apply the language of human intentional psychology (wanting, liking, needing, knowing, etc.) to organisms that have mental lives resembling ours, or, indeed, those that are mindless.

Human-talk is widely regarded as metaphor because its most glaring examples are straightforwardly so – the ‘river wanting to reach the sea’ and so forth. The language of human intentional psychology applied to non-human organisms has, for example, been called ‘cognitive metaphor’. A lazy conclusion would be that human-talk is always metaphor.

The argument developed in this article is that while genuine metaphor is grounded in the imagination, much human-talk is grounded in biological reality. Anthropomorphism is a figure of speech, with metaphor just one of its manifestations.

By describing nature using the language we normally reserve for humans, we seem to be crossing an unspoken but critical boundary that should be preserved. This is the distinction we make between conscious human intention, and the operations of mindless nature. Such a figure of speech, we think, may be excusable, even of heuristic value. . . but it is, nonetheless, metaphor.

So, what is going on here?  Why do we use anthropomorphism? And does it matter?

Why do we say that a cuckoo ‘deceives’ its host; that a swallow ‘realizes’ it is time for its spring migration; that natural selection ‘chooses’ or ‘favours’ one outcome over another; that the snail ‘wants’ to escape the sunlight and heat; and that the spider ‘knows’ how to weave its web? These are all anthropomorphisms – the reading of human intentional psychology into nature.

Such language, it has been assumed for centuries, is just lazy simplification, a straightforward case of metaphor. It is only ‘as if’ non-human (non-sentient) organisms have the intentional properties of human minds.

How can we disagree?

After Darwin

In simple terms: before Darwin it was assumed that God had imbued nature with purpose at the time of the Creation. Birds had wings to fly and eyes to see because God had made them that way. There was no scientific account at this time with a sophistication that could compete with this biblical account of the origin of purpose in nature.

Darwin dramatically changed this perception in two major ways.

First, he explained how natural selection gives rise to adaptive (purposive/functional) traits. This occurred in a natural and mechanical way without future purposes acting as causes. His theory removed the necessity for the insinuation of purpose and design into nature by either supernatural intervention or human conscious intention, leaving both purpose and design within nature itself, as was suggested by Aristotle 2,200 years before. Darwin didn’t remove purpose from nature, he explained how it had arisen in a natural way – how organisms and processes in nature can be ‘for’ without the foresight we associate with man and God. Purpose and design in nature are real, not metaphor.

In one small book Darwin had demolished a major argument for the existence of God while at the same time naturalizing the talk of purpose, function, and design that is both self-evidently present in nature, and independent of human existence.

Principle 1 – Darwin provided a naturalistic account of purpose in nature as it exists independently of humans

Second, organisms manifest greater or lesser degrees of similarity and difference. Before Darwin it was assumed that each species was a unique creation of God. After Darwin, these similarities and differences were regarded as a consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Darwin had established the physical continuity and connection between the entire community of life, humans included.

Principle 2 – Darwin described the community of life, not as a collection of discretely created and unique kinds, but as a branched continuum of kinds that diversified by descent with modification from a common ancestor

The teleological idiom

If Darwin gave a compelling account of purpose in nature, then why is the philosophy of teleology still alive and well? Why do philosophers and scientists still resist the idea of purpose in nature?

There are several parts to the answer:

First, there is the counterintuitive and non-scientific sense that purpose looks to future causes: it implies foresight (which most organisms do not have). This problem was laid to rest scientifically by Darwin when he showed how the purpose we see saturating nature is not a mysterious inner force but something that arises in a mechanical way. Even the logic of final cause has been exonerated (see later).

But it is not just ‘purpose’ (teleology) that has been problematic; there is the entire toolbox of protean anthropomorphic language to complicate discourse about nature and organisms –  what has been called the teleological idiom.[1] Here It is important to distinguish between teleology (which deals with ends, aims, goals and purposes themselves, as in Aristotle’s notion of telos or final cause) and anthropomorphism (making things human-like) which, implies goals or intentions via human-like means.

For some people purpose is strictly a human mental phenomenon, in which case its application to non-human organisms is clearly cognitive metaphor: disagreements here appears to be a matter of sematics. But purpose is just one instance of a plethora of anthropomorphic concepts. of one form of anthropomorphism, but beyond this there is a clear distinction between the two.Teleological language can be used in different ways to draw diverse, even contradictory, conclusions.

Purpose might be regarded as just one example of a myriad of human ‘mental’ attributes that can become anthropomorphisms. Here lies a simple confusion. Clearly most organisms do not experience human-like emotions. Even if we accept that purposes exist in non-human nature, the referents of human intentional psychology do not. A dog’s anger is not identical to human anger. The subtle slip creeps in when we then conclude that there is no connection between human talk (anthropomorphism) and the world – that is, when we conclude that human talk is metaphor i.e. only present in human minds. This simple error has plagued science for centuries, and it needs further explanation.

Principle 3 – the claim that human-talk is metaphor condemns nature to the same domain of understanding as the inanimate world

Why we use human-talk

There are several reasons why we use human-talk (anthropomorphism):

1. our anthropocentric cognitive bias – we see the world through human eyes

e.g. investing trees, mountains, and rivers with human traits

2. genuine metaphor

e.g. every organism is a computer

3. lack of an appropriate technical vocabulary

e.g. no adequate terms to distinguish the relative kinds consciousnesses that occur in worms, fish, dogs etc.

4. our intuitive acknowledgement of inherent (real) similarity and close connection

e.g. the dog was devoted to his master

This mix of motives behind human-talk has generated long-standing semantic and conceptual confusion, scientific imprecision, and a 2000-year-old metaphysical debate about teleology.

Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (in many cases, but not all) it attempts to represent similarities that exist (are real) in nature, to a greater or lesser degree; they are not just in human minds. When I talk about a ‘heart’, in most circumstances I will be referring exclusively to the human heart. But occasionally when speaking in a general scientific context we understand that our hearts have biological antecedents in other creatures with greater or lesser resemblance to our own hearts. In a zoology class, the question ‘How many valves does the heart have?’ might justifiably get the answer, ‘the heart of which animal?’ And we recognize that in such circumstances a human heart is more like a sheep heart than a worm heart.

This means that the uniqueness and difference (apomorphies) of human ‘advanced’ concepts are grounded in the implied similarities (synapomorphies) of simpler ‘ancestral’ ideas relating to implied simpler organisms. This idea only gathers meaning and significance by working through specific examples.

In science we intuitively recognize this evolutionary connection, even when it is extremely distant. We are far more amenable to the idea of a plant ‘wanting‘ water than a river ‘wanting‘ to reach the sea’ and for reasons that should now be clear.

In the absence of adequate vocabulary to distinguish between the many gradations of biological agency I will, from now on, like all biologists, resort to human-talk while recognizing that this vocabulary has been extended beyond its usual semantic range.

When we study an amoeba we recognize much about its ‘behaviour’ that is similar to our own. But we cannot describe an amoeba in amoeba terms. This is where our anthropomorphic bias kicks in.

Principle 4 – the metaphorical use of human-talk in relation to non-human nature is in part a result of our anthropomorphic cognitive bias


Metaphors are figures of speech that compare one thing with another by drawing attention to similarities in a colourful way. Most importantly, by definition (and common usage) these similarities are not there in reality, they are not ‘real’: they are figurative. They are ‘nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain’ [2]

In simple terms, metaphors are ‘as if’ language.

Metaphors are stronger than similes. Similes assert similarity by using words such as ‘like’ or ‘as’, while metaphors usually compare by saying something ‘is’ something else. So, ‘your lips are like a red red rose’ is a simile, while metaphors would include ‘your eyes are deep deep pools’ and ‘all the world’s a stage’. Hypocatastasis deals with metaphorical similarity in a yet more colourful way by naming only one of the items being compared.

‘You are like a rat’ – simile
‘You are a rat’ – metaphor
‘Rat!’ – hypocatastasis

Metaphorical metastasis

In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.[3]

Charles Darwin (1859). The Origin of Species . . . p. 488

If human-talk is always metaphor, then much of it is metaphor of a very strange kind. For example, a dog fight involves animal anger that is similar to, but not the same as, human anger. Is it only ‘as if’ the dogs are angry in the same way as humans get angry, or is dog anger like human anger?

First, then, we are dealing here with similarities more akin to simile than metaphor.

But, more importantly, dog anger and human anger are not just like one-another – in the way that an orange is like a ball because they are both round – their similarity is grounded in the reality of evolutionary connection. Since ‘metaphor’ implies ‘not real’, it is clearly an inappropriate word in such contexts.

Principle 5 – human-talk is not metaphor, it is a linguistic device used to compare the human experience with (real) nature

The ‘as if’ of metaphor is a binary present/absent conditional that plays a strange trick on our thinking. Either non-human organisms are like humans or they are not – there are no grey areas or extenuating circumstances. The fact that, say, consciousness, exists in nature by degree is irrelevant. By dismissing biological physical connections in this way, we are not only diminishing their significance, we are also denying their reality.

Our thinking about metaphor produces a strange inversion of reasoning – an anthropocentric and philosophical mental leger-de-main that has caused untold biological damage as we conflate non-human with non-existence.

This simple philosophical error inherited from the Scientific Revolution has removed from Western science the purpose, agency, and normativity that exists in non-human nature.

If, indeed, the comparison being made is a real one, then its accuracy depends on two variables, the natural object (the natural variable) and the human-talk language (the linguistic variable). Both of these variables needs closer inspection.

Linguistic variables

Human-talk is a linguistic cocktail.

Examples of anthropomorphism are usually presented in their extreme when, in fact, they are used simply because we lack the appropriate technical scientific language.

The word ‘self’ is a ‘human’ word and yet it is uncontroversial in biology. The unashamed use of this word is an intuitive acknowledgement of the unified autonomy we see in all organisms.  Biological literature is full of expressions like ‘self-replication’, ‘self-organization’, and ‘self-regulation’. But an amoeba is hardly a ‘self’ in the same way that you and I are selves. Would you accept the word ‘behaviour’ in relation to non-human things? Are we at our scientific best when we speak of the ‘behaviour’ of plants or molecules? Is language OK here, is it failing us, or what?

These are, as it were, words usually applied to humans but, by common usage, they are acceptable when used beyond the human realm.

Much of this is a matter of arbitrary convention.


Humans think: do fish ‘think’ in the same way that humans think?

Humans swim: do fish ‘swim’ in the same way that humans swim?

Humans walk: do dogs ‘walk’ in the same way that humans walk?

Humans reason: do dogs ‘reason’ in the same way that humans reason?

Humans eat: do spiders ‘eat’ in the same way that humans eat?

Humans like to eat sheep: do spiders ‘like’ to eat flies in the same way that humans like to eat sheep?

What do you think? Here it seems that in everyday usage we accept physical comparisons or analogies, but not mental ones. If you disagree then you might be thinking more closely about these examples than you do in everyday life. Are you suggesting, for example, that we do not both accept, and speak, of fish ‘swimming’?

Are such examples cherry-picking, arbitrary. or meaningful and informative?

On many occasions the acceptability of the comparison seems to depend on the degree of evolutionary connection. Many people would accept, for example, that consciousness is not a matter of presence or absence, it exists by degree: that worms have consciousness of a sort, and that even human consciousness varies by degree throughout the day and night.

Consider the substitution of ‘X’ in the following sentences with the organisms: humans, dogs, fish, worms, amoebae, plants.

X feel pain
X is aware of Y
X like water
X prefer A over B

Of more restricted application there is the domain of the language of human intention and cognition – of ‘liking’, ‘wanting’, ‘needing’, and so on.

Principle 4 – anthropomorphic words have degrees of acceptability

The biological axiom is provides us with an invaluable cenceptual seed – a grounding of ideas that become elaborated with increase in organic complexity.

Consider the following: it tells us, in a very general sense, why organisms do what they do. Using ‘human-talk’ it tells us, in the broadest possible way, what it is they ‘value’ on the path to the ultimate goals of survival and flourishing and the penultimate goal of flourishing. Values, then, driven by the biological axiom are what grounds the behaviour of all biological agents including, of course, humans.

Normativity is the playing out of both unconscious (mindless) and conscious (mindful) goals in the face of circumstance. These values will vary with the nature of the agent.

Natural variables

The natural subject of human-talk is also a cocktail of kinds.

It can refer to nature, or natural selection, or organisms that have degrees of physical complexity.

For example, assuming we accept that ‘consciousness’ exists by degree over at least some of the animal world then we have no adequate terms to distinguish the consciousnesses of worms, fish, dogs etc. That is, we intuitively acknowledge the inherent (real) similarity underlying the different kinds of consciousness.

Principle 5 – anthropomorphic words in the absence of adequate scientific technical terms

We cannot, then, treat all anthropomorphic language in the same way. Major problems arise when we apply the language of human psychology to non-human nature (human-talk). However, it has already been argued that the teleological term ‘purpose’ can be applied to nature because reasons and purposes are ‘real’ in nature. But the word ‘purpose’ seems less cognitively charged than words like ‘want’, ‘know’, and ‘choose’.

It seems that human talk can refer to both the real and the metaphorical.

What we recognize here, and acknowledge in language, is not the conscious intentionality so often associated with the ‘self’, but the evolutionarily ancestral shared characteristic of unified agency.

This mix of motives behind human-talk has generated long-standing semantic and conceptual confusion, scientific imprecision, and a 2500-year-old metaphysical debate about purpose in nature.

Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (much, but not all of the time) it attempts to represent similarities that exist (are real) in nature; they are not just in human minds.

Philosophical arguments about teleology are well rehearsed. And yet . . . if we regard the purpose-talk and function-talk of non-human agency as a cognitive metaphor or heuristic, we deny the graded physical reality, the evolutionarily based similarity of organic structures and functions that connects the community of life.

Before Darwin, organisms shared what might be called disconnected similarities. Eyes, for example, could be found in various shapes and forms in a diverse range of organisms. Eyes shared similarities in structure and function, but there was no deeper connection than that.

After Darwin it was clear that most (but not all) eyes were evolutionarily connected through inheritance. Today we know that this similarity in structure and function is part of the physical continuity of genetic information that is passed between the generations as shared genes. This post-Darwinian similarity due to shared inheritance is a new and very different kind of similarity.

The simple point here is that physical structures like human brains are connected to similar structures in other creatures, not by presence or absence, but by degree. The same principle applies to the properties we associate with human brains and minds.

Principle 1 – In deference to the evolutionary principle of descent with modification, the similarities and differences we observe in organisms – their structures, functions, and behaviours –  can be usefully considered as differences in degree rather than kind. This includes the use of human-talk in relation to nature.

Graded concepts?

Darwin’s theory of evolution describing descent with modification from a common ancestor demonstrates how, over many generations, the structures of organisms diverge from a common ground plan of shared characters. That is, biological traits have precursors which, reflecting evolution, change in a mixture of apparent leaps and gradual degree. A simple example would be the way that all the major parts of a flower – the sepals, petals, stamens, and calyx – are now considered to be evolutionarily emergent structures derived from ancestral leaves.

Ancestral characters are shared similarities (synapomorphies) that are carried through into more recent forms, while advanced characters are more recent additional emergent characteristics that uniquely define a group and thus constitute differences. Every biological classification category has this property of expressing both similarity and difference and it is reflected in binomial nomenclature: in the name Homo sapiens, Homo indicates similarity, the shared characters of a genus, while sapiens indicates points of difference, the unique characters of the species.

Principle – biological classification categories share similarities with ancestral states and differences in emergent states

Principle – biological traits have evolutionary precursor or ancestral states

When biological concepts reflect, not metaphor, but a real connection with the biological world, then there will be transitive implications for ancestral and advanced characteristics.

There are two major advantages in adopting this heuristic. First, it grounds much of our agential talk, not in metaphor, but in biological reality. Second, it locates biological ideas more precisely in evolutionary space and time, with the recognition that any biological idea brings with it the evolutionary implication of precursors and descent with modification.

So, how does this idea unpack, with practical examples? A good place to start is with the notion of agency.

Ancestral and advanced

The biological axiom has been proposed here as an ancestral characteristic that gives agency to the entire community of life including humans (an agential synapomorphy),

But, at the other extreme, what are the human apomorphies – those specialized characters that are our own – the traits that uniquely define our species.

There is no shortage of suggestions here: they include:  Rationality;  Blushing; Use of language; Use of fire (possibly evolved for cooked foods); Having little body hair;  Large brains relative to other animals (1200-1400 cc) which requires carrying (muscles), protection (cranium), and high energy use (25% total). More time was needed for hunting food and less muscle to use up energy; Bipedal gait producing better vision and freeing the hands for tools but resulting in back problems and narrowing of the hips and birth canal for the large brain. More deaths in childbirth than other primates resulted in premature birth with soft skull. Children were therefore dependent for longer, remaining in the care of parents for longer than other primates, thus favouring social ties and a relatively prolonged period of learning and socialization; Opposable thumbs (thumbs can touch ring and little fingers facilitating the widespread use of tools); Morality; A descended larynx, originating c. 350, 000 BP and probably related to speech and language; Living beyond reproductive age; Our particular mix of universal behavioural characteristics (our human nature); A sense of humour?; Creative intelligence that allows us to reflect and communicate to others matters concerning the past, future, abstract notions and our reflections; The capacity for reflexive and recursive thought.

Aristotle regarded rationality as the human crowning glory, the single major trait that has facilitated our domination of other species.

Given our agential outlook on life, it is no surprise that, 2500 years later, cognitive scientist, Harvard Professor, and public intellectual Steven Pink in his book Rationality (2021) defines rationality as ‘the use of knowledge in pursuit of a goal’.

Organs to concepts
The path of organic differentiation has been (mostly) a journey from simplicity to complexity. Darwin’s descent with modification prompted us to look at the structural organization of organisms at a given time and to study their less differentiated structural antecedents. Though observing a particular structure at a particular time, we would be unable to predict the future, we can nevertheless be wise in retrospect and understand how and why things turned out the way that they did.

Grounding concepts

Concepts we use attempt to capture, imperfectly, the emergence of organic complexity based on simple origins.

We are convinced that our grand life concepts are uniquely human, but these too can be traced back to simple organic origins (human-talk: the onset of agency) – and the way that they, too, become increasingly differentiated as we attempt to relate them to increasingly complex organic matter.


A living agent replicates its kind by passing on information to its offspring. This information includes the coding for physical structures as they will exist in interaction with their future internal and external environments (human-talk: knowledge).


As survival machines, organisms are not passive to circumstance. Even in their simplest form they constrain the possible outcomes of given situations (human-talk: the deployment of knowledge to achieve goals . . . the demonstration of values, preferences, reason).
The elaboration of concepts has occurred historically in a haphazard way, but we can discern loose cascades of imperfectly graded ideas that have tried to capture gradation in organic complexity:

Cause, reason, function
Constraint, value, preference, choice
Activity, response, behaviour

Normativity & reason

The biological axiom is our most succinct crystallization of all life as agency. We have no option but to use the language of advanced agency to explain ancestral agency (human-talk: agency, mission, values, reason). The ‘mission’ (human-talk: goals, aims, values, reason) aspect of agency, as expressed in the biological axiom, expresses undifferentiated ancestral properties. Human-talk tends to differentiates value and reason (you cannot determine what ‘ought’ to be based on the way things are). But in the ancestral form of the biological axiom, and the simplest form of value and reason, they cannot be discerned. Both values and rationality are in the service of goals. 


Using human-talk, the critical ingredients of agency are the agent, the mission, and the means. Missions (goals or interests) are attempted or accomplished using means (strategies) that have mental and physical aspects.

It has already been claimed that the biological axiom expresses, as succinctly as possible, the agential goal that grounds all living organisms, because it applies to both the simplest organism at the dawn of life, and the complexity of the modern human. The biological axiom therefore becomes a statement of foundational ancestral attributes. Of course, the word ‘agency’ will gather additional emergent meanings according to the biological agent that is implied, along with the corresponding implied means. Human agency brings with it (among other things) the advanced agential characteristics of conscious deliberation.

Some concepts can have biological referents of graded physical complexity. So, for example, the meaning of the word ‘consciousness’ can vary depending on whether we are implying the consciousness of a fish or a human. Similarly, although some people might think that only humans can be agents, others will accept that an ‘agent’ can be as simple as a virus.

Human-talk often uses one word to imply organisms of varying biological complexity. That is, the meaning is ambiguous and, in such instances, must vary according to the complexity of the organism under consideration.

Recognizing that it is not possible to use a technical word for every organism, the reader is asked to consider the application of human-talk words to organisms of differing complexity.

The human-talk words are: consciousness, purpose, reason, choose, want, and know. The organisms are: plant, virus, amoeba, worm, fish, dog, human.

Remember, the point here is that it is more useful and scientifically accurate to think of consciousness as ‘real’ and present by degree in all life, rather than present in humans and absent in other species.

purpose (reason, cause)
value, want, prefer, choose, like

Universal biological properties

It is often claimed that there are no universal principles in biology but this is only partly true. For example, every individual organism has a finite life with a beginning and an end to its agential autonomy. This is a property of life that is not (or minimally) a matter of degree. One organism may be more or less organically complex than another but being alive or dead does not seem to be a graded property. These universal properties are possessed by all organisms equally so ideally in would be good if we have suitably detached terms denoting these terms. No organism is special in regard to these properties so, ideally, we need words that are semantically domain-neutral – we don’t want any domain bias.

OK, so what scientific words do we have? What are the scientifically appropriate words we can use to denote these three universal biological properties? What about ‘birth’, ‘death’, ‘self’, and ‘behaviour’? These words might just do, even though they have a decidedly human ring about them. We do talk of an organism’s ‘self’-organization, and their movement as ‘behaviour’. There might be some poetic appeal in talking of the ‘birth’ of an oak tree or the ‘behaviour’ of a daffodil but something more scientific is needed for the lab.

For the time-being we can just make a note.

Principle 1 – universal scientific concepts in biology are best expressed in domain-neutral language

This is the ideal situation, but we need to also note what happens in practice, what goes on in fact:


Principle 2 – domain-specific terms can refer to universal properties.

Graded biology

Things get difficult, however, when, for a particular structure, function, or property we are confronted with both shared and unique characteristics when being asked to compare two things.

In biology diverse structures (homologies) have shared underlying features (synapomorphies) resulting from their common descent. For example, the four major flower parts (carpels, stamens, petals, and sepals) are homologous with, and evolutionarily derived from, leaves. And the superficially completely different forelimbs of humans, bats, and deer are foundationally identical modifications of a common ground-plan based on descent with modification.

Though not strictly transposable to conceptual categories, this is a useful heuristic device for investigating human-talk (the language of human intentional psychology applied to non-human nature).

In biological evolution we have the emergence of new structures as modifications from a simpler ancestor. Say, Darwin’s finches as a range of different bird bills formed as adaptations to different environments.

For example, scientific evidence tells us that a petal is actually a leaf – albeit a modified one. Biologically we know that the petal is a derived structure – it is grounded in the leaf.

Superficially this is all nonsense because we are saying, ‘a petal is a leaf’. This is an apparent contradiction in terms. Either it is a petal, or it is a leaf, it cannot be both.

This semantic sleight of hand gathers real significance when it is applied to the evolutionarily derived biological properties we associate with human intentional psychology, notably purpose, intention, reason, and value. By tradition these properties are staunchly maintained as uniquely human, to the extent that this is part of their accepted semantics. Aristotle, for example, treated reason as the single defining characteristic of human beings.

In devising a category to , real, and physically connected underlying similarity, but a manifest difference.

Today we know (unlike Aristotle or even Enlightenment intellectuals) that reason must have had evolutionary precursors.

Principle 2 – there are many insights to be gained when we acknowledge the biological grounding states that make ‘real’ the language of human intentional psychology applied to nature.


Intentionality is usually regarded as a strictly human property of mind. As such, any talk of intentionality in non-human or non-sentient organisms must be dismissed: it becomes part of what we mean by ‘intentionality’.  But its use in biology cannot be ignored and so it is assumed that we are resorting to cognitive metaphor as a heuristic device – a way of helping us understand nature by making it sound like ourselves? To view the situation otherwise is to break the rules of semantics.

But if, like consciousness, we consider intentionality as existing in nature ‘by degree’, then we see its presence within non-conscious organisms (albeit mindlessly, unconsciously, and in crude form) in truly astonishing and real, not metaphorical, ways. When we acknowledge the reality of nature’s continuum then we naturalize both human-talk and the idea of agency in nature.

We can now study in nature many of the mental faculties that we assumed were strictly human including: reasoning, foresight, memory and hindsight, foresight, valuation, purpose, and sensation all demonstrated in nature’s purposive (functional) design.

When we use agential language like this in relation to non-human organisms, we say that we are being anthropomorphic. By using words that usually describe our own conscious and intentional behaviour,


Philosopher Dan Dennett has tackled this problem by assuming what he calls the intentional stance. He says:

‘Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.’

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 17.

Dennett points out that, regardless of the language being used, if this method ‘works’ as a form of intentional system analysis then it is not ‘as if’ the system is intentional, it actually ‘is’ intentional. We should not be sidetracked by the language.

But most of nature is mindless. Is unconscious intent possible, or is that a contradiction in terms? (However, it does not assume conscious intent, rather it investigates the historical reasons why natural selection prioritized or ‘favoured’ particular structures, processes, and behaviours. Non-human organisms do not have conscious intentions but they are, nevertheless, mindless agents with real purposes. That is how we explain functional and adaptive behaviour: not as a heuristic device but as a way of explaining nature.

The question posed by anthropomorphism concerns the distinction between what is in the world, and what is in our minds. When, or to what extent, are we reading our own subjectivity into the world?

Sometimes anthropomorphism is blatant. Clearly a river does not ‘want’ to flow to the sea: certainly not in the same way that I ‘want’ to swim in the sea on a hot day. The river ‘wanting’ is added by my mind.

Sometimes anthropomorphism depends more subtly on our intuitions, so it is not so simple – more fuzzy, and nuanced – perhaps a matter of degree. Does a tree ‘want’ light and water? Does a worm ‘want’ damp earth? Does a dog ‘want’ its owner to come home from work when it looks out of the window at the time when the owner usually comes home? Perhaps ‘wanting’ is most closely associated with intentional human-consciousness-talk. But there is, nevertheless, a strange sense in which we understand that trees ‘need’, ‘require’, ‘depend on’ or ‘want’ light and water in a different way from rivers needing the sea. And pet lovers will certainly recognize a dog wanting, longing, or pining, so perhaps ‘wanting’ could be regarded as not just human-consciousness-talk but sentience-talk as well?

Then there is misattributed anthropomorphism – the self-evident, albeit unconscious and mindless, goals and purposes we see in nature, like the highly organized and purposive behaviour of ants and bees (but, in fact, almost every aspect of nature). There are obvious reasons, purposes, and goals for insect activity that existed in nature long before human minds came on the scene. If we insist that ‘purpose’ is consciousness-talk, then is the activity of an ant colony purposeless in the same way that the flowing of a river is purposeless? As reason-representers we know otherwise.

Part of the difficulty is that we lack the language to express functional gradation in the same way that we use the language of analogy or homology to express structural differences – so we fall back on the language of human cognition.

We can detect in all organisms, for example, the functional homologues of intention, value, sensation, memory and hindsight, learning, foresight, and reason. Clearly the language of cognition is (mostly) scientifically inappropriate. But we use putatively anthropomorphic words like ‘interests’, and ‘preferences’ – not just because we are innately anthropomorphic, but because we do not have the words that we need to express functional equivalence. Where is the anthropomorphic line to be drawn as biologists speak endlessly of ‘organization’, ‘regulation’, ‘communication’ etc. It makes nonsense of biology to regard this as unadulterated cognitive metaphor.

Being evolving creatures, organisms have the potential for ‘self-correction’, part of which is the ability to respond in different ways, to be flexible and adapt, both short- and long-term.

These elements of mindless agency warrant closer inspection.

When we say ‘The eye is for seeing’ we are acknowledging that the existence of the eye is a consequence of a selection process. Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’.  And, in nature, where there is an aim, a ‘for’, and also a beneficiary,[58] then there is purpose that is independent of human intention – purpose that is in nature, not just in human minds as ‘as if’ metaphor.

Mindless intentionality!

We think of agents as having interests, goals, and strategies.[9] This idea can be translated into the non-human world of biology by regarding organisms as having the goal of survival and reproduction and evolved traits as strategies for achieving this goal.[10]


Like Aristotle, we are inclined to regard reason as a supremely human faculty. How could nature possibly reason?

Well, Aristotle also pointed out that ‘nature does nothing in vain’ . . . by which he meant that nature is drenched in reasons – reasons for lives, processes, behaviours, and outcomes.

The modern idea being targeted by Aristotle is that of adaptation, which brings with it the idea of value. Adaptation is anything that enhances an organism’s fitness – that improves its likelihood of survival – that ‘benefits’ or ‘promotes’ the organism vis-a-vis the biological axiom. To understand and explain nature and organisms we must reverse-engineer these reasons.

But what kinds of reasons are mindless reasons? Here we must remember that in asking why an organism is as it is, we are not inferring mental motivation (a cognitive attribute of intentional psychology), but why particular traits were prioritized or ‘favoured’ by natural ‘selection’. We must try to understand the adaptive significance of every aspect of life – the reasons why structures and processes have functional and instrumental value – without inferring the metaphor of human conscious states.

Philosopher Samir Okasha refers to these ‘natural reasons’ as ‘proto-rationality’. But what kind of rationality is this?

One approach to rationality is that it is the application of compelling inference rules – anything that conforms to deductive logic and the axioms of probability theory. Reason simply provides boundaries of consistency and it can only guide behaviour when based, for example, on empirical foundations like the biological necessity (not logical necessity) of the biological axioms.

Evolution of reason
It seems that reason emerges out of the order of nature. Where there is order, we have the primordial inklings of ‘reason’ and ‘value’ . . . of ‘limitation’ and ‘preference’.

This begins with the laws of physics which limit possible outcomes, and the paths that must be followed as they bring about ‘filtered’ outcomes.

Natural ‘selection’ then, in turn, constrains further, the possible organic outcomes in a manner more akin to human reason. With increase in physical complexity comes increase in conceptual complexity. Behavioural plasticity is then precursor of cognition (Okasha).

Bacteria to Bach
Philosopher Dan Dennett examines the steps that occurred on the path from mindless reasons to conscious deliberation.[6]

Darwin gave us a compelling account of the historical development of structural complexity on the line of evolution leading to humans – the vertebrates, primates etc. But the evolution of cognition – of consciousness, reason, and the intellect – is still a study in progress as natural selection generates intelligent design in the form of ‘competence without comprehension’. With increasing complexity of nervous systems comes increasing competence in self-awareness, learning, abstraction, memory, and foresight (prediction, science).[7]

Dennett points out that our umweldt, the environmental factors that matter to us as human beings (which he calls affordances, and which constitute our ‘reality‘) have been progressively and finely tuned.

Intellectual evolution was fostered by cultural evolution as the endless dialectic of social competition and cooperation. And along the way we acquired thinking tools – mental technology – like words, numbers, maps, and calculus. We discovered useful ideas as ‘memes’ that could be culturally inherited and promulgated in a similar way to biological inheritance: cultural analogues of genes, like viruses inhabiting our minds. They may be benign or malignant.  Natural selection’s algorithm of ‘generate and test’ somehow became consciousness.


The propensity to promote some outcomes over others, to restrict the range of possible outcomes, creates a ‘direction’ or ‘path’. Aristotle recognized the way that the structures, behaviour, and processes of all organisms operate in a manner that tends to preserve and further their own existence (in accordance with the biological axiom). This pervasive goal-directedness of all aspects of nature he referred to as telos, which we refer to as ‘purpose’. The fact that it occurs in a mindless and unconscious way that is only evident to humans, does not negate its existence in nature. Certainly, only humans (as conscious and rational purpose-representers) can represent and appreciate purpose in nature. But that does not mean that humans create nature’s agency.

Darwin described the way that eyes and legs, leaves and spines, arose in nature as adaptations that were ‘for’ walking, seeing, food production, and deterrence. In this way he naturalized purpose and function in nature, and in so doing he grounded teleology (purpose) in nature itself. Purpose was not imposed from outside by humans or God. Darwin did not explain purpose away by connecting it inseparably with human intention. The purpose of a prosthetic leg is established by the intentions of its inventor. Legs that occur in nature also have purposes, even though they were created by a natural process that has no conscious intention. Moreover, the idea that purpose in nature demands the foresight present only in humans is simply mistaken. It arises in nature through the adaptive feedback of natural selection; it does not require the foresight we associate with consciousness. Aristotle’s final causes make sense. Nature can be ‘for without foresight’.

In sum: teleology is OK. Biologists need not feel guilty when using the language of purpose and agency in biology.

‘Direction’ is instilled in matter through the iterative process of natural selection. An organism contains within its genome both its evolutionary history and present-day potential. It is equipped with the means of reacting to present conditions in ways that enhance survival. The genome brings a physical ‘memory’ to the present-day world. Natural selection then adds ‘reason’ as a process of ‘self-correction’ which is the ability to ‘learn’ from past mistakes as a mindless form of ‘anticipation’ . . . the capacity for ‘foresight’. In combination, these physical factors give nature mindless purpose and agency. This theme is explained in more detail in the article on ‘human-talk.


In human-talk, the behaviour of non-conscious organisms favours their own existence and perpetuation by mindlessly increasing the probabilities of some outcomes over others; essentially those outcomes that are ‘beneficial’ to the organism, that is, promoting the conditions of the biological axiom.

This filtration, selection, or ‘favouring’ of some outcomes rather than others, and the way organisms in their activity display ‘choices’ or ‘preferences’ for one situation over another are what give life its ‘agency’ or ‘direction’ and a major characteristic that distinguishes the animate from the inanimate.

In the continuum of organic life, the emergence of complexity is one outcome on the evolutionary path from a common ancestor and agency seems to gather with the emergence and elaboration of the nervous system.

There is ample opportunity within this schema for intentional and agential language, especially when the words have generally acceptable abstraction and generality – such as interests goals, and strategies.

Organisms absorb information about their environments via the ‘sensations’ received by their particular sensory system. This is then incorporated in the inner processing that precedes outward action and reaction as ‘behaviour’ or ‘response’. The physical structures associated with each phase (input, process, output) are more or less complex, depending on the organism, and more or less similar to human systems.

Human agents receive food energy and the sensory information associated with (mostly) sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste which is then processed metabolically and both unconsciously and consciously in the brain by conscious deliberation, with action and reaction output as behaviour including exhalation and excretion.

The ‘human’ words we use for human-talk vary in the strength of human association. For example, the words ‘self’ and ‘behaviour’ are uncontroversial while consciousness words like ‘want’ and ‘know’ are unacceptable applied to non-humans. ‘Preference’ seems slightly less ‘human’ than ‘choice’, ‘need’ or ‘want’, and so on.

Organisms approximate the human condition to a greater or lesser degree. Though much of human activity is based on unconscious biological activity, it is the conscious decision-making that provides the philosophical challenge.

Minimally, agency is the demonstration of some independence of action. However, we tend to associate agency with the human paradigm of the individual (or social) power to act and make intentional choices that can influence our own and other peoples’ lives and circumstances. Put simply, we like to think of ourselves as rational agents whose choices conform to our beliefs and desires. Most obvious here are conscious human mental faculties like foresight (anticipation) and hindsight (memory); the accumulation of knowledge; the ability to reason and make choices; the expression of value (individual and collective preferences); and of intention.

This mix of motives behind human-talk has generated long-standing semantic and conceptual confusion, scientific imprecision, and a 2000-year-old metaphysical debate about teleology.

Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (much of the time) it attempts to represent similarities that exist (are real) in nature; they are not just in human minds.

In science we (mostly) use the language of intentional psychology not as metaphor, or because of our anthropomorphic bias, but because of similarities in nature that have real, if distant, evolutionary connection. Human-talk in relation to organisms is, in most cases, very different from a sentence like ‘the river ‘wants’ to reach the sea’ and for reasons that should now be clear.

In the absence of adequate vocabulary to distinguish between the many gradations of biological agency I will, from now on, like all biologists, resort to human-talk while recognizing that this vocabulary has been extended beyond its usual semantic range.

Information & communication

Though yet to be philosophically developed, since the 1950s and the DNA revolution, biology has accepted the language of information, communication, and their processing (editing, coding, translation, transmission, transcription, messages, messengers, signals, sending, receiving – and feedback).

Just as words are not just ink on a page or pixels on a screen, so genes are not just DNA. We must wrestle with the idea that DNA is information that re-creates itself, and that humans are ‘just DNA’s way of making more DNA’!

Heredity, especially, seems to bring with it the incorporation of historical information into present structures and processes: genes are not just physical molecules but coded information communicated across time.

Though difficult to pinpoint, it does appear that organisms ‘benefit’ from the historical information contained in their genes as a kind of ‘memory’ in a way that has no correlates in the inanimate world. But this needs careful philosophical unpacking. Certainly we must accept that, during development, especially, there is an extraordinarily complex system of chemical and other ‘signalling’ going on both internally, and in relation to environments at various scales.

First published on the internet – 9 October 2021

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