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This article is one of a set of articles exploring the theme of purpose in biology. For purpose as ‘meaning in individual lives’ see Meaning. For an investigation of the agential implications of purpose see life as agency, and for an analysis of the reasons why we attribute organisms with cognitive qualities see human-talk. The article on purpose and value then examines in more detail the way that teleological selection processes introduce rudimentary value (normativity) because they are selecting ‘for’ something. Also, the way that the ends or goals of selection are beneficial, functionally desirable or, as Aristotle said, ‘for the better‘. This is tied into a system of biological normativity which claims that the purpose of all living organisms is ‘to survive, reproduce, and flourish‘. This biological axiom is then related to the specific human traits of language and intellect harnessed to foster human happiness and flourishing which serve as the foundation for a universal and objective ethical system as an environmental ethics that can assist us in the management of the community of life on planet earth.

Another more speculative article explores the way that the meaning of words like ‘reason’, ‘cause’, ‘selection’, ‘purpose’, ‘function’, ‘design’, ‘intention’, and ‘value’ are metaphysically lacking when viewed in the light of post-Darwinian biological and physical science. It examines the transition from reasons to conscious deliberation; from order to design; and from selection to purpose, value, and intention. The numerous scare quotes in this article (apart from those referring to words themselves) emphasize contentious and/or metaphorical words.



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


Darwin’s On the origin . . . (1859) contained two profound insights whose significance has been subsequently resisted or ignored. One of these insights is slowly gaining recognition in the philosophy of biology, while a further 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 the supernatural, human projection, foresight, or backward causation. Though Darwin himself was ambivalent about purpose in nature, he nevertheless provided a naturalistic account that showed how agency, purpose and design in nature are real, even though they are sometimes described using anthropomorphic language.

Second, and only hinted at by Darwin himself (see quote above), the use of anthropomorphic language in biology is prompted not only by convenience and our natural anthropocentric bias, but also by a lack of technical terminology and an intuitive recognition of our human agential (not psychological) connection to nature’s universal agency. Much of the controversial anthropomorphic language of biology is not the ‘as if’ talk of cognitive metaphor (a traditional historical assumption) but the ‘like’ talk of biological simile that is grounded in the graded likeness of biological organization and agency that is a consequence of descent with modification. Subsuming the psychological within biological agency (accepting human intention as an evolutionary development of biological agency) has substantial philosophical implications.

see Life as agency

Darwin distilled his thinking about organic descent with modification from a common ancestor into just two words, natural selection. Critics pointed to the anthropomorphic connotations of this expression (the implication that nature ‘selects’ in an intentional human-like way). Darwin found it ‘difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature‘ but argued that ‘such metaphorical expressions‘ were harmless and ‘almost necessary for brevity.’ (Darwin 1859, p. 135 cited in Okasha p. 16). Eventually Darwin complied with Alfred Russel Wallace‘s suggestion that he use, instead, Herbert Spencer’s phrase survival of the fittest. The new terminology was duly published in Darwin‘s The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), and the fifth edition of On the Origin . . . (1869).[10] This is a notable example of the concern about anthropomorphism that has dogged biological science from its earliest days.

The humanization of non-human organisms, by using words like ‘body’, ‘leg’, ‘arm’;’ eating’, ‘walking’, ‘running’ etc., has raised little scientific concern while the attribution of mental properties to nature has proved philosophically and scientifically problematic. Why do we accept the physical humanization of nature but reject its mental humanization?

Darwin defended the world-changing thesis of his On the Origin . . . (1859) by using wide-ranging examples of the evolution of physical structures. Later, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) his interest shifted to more abstract mental phenomena.

Theories about the brain and mind were less amenable to empirical treatment because the mind was obscure and private. Traditional conceptual frameworks explained the brain and mind in terms of deeply entrenched religious and academic traditions which resisted scientific investigation.

Another century would pass before, in the 1970s, as evolutionary biology became a mainstream academic discipline in universities, a new academic subject emerged to explore Darwinian ideas applied to brains and minds: evolutionary psychology. Darwinian studies had cautiously moved from bodies to the brain and cognition.

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 was not a metaphysical mystery, but the universal set of evolved psychological adaptations developed in response to ancestral environments.

The evolutionary journey from body to brain and mind took about a century, but there is one more step – into the intentional (agential) language and concepts whose meaning is embedded in the reality of evolution.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) challenged the 18th century ‘spectator’ view of science (that we see and understand the world directly as it exists in reality) with his Copernican Revolution in philosophy. This was an attempt to determine the mental a priori (prior to experience) preconditions that made meaningful human experience possible. He concluded that the human mind is like a lens that structures our experience of space and time (the transcendental aesthetic) and provides the logical categories that bind our experience into a unified whole (the transcendental analytic).

The philosophical, psychological, and cognitive development of Kant’s ideas led to a subsequent intellectual focus on human subjectivity as the key to our understanding of both scientific enquiry and the world. This human-centred introspection was shaken by Darwin who countered human self-absorption by looking outward into the operations of nature.

Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775-1854), a largely ignored German Romantic philosopher, best known for his Naturphilosophie has been characterized by contemporary American philosopher Matthew Segall as posing, in a Kantian way, an equally fascinating but neglected question that shifts the orientation of our thinking outward rather than inward, by asking: ‘what must be the preconditions in nature such that human subjectivity is possible?’ This perspective looks to nature, not the human mind, as an originator, source, or creator.

How are we to scientifically appraise our tendency to humanize nature? Is there a difference in the way we humanize, on the one hand, physical structures and, on the other, the concepts familiar to human intentional psychology? Should the physical and cognitive be treated in different ways? And how does the anthropomorphic idiom (human-talk – the language used to humanize non-human organisms, objects, and ideas) relate to the literary device called metaphor?

In this article I examine some of the more nuanced properties of human-talk.  Our use of human-talk is not just a matter of simplifying convenience and our anthropocentric cognitive bias, it is also fostered by a lack of technical vocabulary and an intuitive acknowledgement of our agential connection to nature. I argue that controversial anthropomorphism in biology has been plagued by two long-standing historical confusions.

First, the mistaken designation of much anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor, rather than biological simile. Biological anthropomorphism relates to nature not ‘literally’ or ‘as if’ but ‘like’ – with the ‘likeness’ grounded in the reality of evolutionary gradation and the agency expressed in the biological axiom (the universal predisposition of life to survive, reproduce, and flourish). The assignment of anthropomorphism to metaphor dates back to ancient pre-evolutionary times and was reinforced by thinkers of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and even Darwin himself (see above). It has generated semantic and conceptual confusion and an unnecessary 2500-year-old metaphysical debate about teleology.

Second, the conflation of the language of biological agency (the agency expressed in the biological axiom) with that of one of its evolutionarily advanced expressions, human intentional psychology. Removing the language of human intentional psychology from biology has the effect of denying the agency that is pervasive in nature; it condemns life to the same realm of existence as inanimate objects while also denying, at the same time, the universal connection that exists between humans and other organisms.

This reformulation of anthropomorphism has substantial implications for the philosophy of biology and the understanding of our human connection to nature. It also has implications for our interpretation of the grand notions of knowledge, reason, value, purpose, and agency, whose scientific meaning, I argue, must align with the reality of nature’s agency and physical gradation. There are further implications for all human intentional concepts, especially the ‘interests’ of non-human organisms and why they should be brought into the moral sphere (see environmental ethics).

Human-talk provides a window into this new interpretation of biological anthropomorphism.

As elsewhere on this web site, key claims are expressed as principles encouraging criticism.

Structures & concepts

Biological structures – like hearts, wings, and eyes – are physical objects open to empirical investigation. But well into the 20th century studies of the brain and mind were considered crude and unscientific speculation about inaccessible internal, and therefore private and unknowable, mental states. The mind was a mysterious spiritual realm whose secrets could only be accessed by religion or philosophy, not science.

There has been a remarkable turnaround as today the brain, mind, consciousness, and artificial intelligence are at the forefront of scientific research – regarded by many as the last major scientific frontier. But the conceptual connections between the language of human intentional psychology and the non-human biological world remain, as yet, underexplored.

Grand concepts like consciousness, knowledge, value, reason, and agency, are almost universally regarded as elements of an impregnable human domain. But can these concepts reach back into our non-human evolutionary history? Are minded concepts like these linked in some way to mindless organisms? Today’s resounding answer to this question is that there is no connection. The distinction between the minded and mindless is clear-cut and undeniable – self-evident by word meaning alone.

An investigation of human-talk suggests that things may not be quite this simple.

We like our ideas to be clear and distinct. Communication is simplified when things are straightforwardly true or false, real or unreal, fact or metaphor.

But sometimes physical properties in the real world are not just present or absent, and statements about them true or false. Rather, they exist in nature 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.

From an evolutionary perspective the community of life is what might be called an interrupted organic continuum. Although it is the consequence of a physical continuum in time, we humans find it convenient to discriminate the differences we associate with individual species. We humans look similar to apes, much less like whales, and nothing like plants. Even so, our common biological heritage means that we humans actually share many genes with our plant cousins.

Gradually we are becoming accustomed to the idea of biological continuity.  Nowadays we accept that humans are animals: before Darwin such a suggestion would have raised eyebrows. Similarly, the idea of a plant or animal exhibiting ‘agency’ – the contention that agency is continuous in nature – becomes problematic for those who wish to treat humans as unique by, say, claiming that the notion of agency must be restricted to agents with conscious intentions.

The Darwinian revolution

Prior to Darwin humanity managed daily life, medicine, and biological science, without the notion of nature’s organic continuity and connection. In the Christian world the similarities and differences of biological species were the discrete creations of God. The scientific account of heritable continuity, of genetic information passed between the generations as shared genes, and over a vast expanse of geological time, all followed after Darwin.

Darwin showed that all organisms and living structures have evolutionary antecedents, and this was a new idea. It meant that a full explanation and understanding of any biological feature must incorporate an evolutionary history of relationships – everything in nature was now connected to everything else both physically and temporally.

The combination of Darwinism (1859) and the later Big Bang theory (1930s) meant that for the first time, in the early to mid- 20th century, the notion of universal and organic emergence gained a new impetus and significance as science adjusted to the idea of the universe, not as an eternal creation, but as a gradual unfolding of novel elements, materials, structures, properties, and relations. Darwin showed how the particularly complex form of matter that we know as ‘life’, a late arrival in the universe, was a product of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Then physics replaced the former eternal Steady State theory of the universe with a theory of material and stellar evolution originating from the point source of the Big Bang.

A subsequent 20th century chronometric revolution has allowed us to place major universal and biological major events within a firm temporal framework. Today, for example, an evolutionary understanding of the organ we call the heart takes us back 600-700 million years to its barely recognizable evolutionary origins as a single-layered tube in tunicates.

These events of the late 19th and early 20th century showed that organs, like human brains, are evolutionarily connected to similar structures in other creatures. Brains are not present or absent in nature, but present by degree, as determined by their evolutionary history.

Is there a conceptual analogy to be drawn here when we consider the minded and mindless?

Principle – The combination of Darwinism (1859) and the later Big Bang theory (1930s) presented humanity, in the mid-20th century, with a profoundly new scientific understanding of a universe evolving in time. The universe was not an eternal creation.  Space, time, and matter had exploded from a point source 13.8 million years ago. The notion of emergence acquired new significance as the complex forms of matter we know today, including their properties and relations, diversified from a simple source with one consequence being the entire community of life as a product of descent with modification from a common ancestor.

What is human-talk?

Human-talk is the language of humanization – the attribution of human characteristics to non-human organisms, objects, and ideas.

So, why do we speak of ‘the cruel sea’ or a ‘clever idea’, and say that a river ‘yearns’ for the coast? In biology, why do we say that a cuckoo ‘deceives’ its host; that natural selection ‘chooses’ or ‘favours’ one outcome over another; that the ‘purpose’ of eyes is to see; that the snail ‘wants’ to avoid the light and sun; and that the spider ‘knows’ how to weave its web?

As a potential source of scientific error and confusion, surprisingly little research has focused on the analogical reasoning[5] of human-talk.


Though there are several specific reasons why we use human-talk it is, in the most general terms, a way of drawing attention to likeness.

Likeness comes in many guises. Human-talk makes comparisons between humans and non-humans using various criteria of comparison. So, the criterion of likeness or similarity might relate to structure, function, position, appearance, colour, or a myriad of other properties and their combinations.

In short, similarity can range from true scientific likeness to whatever fantastical likeness we might imagine. It is this multiplicity of likenesses that is exploited by literary devices such as metaphor, simile, personification and so on.

Our interest is scientific, and this begs the question as to how genuine (rather than imaginary) organic likeness is established.

Biological likeness

Evolution is our best scientific account of organic likeness because it establishes physical (genetic) continuity of relationships over time. When two living objects are likened to one another in an evolutionary context then we know that there must be a physical connection in time, no matter how distant or how small.

Science overcomes conceptual fuzziness, generality (semantic range), abstraction, and openness to interpretation, by using clear, simple, and closely defined technical terms.

So, to differentiate, say, the legs of humans from those of spiders (because they evolved differently and are differently constructed) precise technical terms can be coined.[14] But this precision does not eliminate the concurrent need for the abstraction of grounding concepts. Even if all kinds of legs were given scientific names, we would still need the general notion ‘leg’ (the shared concept of the group).

To study the evolution of any biological feature two critical sets of characters are needed: those that define individuals – that make them unique; and those that are shared with others as a necessary consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor. So, there are many vertebrate species, each with their own unique features (unique), but all have backbones (shared).

This simultaneous consideration of similarity and difference (the shared and the unique), as the general and particular, [22] is a powerful way of establishing evolutionary context and it is neatly captured in binomial nomenclature. So, for example, in the Latin name Homo sapiens, Homo denotes general similarity, the shared characters of the genus Homo, while sapiens indicates points of difference, the unique characteristics of a particular species. The name Homo is like a broad conceptual stage, a common ground on which related individuals, each with their own unique characteristics, can play – like Homo erectus, Homo ludens, Homo heidelbergensis etc.

So, to establish evolutionary context of any organism, structure, or concept we need both shared or grounding characteristics, and emergent characteristics that express individual variations on this grounding theme.

From now on in this article, concepts expressing shared characters, and the abstraction of generality, will be called grounding concepts while their more specific counterparts, or instantiations, will be called emergent concepts.

Principle – to establish the evolutionary context of any organism, structure, or concept, two sets of characters must be considered: those that are shared with its relations (grounding characteristics), and those that are unique to the item under investigation (emergent characteristics)

Why do we use human-talk?

There are many reasons why we humanize nature, they include: literary flourish, cognitive bias, convenience, lack of technical vocabulary, and our intuitive connection with other living organisms.

Literary flourish

From a literary point of view, we enjoy using our creative imagination to produce engaging and colourful prose. This brings the world closer to ourselves, to our human way of seeing things, and we can do this by using the literary devices of anthropomorphism, personification, human similes, and human metaphors.

Personification is widely expressed in mythology, religion, fables, and storytelling. It is hardly surprising that the supernatural world of Gods and spirits of both past and present has taken on human forms and behaviours. In prehistory humans imbued all of nature with supernatural, often personified, agency.[12] . . . like the thundering voices of angry Gods coming from the sky during a rainstorm. Forests, streams, mountains, trees, and landscapes were populated by spirits, demons, and supernatural human-like animistic forces of many kinds. Gradually, over time, the numbers of these supernatural beings diminished, and supernatural belief focused more on Gods (generally interpreted as men and women).  At first there were many (polytheism) but, eventually, and over much of the world, just one (monotheism). Gradually Gods too became more distant. In ancient Greece the Gods, who lived a human-like existence replete with the same follies and foibles as human-beings, lived high above the world at the tip of Mount Olympus. In later civilizations these personifications departed this world altogether, ascending into the sky to become ethereal, eternal, and ineffable . . . and, eventually, completely dissociated from space and time.

Though acceptable as a literary device, human-talk in biology is usually regarded as a misrepresentation of reality, taking the form of scientific ‘as if’ metaphor.[13] Scientifically, we need to grasp the world as it is, not as our imaginations would have it. Treated as metaphor, biological anthropomorphism is of heuristic value, at best.

Cognitive bias

When concepts become difficult to express we tend to personalize them, because that makes them more user-friendly.

Human-talk conforms to our natural anthropocentric cognitive bias. We see the world from a human perspective – how could it be otherwise? Our humanization of the world may be as blatant as our personification of animals (Yogi Bear, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck), or as subtle as the insinuation of human perceptions into science (the observer effect, our human sense of space, time, scale, and so on).

Lack of technical terms

In biological science the temptation to use human-talk is also motivated by a lack of technical vocabulary.

So, for example, we have the general concept ‘eye’ as an organ of vision (with the human ‘eye’ being, as it were, a reference point). Then, to clearly distinguish between the multitude of eye-like structures that exist in nature we coin technical words with precise scientific meanings, the degree of discrimination between each depending on scientific requirements (e.g. simple, compound, eye-spots, pit eyes, ocelli, ommatidia, and so on). If there is no formal scientific description based on the structure of eyes themselves then we resort to designations like ‘dog eyes’, ‘insect eyes’, and so on, but this potentially decreases the scientific precision of meaning.

When we study an amoeba, though it is vastly different from humans in physical structure, we nevertheless intuitively recognize in its agential behaviour similarities to our own behaviour. It will move away from toxic surroundings and predators, it reproduces, it is attracted to sources of food, and so on. There is no agential vocabulary for these behavioural traits as they exist uniquely in amoeba. Without these amoeba-specific behavioural terms and, with our anthropocentric cognitive bias, we therefore resort to anthropomorphic human-talk. We speak of amoeba’s ‘preferences’, ‘self-regulation’, ‘behaviour’, ‘strategies’, ‘self-preservation’, and in this way we indicate the similarity of human and amoeboid agential behaviour, using the language of cognitive association.

In this instance the human-talk is telling us that amoeba behaviour is like human behaviour, it is not expressing a metaphorical (figurative) similarity, but a similarity that is grounded in the real agential properties that are shared by all organisms as expressed in the biological axiom.

Each species has its own unique way of expressing agential traits (humans express some of them in a notably minded way) and, ideally, each could be uniquely identified using appropriate scientific terms. We do not have a scientific glossary of such terms and so, instead, we resort to human-talk, thus opening the door to accusations of biological metaphor and therefore figurative, not real, science.

If we believe that human agency evolved out of biological agency then we need a bridge of language and meaning that merges functional adaptation with human intention because the semantics of human intentional psychology has yet to catch up with the evolutionary theory on which it is based.

Principle – without the technical language to uniquely circumscribe the agency of each species we resort to the language we use for our most familiar agency – human agency. This opens the door to the accusation of metaphor

At present, the use of human-talk indicates a lack of technical vocabulary. This situation also occurred in the history of structural biology which subsequently built up its technical terms.

Naturalizing human-talk in this way is an unlikely prospect. A more probable approach would be to naturalize human-talk by acknowledging the reality of evolutionary connection and, by recognizing that both physical and mental characteristics have evolutionary precursors. Either way, this will take a long time.


We use human-talk, in part, out of laziness or, as Darwin expressed it, ‘for brevity’. Transposing the human-talk of the examples given at the head of this article into more objective language would be a tedious and time-consuming process. For example, converting the human-talk of ‘The spider knows how to build its web‘ into non-anthropomorphic biological language entails a long causal explanation involving genetics and evolutionary history.

Agential connection

We intuitively recognize our evolutionary connection to other organisms, even when that evolutionary connection is extremely distant. But it is the agential characteristics of other organisms that we recognize rather than their physical features.  We do not have such a connection to the inanimate world and the dead. We can hardly empathize with plants based on similarity of physical appearance but we certainly accept that a plant can ‘want’ or ‘need’ water in a much more meaningful sense than a river ‘wanting’ to reach the sea. Moreover, this agential connection is real, not metaphorical, because it is founded on the genetics of common ancestry. Plants and non-human organisms may not have minds, but they display the biological agency (biological axiom) of all living organisms, including humans.

The characteristics that make humans unique and special are built on a foundation of shared structures, properties, and relations that can be traced back to the dawn of life on Earth – connections that are built into our genetics, biochemical processes, behavioural traits, and the single feature that unites us most strongly with the community of life – our shared agency.

Because we humans share the ultimate values of all living organisms (the biological axiom) we intuitively identify with other creatures in a manner that is different from the way we relate to rocks. This is part of our accounting for human-talk and the anthropomorphic bias. It is why we can relate to the life of a bird, or even a plant, in a way that we cannot relate to a rock. We intuitively recognize our evolutionary connection to the community of life, its agency, and the biological normativity expressed in the biological axiom. There are many insights to be gained when we acknowledge the biological grounding states that makes real the language of human intentional psychology as it is applied to nature (see human-talk).

With increase in material complexity there is a corresponding increase in complexity of our conceptualization of the relationship of cause to effect. In the inanimate world this relationship expresses the impersonal ordering of matter by physical constants. In mindless nature there is the additional ordering of organic matter causes produce effects that are ‘for the better’. These are short-term and long-term behaviour, processes, and structures (adaptations) that promote the survival, reproduction, and flourishing of organisms. These are ordering effects that, in human-talk, are ‘beneficial’ to the organism. Humans then manifest self-correction by conscious deliberation.

There is a continuum across the natural world running from inorganic cause and effect to organic purpose, agency, and normativity.


Principle – agency is expressed in the pursuit of goals, a characteristic that unites all life (see the biological axiom). Though all life manifests mindless goals, humans in addition, express minded intentions.


Metaphors, we have realized in the last few decades, are much more than literary flourish. Our language is saturated with metaphor which serves as an indispensable part of our cognition, facilitating concept formation and communication. This is especially important in scientific communication because it can shed light on obscure ideas. Scientific metaphors can, for example, weaken or uphold scientific paradigms.[7][8][9]

More precisely, though, metaphors are figures of speech that compare things (the relata) by drawing attention to similarities, often in a colourful way. Most importantly, and by both definition and common usage, these similarities are not there in reality, they are figurative. Metaphors 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, and in science the word ‘metaphor’ signals ‘not real’.

Metaphors are stronger than similes. Similes convey the similarity of relata 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 ‘all the world’s a stage’, ‘time is money’, and ‘love is hell’. Hypocatastasis deals briefly with metaphorical similarity by naming only one of the relata.

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

Clear-cut examples like this point directly to the unreality of the relationship expressed by the metaphor (in this case, the fact that humans are not rats).

An obvious but lazy conclusion from these examples would be that the controversial human-talk (anthropomorphism) in biological literature is metaphor of this kind; that one of the relata is figurative i.e. unreal. But if the human-talk of biology is always metaphor of this kind, then it is very strange metaphor.

To look more closely at biological metaphor it is useful to make a distinction between, on the one hand, the anthropomorphic language we use to describe physical structures (which I call non-cognitive human-talk) and, on the other, the language we use to imply the mental states of human intentional psychology (cognitive human-talk – sometimes referred to as cognitive metaphor).

Principle – metaphors use ‘as if’ (figurative) language, and in science the word ‘metaphor’ signals ‘not real’.

Non-cognitive human-talk

Human-talk, when used to describe non-human organisms, takes many forms. As metaphor, for example, we talk of tree ‘limbs’, ‘ears’ of corn, and the ‘eyes’ of potatoes.

Straightforward examples of metaphor like these are swamped by the many other non-cognitive forms of human-talk used to describe non-human organisms. These are so abundant, and so subtle, that it becomes extremely difficult to interpret what actually counts as human-talk, what is metaphor, and what is some other figure of speech.  We use metaphors so frequently that we often don’t realize that they are metaphors (called, metaphorically, ‘dead’ metaphors) e.g. ‘car body’, ‘tree trunk’.

The word ‘leg’ will illustrate this point.

Following our anthropocentric cognitive bias, almost any biological organs used for standing or locomotion are loosely labelled as ‘legs’. This usage even extends to the inanimate world when we speak of the ‘legs’ of tables and chairs. In these instances, the word ‘leg’ is being used in a casual, non-scientific and non-technical way to convey function. When used in this broad sense the word ‘leg’ circumscribes a multitude of objects, structures, and functions and in so doing it gathers abstraction to assume what can be called a wide semantic range.

There are many human-like words used in this way. They include: physical structures (‘body’, ‘head’, ‘leg’, ‘arm’, ‘foot’ etc.); actions (‘eating’, ‘sitting’, ‘running’, ‘behaviour’, ‘looking’); and various characteristics and properties (‘sex’, ‘male’, ‘female’), and so on.

Words like these used casually and with a wide semantic range can be interpreted in many ways. So, when we speak of the ‘arms’ of an octopus, the likeness to human arms may be about structure, function, a combination of these – or maybe something else.

The word ‘body’ has a semantic range that encompasses any creature in the animal kingdom (and even some objects that are not e.g. car body). There is no philosophical or scientific objection to such usage because ‘body’ is being used in a generalized, abstract, informal, and non-technical way.

Is it correct to describe such usage as metaphor?

Well, an insect ‘head’ is hardly like a human ‘head’. But in cases like this we are not claiming that an insect head is the same as a human head, but that it shares a likeness. In this instance ‘head’ means, more or less, ‘the part on top of the body’. If a literary comparison is to be made then the comparison between human and insect ‘heads’ is a simile, not metaphor. To insist that ‘head’ is being used here as metaphor simply mistakes the particular criterion of likeness that is being used, the things that are being compared. The implied assertion of likeness relates to position, not biological identity. Scientists and non-scientists alike accept unreservedly that mice have ‘heads’ and ‘legs’, they ‘run’ and ‘eat’. . . and so forth. To claim that these words are being used as metaphors misunderstands their role in communication.

Could cognitive metaphor be like this? Is the aim of the language of conscious mental intentions to convey something more general than human intent?

A few more cases will illustrate what is going on with non-cognitive human-talk.

The word ‘self’ sounds like a ‘human’ word (an amoeba is hardly a ‘self’ in the way that you and I are ‘selves’) and yet the word ‘self’ is applied to many organisms. Biology is full of expressions like ‘self-replication’, ‘self-organization’, and ‘self-regulation’. But again, such usage does not flag the selfhood we associate with our individual human identity and awareness, rather, it is a simple acknowledgement of individual biological agency, the fact that organisms act as independent units.

What about 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? Again, the word ‘behaviour’ is being used here in such a broad sense that it is mistaken to suggest the use of the word ‘behaviour’ be scientifically confined to humans only.

The categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ are also almost universal across biology, including the world of plants. In a casual sense we are drawing attention to a foundational distinction in biology. But male and female plants (and plant parts) bear no physical resemblance to male and female humans. Once again it is clear that such terms are not making claims of identity with humans. We are aware here that the word ‘sex’ has a wide semantic range and that, in biological terms, it may be instantiated through many evolutionarily graded physical forms.[18]

In biological evolution new physical features are built on a pre-existing structural foundation. Is it possible that the language of human intentional psychology applied to non-human organisms is part of a historical linguistic tradition – our human way of conveying biological agency – an agency that our scientific forefathers found unpalatable and therefore unacceptable?

Principle – the human-talk of non-cognitive biology is accepted scientifically because of its uncontroversial semantic range, abstraction, and openness to interpretation (grounding concept). This generalized application rules out its use as metaphor

Scientific metaphor

Is it possible to confidently determine whether human-talk in biology is being used as metaphor, simile, or in some other way? Can we discriminate, with certainty, between scientific simile and scientific metaphor?

We might, for example, use the words ‘wing’ and ‘leg’ in a non-scientific and functional sense to indicate an organ of aerial locomotion (including, say, the ‘wings’ on the seed of a maple tree) or ‘leg’ to mean an organ of land locomotion, and ‘head’ in a positional sense to indicate a structure on top of an animal body. When used in these casual ways ‘wing’, ‘leg’ and ‘head’ act as biological grounding concepts with many senses and literary forms.

Biology can, however, insist on the strict scientific (emergent) usage of the term ‘wing’ defined from a structural evolutionary perspective since other perspectives (like those of function) are poor indicators of evolutionary relationship.

When using terms in this precise evolutionary sense a distinction can be made, for example, between the wings of butterflies and the wings of birds. These two kinds of wings, though functionally similar, are evolutionarily unrelated and, to recognize this fact, they are called analogues. In literary terms the word ‘wing’, as used in this context, becomes akin to a simile or metaphor. In contrast, wings of evolutionarily closely related organisms are called homologues or homologies (‘wing’ as used here has a precise scientific-evolutionary meaning).

Likeness based on homology is scientifically sound, but when based on other factors it is less secure. Homologies can have the same evolutionary origin but different function, so the dissimilar wings of bats and paddles of whales are homologous as are the ‘legs’ of humans, deer, and bats (which are based on a common ground-plan, the pentadactyl limb). When there is precision of meaning, confusion over what constitutes metaphor disappears.

The four major flower parts – carpels, stamens, petals, and sepals – are homologous because they are all evolutionarily derived from leaves. In an evolutionary sense they are all leaves (shared grounding concept), but with their own unique additional characteristics (emergent concepts). In evolutionary terms, then, it is not absurd to claim that a petal is a leaf with this example illustrating the potential to conflate grounding and emergent concepts.

A few further examples will illustrate the way we can confuse or conflate grounding and emergent concepts and therefore throw into question what is, or is not, metaphor.

In strict scientific (evolutionary) terms, the avocado is not a pear (it is genus Persea, not genus Pyrus), the koala is not a bear (the koala is not in the family Ursidae) and, contrary to the popular imagination, the tomato is, botanically, a fruit.

The cognitive dissonance we experience when confronted with such examples relates to confusion over the kind of likeness we are addressing – is it the likeness of grounding criteria (i.e. an avocado having the same general shape and appearance as the domestic pear; the koala having the same cuddly appeal as a teddy bear), or is it the emergent concept (i.e. a scientifically precisely defined emergent concept)?  If we accept the emergent concept of avocado then ‘pear’ is simply incorrect, there is no real connection, only a figurative likeness, and it is therefore being used as metaphor. If we accept the grounding concept then attention is being drawn to a more general likeness (its shape and general appearance) in which case simile is the more appropriate literary designation since this is not a figurative similarity, although the likeness is not based in scientific connection.

These examples have illustrated three kinds of likeness: those that are soundly evolutionarily based (leaves and flower parts; legs of deer, humans and bats; wings of bats and paddles of whales); those that are figurative or metaphorical (avocado pear and koala bear when used as emergent concepts); and likenesses based on other similarity criteria (avocado pear and koala bear used as grounding concepts).  

However, distinguishing between such likenesses can clearly depends on context and individual interpretation. 

Principle – contextual analysis can reveal a useful distinction between scientific, metaphorical, and other criteria of likeness

Principle – the language of biological science takes on the meaning implied by the latest scientifically accepted research.

Principle – we draw a heavy line of distinction between biological agency and human agency; between the mindless and the minded

Cognitive human-talk

Biology has accepted the non-cognitive humanization of physical structures and activities because its concepts are generalized (have a broad semantic range, that is abstract and open to interpretation). That is, the ‘likeness’ criteria are accepted as being so diverse (structure, function, appearance etc.) that the strict comparison needed to confirm the use of metaphor is no longer appropriate. So, objecting to the use of the term insect ‘body’ because it is a metaphor carries no force.

Controversy over the use of anthropomorphism in biology has focused mainly on the attribution of minded states to non-human organisms using the language of human intentional psychology. Among these word are: ‘want’, ‘learn’, ‘remember’, ‘know’, ‘select’, ‘value’, and ‘reason’, as well as ‘purpose’, ‘agency’, ‘interest’, and ‘strategy’. These are all words associated with human agency. But, although all organisms exhibit biological agency we do not have its equivalent technical vocabulary. Perhaps the language of human intentional psychology is being used like the humanizing language of non-cognitive humanization. That is, it is being used (or intended) in a generalized (grounding concept) sense – rather than in the strict sense of human intention (emergent concept)?

The objection to such a claim is obvious. How can the mindless engage in mental activity? Clearly a plant, which has no nervous system, could not possibly ‘want’, ‘anticipate’, ‘remember’, ‘know’, or ‘choose’. Mind words are scientifically inappropriate to describe the activity of mindless organisms. And, if the relationship between the minded and the mindless is non-scientific (unreal, figurative), then the words describing this relationship (e.g. a spider ‘knowing’) are correctly treated as metaphor.

But let’s look more closely at agential thinking in general and how it relates to the specific instance of human intentionality.

To understand the place of humans within the community of life we need to know not only the emergent characteristics that uniquely define our species, that make us special[16] but also the characteristics that we share with other organisms. But, while the principle of shared and unique characters is easy to follow when applied to the evolution of physical structures, it is not so straightforward when we ground cognitive ideas in the reality of evolution.

This idea will be explored in more detail later, but for the time-being consider that when Darwin used the expression ‘natural selection’ (which Darwin himself treated as a form of cognitive metaphor) he was likely inferring, not ‘selection’ in the restricted sense of a deliberate and conscious human choice (a minded emergent concept), but the more general notion of a mindless process of filtering or constraint that limited possible outcomes (a mindless grounding concept) – which was, in the specific case of natural selection, differential reproduction. This interpretation of Darwin’s intentions is reinforced by his use of the preceding word ‘natural’.

To follow the implications of grounding and emergent ideas when applied to cognitive concepts we must delve deeper into the connection between human-talk and agency.


We understand agency from the perspective of human agency, from our own conscious intentions and deliberations: this is a natural cognitive bias. This human bias means that we can be blind to the agency that is all around us in nature.

All organisms display goal-directed behaviour, and where there are goals there is agency and purpose. This agency is what distinguishes life from the inanimate and the dead. For convenience, it is referred to here as biological agency.

The ultimate source of goal-directed behaviour – of life’s agency and purpose – is its propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is our most succinct statement of the universal preconditions for organic agential existence – a statement referred to on this web site as the biological axiom. It is  a precondition that is as apt for a microbe or mushroom as it is for a human.

We describe human agency, which is the uniquely human expression of biological agency, using the minded language of intentional psychology. However, we lack the technical language needed to describe the unique (mostly mindless) forms of agency expressed by each and every other individual species. To overcome this deficiency, we resort to the inappropriate use of human intentional language, which is then treated scientifically as cognitive metaphor. We then treat organisms not as agents but as agent-like (where ‘like’ implies the figurative similarity of metaphor, not the potentially real similarity of simile).

Principle – human agency is a specialized evolutionary development of biological agency

Agential thinking

Resistance to the use of cognitive human-talk applied to non-human organisms stems mainly from the perceived impenetrable gulf between the minded and the mindless which is assumed to establish the difference between a real agent and being (metaphorically) agent-like.

Even so, intentionality (the ‘aboutness’ of our human mental experience – the way it is always focused on, or directed towards, some object or situation) resembles the goal-directedness and agential activity exhibited by all organisms. It is this similarity that, at least in part, prompts us to use cognitive human-talk.

Philosopher Dan Dennett has approached agential likeness in nature 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.

Dennett’s case can also be made by pointing out that if we consider intentionality as existing in nature by degree with human agency a subspecies of universal biological agency (rather than biological agency as an invention of human agency) then we not only see its presence within non-conscious organisms (albeit mindlessly, unconsciously, and in crude form) but also in real non-metaphorical ways. We then understand how intentionality is grounded in the goal-directed agency of the biological axiom.

But to say a plant ‘wants’ water is surely nonsense. How can we possibly accept this?

We can accept a technical definition of intentionality that relates strictly to conscious human minds (emergent concept) while at the same time recognizing its origins in the generalized simile-like comparison with the goal-directed agency of all organisms as expressed in the biological axiom (grounding concept). Thus we see in nature a general intentionality (goal-directedness) that grounds the emergent concept of intentionality as it is manifest in human intentional psychology. The similarity of non-human organismic agency and human agency is not metaphorical (figurative), it is grounded in evolutionary history and the biological axiom.

In other words, agential behaviour is a universal property of the community of life with human intentionality just one specialist outcome, and all agency is grounded in the biological axiom as our most succinct universal statement of ultimate organic agency.

Most of nature is mindless, but that does not mean that there are no reasons or purposes for organic structures and behaviours. This is how we explain functional and adaptive traits: not as a heuristic device but as a naturalistic account of the biological world. Conscious reasons are simply reasons of a particular (emergent) kind. Humans exhibit purposive behaviour motivated by their intentional psychology. But purpose has a grounding concept too. Unconscious and mindless goals and purposes are all around us in nature.  There were reasons (purposes, goals) in nature long before human minds evolved, even though humans as reason-representers are the only creatures that are aware of this (Dan Dennett). And organisms manifest purposes in a way that the inanimate world does not.

And yet, a plant ‘wanting’ water?

Perhaps a dog ‘wants’ its owner to come home from work when it looks out of the window at the time when the owner usually comes home? But does a tree ‘want’ light and water? Does a worm ‘want’ damp earth?

‘Wanting’ is most familiar to us as an element of our intentional psychology. But there is, nevertheless, a sense in which we understand that trees share the same agency as all other living organisms and therefore the same (in the language of human intentional psychology) ‘wants’, ‘needs’ or ‘dependencies’ based ultimately on their propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish.  Certainly, the ‘wanting’ of a plant is extremely different from the ‘wanting’ of a human being. But then, the ‘wanting’ (dependency) of a plant for water is extremely different from the ‘wanting’ of a river to reach the sea.

This is not a question of what is real or unreal, but a coming-to-terms with biological gradation and the semantic distance involved in claims of likeness and connection when, by tradition, we prefer present-absent, real-unreal, minded-mindless modes of thinking about intentional states.

The claim that we use cognitive human-talk because we intuitively notice real grounding similarities between human agency and the goal-directed agency of mindless organisms – ignores two other major reasons (already considered) why we use cognitive human-talk: the lack of technical vocabulary, and the post-Darwinian need for biological concepts to assume meanings that have absorbed the latest biological research, especially that of evolutionary biology (current semantics). Scientifically, we have moved from the desire to establish human exceptionalism (difference), to accept the more realistic position of connection to all life (similarity).

Principle – biological language conventionally regarded as inappropriate cognitive metaphor can also be regarded as the communication of the properties of universal biological agency as fostered by human cognitive bias, convenience, our intuitive recognition of non-cognitive (natural) agency, and an absence of non-human agential vocabulary

Agency & evolution

Today’s science views the living world through the lens of evolutionary biology. Clearly, in the course of evolution, agential matter adapted, differentiated, gathered complexity, and eventually and miraculously became self-aware, to manifest the emergent intentional attributes we now know as ‘knowledge’, ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘value’, and so on. In other words, human agency evolved out of biological agency, and mind evolved out of the mindless agential organisms that had, in turn, evolved out of non-agential matter.

The seeds of human intentional faculties were present in the universal preconditions for agential existence that arose at the dawn of life. However, just as humans were only one of many evolutionary outcomes, so too was human intentional experience.

The universal agency expressed in the biological axiom is manifest in as many different physical forms as there are species, humans being just one of these expressions. A student of agency would investigate the agencies of microbes, plants, fungi and indeed all organisms, not just that of humans. The reason we pay so much attention to the human expression of agency is because of its exceptional properties of conscious awareness and deliberation, along with the agential powers that this brings. But from an evolutionary perspective this is simply a case of human self-interest and exceptionalism because the overriding importance we attribute to human conscious mental experience is just one outcome of the agential goals that ground all life.

Principle 12 – human (minded) agency evolved out of the (mindless) biological agency that is expressed in the biological axiom i.e. mind evolved out of the mindless agential organisms that had, in turn, evolved out of non-agential matter. We emphasize human agency because of its exceptional properties of conscious awareness, deliberation, and agential power. But, from an evolutionary perspective, this is a form of speciesism with human intentionality the agential evolutionary outcome for just one species.


Darwin provided an alternative to the religious account of the living world in which each species was an immutable part of God’s supernatural Creation. Darwin made the unpopular claim that, instead, humans had emerged in a decidedly undignified way from ape-like ancestors.

The prevailing Aristotelian and Christian understanding of the world and its life forms in Darwin’s day was as a hierarchy of the world’s contents arranged from higher to lower like the rungs of a ladder, surmounted by humans and eclipsed only by God. Darwin represented life as a tree on which humans were not the single ultimate goal of evolution as implied by the ladder metaphor.  Instead, he proposed that the selective interaction between organisms and their environments had produced many physical solutions with humans just one of these, poised at the tip of just one branch of the vast tree of life.

We have accepted the idea of humanity being part of the evolutionary continuum of animals, but our human self-interest and anthropocentrism has rejected the idea of our mental attributes being just one evolutionary expression of biological agency. Biological agency is either denied altogether or measured in human terms and therefore judged as being agent-like only, because the only true goals must be those of human intention.

Because we have direct and conscious experience of our own human intentional agency, and nature does not have conscious awareness of its own biological agency, we conflate nature’s no awareness with no agency. We mistakenly assume that biological agency, being mindless, is only ‘as if’ agency. This is what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a ‘strange inversion of reasoning’.

Humans share mindless goals with nature – everything from our digestion to our unconscious instincts and the moral codes we devise as a way of addressing mindless motivations.

Human subjectivity does not account for or validate natural processes: natural processes account for subjectivity. In the Laws (10.903c) Plato declares ‘you perverse fellow . . . you forget that creation is not for your sake; rather you exist for the sake of the universe‘, drawing attention to the fact that we are a part of the universe not apart from it. Life and subjectivity ‘bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top‘ (Dan Dennett) a point emphasized by the claim that ‘evolution is cleverer than you are‘.[24]

Does a prosthetic leg have a purpose because it is a consequence of human deliberation, while an actual leg only has purpose in a metaphorical sense?

But how can we possibly compare the plodding mechanical functional adaptation of nature’s agency with the intentional awareness and deliberation that assisted humans to populate and dominate an entire planet?

It is certainly true that our intentional faculty launched a phase of human cultural evolution that greatly accelerated the process of complexification in human lives that was superimposed, as it were, on the slow genetic modifications produced by biological adaptation. But we need reminding of the myriad examples of natural brilliance – the miracle of photosynthesis on which we all depend, but whose chemistry we are not clever enough to harness in the battle against climate change; the mental precision needed for a bird on the wing to catch fly; the wonder of bird’s nests and spiders webs etc.

Organic functional complexity is a compelling demonstration of an uncomfortable fact that we have chosen to ignore – that mindless agency is not only ‘competent without comprehension’ (Dennett) and ‘for without foresight’ (Spencer), it is living design of an intricate complexity far beyond anything created by humans. It was out of this mindless agential matter that the conscious and reasoning agency of the human brain, including its intentional psychology, emerged. We do not acknowledge, let alone respect, the nature that created us. All the wonders we associate with the human conscious brain – its capacity for reason, logic, science, appreciation of beauty, enjoyment of music etc.. . . . all those things we associate with human mental exceptionalism . . .  were just one evolutionary outcome of the biological agency inherent in mindless nature.

There are as many different forms of agency as there are species of organism but, being human, we choose to emphasize our own intentional agency not because, in a scientific sense, it is more significant than the others, but because we are humans and we can appreciate its unique properties and impacts. We make the mistake that, until Darwin, was taken for granted, but which we managed to outgrow. We assumed that because it was human, it was better.

Darwin taught us that, scientifically, human bodies were not better than other bodies, they were just one evolutionary solution to environmental challenges. We have not yet learned this scientific lesson of nature’s agency which we do not view objectively, but through the lens of human intentional modes of thought and action.

Rather than acknowledge that human agency arose out of biological agency (as one of its many sub-species) we begrudgingly either deny its existence altogether, or assume it must be an invention of human agency – as if agency (agent-like) at best.

It is argued here that for all its miraculous properties, human intention, too, is not better, than other agencies, just different and that common descent makes it unsurprising that although human intention has many unique properties it shares others with all other organisms in a real biological simile likeness that is grounded in the reality of descent with modification.

The metaphor fallacy is a sobering example of pre-Darwinian human arrogance and its metaphysical discounting of nature’s purpose and agency.

Principle 13 – humans deny, ignore, or downplay the miraculous outcomes of biological agency (including their own brains)

Cognitive metaphor

How does all this translate into the biological language that is so widely regarded as cognitive metaphor?

When we use a locution like ‘The spider builds a web to catch flies’ we might assume (it is not explicit) this implies that spiders have human-like cognition. We might then assume, by an error of reasoning, that if spiders have no human-like cognition then there are no reasons for their actions (the intention fallacy). Certainly, humans, as reason-representers, are the only organisms that are aware of spider reasons, but reasons exist in nature independently of humans, and spider webs catching flies is one of these. Spider reasons are an expression of biological agency, not human intention, and they are real. It is therefore misleading to say it is ‘as if’ spiders build webs to catch flies. The statement ‘spiders build webs to catch flies’ may be taken at face value as an example of a mindless goal (functional adaptation).

However, when we use a slightly different locution like ‘The spider knows how to build its web’, this time we explicitly and mistakenly imply that spiders have human-like cognition, a misrepresentation termed ‘cognitive metaphor’.

But maybe when we refer to spider ‘knowing’ we are not trying to communicate the idea that spiders ‘know’ in an intentional human-like way (emergent concept) but that it is astounding how, without any learning, they build something so intricate and purposeful as a web: that in some miraculous way the ability to build webs has been passed from parent to offspring (knowledge and knowing). Though we can point to non-cognitive characteristics encoded as adaptive traits in spider genes as the source of this kind of knowledge, it is the biological agency (grounding concept) that is of special interest.

If this is indeed what is being communicated, then this is not cognitive metaphor or ‘as if’ language – it is simply implying that spider ‘knowing’ is like human knowing in some ways and therefore much more like simile – and the form of spider ‘knowing’ being described is a ‘real’ form of biological agency (yes, it is ‘as if’ it is human cognition; but no, it is not ‘as if’ it exists as a form of biological agency).

On the analysis presented here, spider knowing is best treated as an expression of biological agency without a unique biological designation. Because it has no formal biological designation, and because we find it convenient to engage our human cognitive bias, we resort to a human interpretation of biological agency by using the emergent vocabulary of human intention – ‘knowing’.

Principle 1 – we use cognitive human-talk for several reasons: because we intuitively notice the real grounding similarities that exist between human agency and the goal-directed agency of mindless organisms (as expressed in the biological axiom); to compensate for a lack of technical vocabulary; and because of the post-Darwinian need for biological concepts to assume meanings that have absorbed the latest biological research

Minded & mindless

The biological (evolutionary) meaning of ‘heart’ (like that of all organic structures) depends on both its shared (grounding) characteristics and the uniquely emergent ones that apply when describing any particular heart.

If human intentionality is grounded in biological agency, then the scientific meaning of intentional concepts must take this into account (see scientific semantics below).

How are we to understand emergent human cognitive states like knowing, reasoning, and valuing if they are grounded in biological and the conditions of the biological axiom?

This is hard to imagine because we perceive a chasm of difference between the intentional explanations of human psychology and the functional adaptationist explanations that we adopt for non-human organisms.

What would the placing of emergent intentional concepts within the evolutionary context of the grounding concepts of biological agency look like anyway?

The following table compares the agential properties of intentional human agency with the corresponding properties of biological agency: the minded (narrowly defined and emergent) cognitive faculties and mindless (shared and grounding) natural properties.

This simple linguistic investigation reinforces the claim that in many instances the intent of anthropomorphism is to convey the idea of operational biological agency – not human intentional psychology.

BIOLOGICAL AGENCY - grounding & mindless -
the filtering or constraining of possible outcomes
goal-directed activity
ultimately the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish
the object of goal-directed activity
functional adaptation
ultimate goals of the biological axiom
the use of mindless knowledge to attain a goal
non-conscious information about inner and outer environments accumulated and transmissable to new generations
the focus of biological agency
an organism (motivated by the goals of the biological axiom)
An organism
HUMAN AGENCY - emergent & minded -
conscious human choice
conscious mental focus and intent
proximately to express conscious intention (including purpose, knowledge, value, and reason)
the object of human intention
a conscious plan
proximate goals of happiness & flourishing
the use of conscious knowledge to attain a goal
consciously accumulated information
the focus of human agency
a human (motivated by both minded, unconscious, and mindless goals)
A person

Many of the cognitive concepts of human intentional psychology share characteristics with non-human organisms that reflect evolutionary history and likeness with other organisms (grounding concepts).

They are an expression of the agency expressed in the biological axiom that. in humans is manifest, in part, as conscious intention.

These descriptions are not intended as replacements for dictionary definitions but as examples of the mindless and minded senses of agential language.

Conceptual gradation

Human agency is the uniquely human and specialized expression of the life-wide properties of biological agency. We describe this highly evolved form of biological agency using the language of intentional psychology. Though non-human organisms lack intention, each species expresses biological agency (goal-directedness) in its own particular way. And, just as a precise terminology facilitates communication about physical structures, so the development of the technical language of biological agency would encourage greater scientific precision and the acknowledgement of the many forms of agency in nature. It would also discourage our intuitive tendency to describe biological agency in intentional terms.

We are unaccustomed to thinking of agency and mental states as instantiated in nature in a graded rather than abrupt way. How can ‘wanting’ exist by degree? We don’t think about ‘wanting’ in this way because, by tradition, we treat ‘wanting’ as uniquely human. It seems that either organisms have minds (with all their associated mindful properties) or they do not – law of excluded middle.

The power of our minds leads us to think that it is only our human minds that can manifest the properties we associate with purpose, reason, and value etc. Tradition and dictionaries confirm this belief. But could it be that in nature, in reality, what we have named, say, ‘reason’ exists by degree?

How can this possibly make sense?

The gradation between the minded and mindless can be illustrated by examining what we mean by ‘consciousness’.

Once treated as uniquely human (and therefore absent in all other organisms), consciousness is now considered to exist in other organisms, in reality, in varying degrees of richness and complexity.

We humans have an inner life that includes sensation, emotion, self-awareness, reason, the capacity for language, abstract thought, and more. This conscious awareness is present by degree across our lifetimes and even over a single day, but what about between species? Science associates consciousness with the activity of a central nervous system, and we assume that the richness of conscious experience is related to its complexity. Scientists now regard consciousness as existing by degree in, say, domestic animals, fish, and even worms. Though the likeness of consciousness in a human and a worm is small and evolutionarily remote, it is a likeness based on real organic similarity (post-Darwin), not the ‘as if’ similarity of metaphor.

In attempting to clarify the concept of consciousness in evolutionary terms, we are torn between the characteristics that make human consciousness unique (emergent characters), and those that are shared with other organisms (the ancestral or grounding characters).

If we regard consciousness as a strictly human faculty then whatever evolutionarily-based similarity it shares with other organisms, it is not consciousness, it must be something different. How are we to convey scientifically (and semantically) the idea of something worthy of a unique category, but which shares some of its properties with other categories? How is it possible to represent both similarity and difference in a brief expression or word? Binomial nomenclature is perhaps one of biology’s most effective ways of doing this (see previously). Sorting this out provides insight into both property possession by degree, and our use of cognitive metaphor.

Let’s say you are researching the different ‘consciousnesses’ of humans, dogs, and bats. Although you can speak of dog consciousness and bat consciousness but the use of the word ‘consciousness’ here becomes clumsy if your claim is that dogs and bats do not possess human-like consciousness. Scientifically you can lock in uniqueness with a narrowly defined technical term. So, we might isolate human consciousness with the word humcon and then use another word, say dogmind for dogs (meaning akin to human consciousness but sufficiently different as to warrant a unique designation), and bathead for bats. This establishes uniqueness with a unique name. But scientifically (and from an evolutionary perspective) we would also like to establish common connection, no matter how distant, so that we realize that there are also grounding shared similarities between these three unique emergent phenomena.

Simultaneous consideration of both similarity and difference is integral to the notion of descent with modification from a common ancestor, and it is a complexity routinely addressed by evolutionary biologists.

So, for example, in naming unique manifestations of consciousness-related phenomena the grounding or shared notion of consciousness could be expressed with the prefix con and the emergent properties indicated with a unique suffix to produce technical terms like conhumancondog, and conbat. This specially devised terminology therefore incorporates the key evolutionary ideas of both individual difference, and underlying evolutionary similarity – of both grounding and emergent concepts although, in this instance, the same end could be achieved by using the expressions ‘dog consciousness’ and ‘bat consciousness’.

To summarize: if we assume that human agency arose out of biological agency then we can anticipate that both unique and shared properties will be represented in our understanding (the meaning, or semantics) of intentional concepts. But an intentional concept like ‘reason’ is regarded as having strictly human application.

What are we to do if our best science tells us that it is more scientific to regard reason as existing in nature by degree?

Well, we can insist that the scientific meaning of ‘reason’ changes in line with our current scientific understanding: that the semantics of human intentional psychology catch up with the evolutionary theory on which it is based. In this case the meaning of ‘reason’ would incorporate non-human phenomena.  Or the problem could be overcome using a new technical vocabulary: a set of scientific terms or categories associated with degrees of mental attribution. Or we can fall back on human-talk and cognitive metaphor.

Meanwhile we are convinced of the uniquely human character of reason, value, and agency as a consequence of tradition, human cognitive bias, and the denial of our evolutionary, and especially agential, connection to other organisms, creating the human exceptionalism that is  at the heart of the distinction between the minded and mindless.

Cognitive grounding concepts

The distinction between the minded and mindless seems clear-cut, and decisive. It is akin to similar distinctions that are often made between the sentient and non-sentient, reasoning and unreasoning, valuing and non-valuing etc. Despite science’s constant attacks on human exceptionalism the cognitive domain of human intentionality seems impregnable.

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 reality.

From an evolutionary perspective the community of life is an interrupted organic continuum, although we find it practical to establish differences between species and other taxa.

We are gradually accepting the Darwinian idea of physical continuity so, for example, nowadays, we accept that humans are animals. Before Darwin, such a suggestion would have been considered a demeaning insult.

Metaphors and similes are comparisons between relata. Metaphors express figurative relations while similes express likeness that may be figurative or real. It is argued here that many of the relata of controversial biological anthropomorphism (the language of human intentional psychology and purpose) are biological simile, not cognitive metaphor – likenesses grounded in the reality of evolutionary descent. Their degree of resemblance therefore depends on the proximity of the evolutionary relationship.

The logic of metaphor establishes the connection between relata as one between the real and unreal (figurative). But nature does not follow the logic of metaphor, rather it follows the logic of simile with graded likeness as revealed by evolutionary biology – similarities that exist in nature by degree.

Am I scientifically entitled to say that my dog was ‘angry’? Dog anger is not identical to human anger, but it is not ‘as if’ dogs demonstrate anger: dog anger is different from human anger in some ways but similar in others. Dog anger is like human anger through evolutionary connection and, if we must choose a literary idiom to describe this relationship, it would be a simile. This is very different from a genuine metaphor, like the figurative depiction of an ‘angry’ sea.

This is a crucial distinction. Dog anger and human anger are not like one another in the way that an orange is like a ball – because both an orange and a ball are round – their similarity is grounded in the reality of evolutionary connection. The similarity is not figurative, as it would be in the case of metaphor. It is therefore mistaken to invoke the as if of metaphor here. The word ‘anger’, like the word ‘consciousness’, is being used here as a grounding concept.

But . . . habit is hard to break. Surely, when we say that spiders ‘know’ how to build webs then this must be metaphor . . . ?

Remember that we do not have a technical word that both names and defines the faculty of ‘knowing’ in spiders – the faculty that we recognize is (however distant in an evolutionary sense) like the faculty of ‘knowing’ in humans. Certainly, the relata – human ‘knowing’, and spider ‘knowing’ – denote different kinds of knowing. But we recognize grounding similarities, and that is what we are trying to convey when we resort to cognitive human-talk.

‘Knowing’ will be discussed in more detail later, but for the moment consider the following relata and whether you would accept or reject their usage in a scientific paper. Are they conveying genuine metaphor, grounding concepts, or emergent concepts; or would your decision depend on the context where the claims are made? Does your acceptance or rejection depend on conventions in language and science, or word definition? Is your decision influenced by the degree of biological (evolutionary) connection; or something else?

The objective is best possible science.

Humans have bodies: what about dogs, birds, sea-anemones, amoeba, seaweeds?
Humans swim: do fish swim?
Humans think: do fish think?
Humans learn: do rats (worms, amoebae, daisies) learn?
Humans remember: do daffodils remember?
Humans are conscious: is a worm conscious?
Humans walk: do dogs walk?
Humans have eyes: do potatoes have eyes?
Humans reason: do eagles reason?
Humans desire: can an oak tree desire?
Humans eat: do spiders eat?
Many humans like to eat sheep: do many spiders like to eat flies?

It is also instructive to juxtapose a range of organisms with a range of cognitive ideas that may be used in human-talk. So, for humans, dogs, fish, worms, amoebae, and plants, consider: feeling pain, being aware, wanting food and water, having interests, implementing strategies, and showing preferences.

Thinking through these examples helps make us aware of the grounding semantics of human intentional psychology and, indeed, its relation to intentional biology. Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (in many cases, but not all) it attempts to represent similarities that are not just in human minds, they exist (are real) in nature – not in a clear-cut present-absent sense – but to a greater or lesser degree.

The human-talk vocabulary of physical structures (e.g. ‘leg’, ‘head’, ‘body’) is used in biological science to convey the semantics of grounding concepts – that is, non-technical generalized meanings. As yet, the language of cognitive human-talk has failed to do the same. At present we do not accept that grounding notions are embedded in the semantics of the terms used in human intentional psychology. This is unlikely to happen soon. To do so erodes human exceptionalism and, at the same time, has major implications for our scientific metaphysics. It would, however, align anthropomorphic language with biological reality.

We acknowledge the agency of all life, including humans, as expressed in the goal-directed activity of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom).  However, we describe human agency using the characteristics of intentional psychology (reason, desire, knowing, liking etc.). Assuming that, in evolutionary terms, human agency emerged out of nature’s agency and, applying the principle of shared and emergent characteristics, then we might expect the emergent characteristics of human intentionality to be associated with the grounding (universally shared) characteristics of biological agency since human agency, as expressed in the language of our intentional psychology is a specialized outcome of biological agency.

The conclusion, so difficult to accept given the semantics of our linguistic tradition, is that cognitive human talk is grounded in biological agency. This is a real (not figurative) biological connection. In literary terms it is simile, not metaphor. A plant ‘wanting’ water is ‘like’ a human ‘wanting’ a drink because both humans and plants share a dependence on water that is grounded in the evolutionary reality of the biological axiom. Plant ‘wanting’ is clearly not the same as human ‘wanting’ but they share criteria of ‘likeness’ (not ‘as if’ ness) that are biologically based.

In sum the notion of plant ‘wanting’ captures the agential (not intentional) similarity with human ‘wanting’. Plant ‘wanting’ is like human ‘wanting’ in terms of the reality of life’s agency.  It is not as if plants want water, rather, plant ‘wanting’ is agentially like human ‘wanting’  – it is biological simile, not cognitive metaphor.

Plant ‘wanting’ is a hard pill to swallow. How can this possibly make sense?

When we say that a spider ‘knows’ how to weave its web, the spider does not ‘know’ in the same way that humans know (emergent cognitive concept), but there is, nevertheless, a biological connection that exists between spider ‘knowing’ and human ‘knowing’ that is not the ‘as if’ likeness of metaphor, but a likeness based on real physical evolutionary connection (grounding concept).

‘Knowing’ as a grounding concept will be discussed later, but for now we can simply describe it as the shared capacity to acquire, retain, and pass on environmentally acquired information to other organisms and new generations. This shared likeness is a biological simile, not a cognitive metaphor. It is also a metaphysical reality, not a semantic convention or heuristic. And it is what we sense as something that is common to both the minded and the mindless. One way of coming to terms with this is to regard psychological (human intentional) phenomena as a subset of the agency that pervades all nature.

Cognitive metaphor (a plant ‘wanting’) focuses on human intention and therefore ignores the biological agency that the idea is intended to convey. When we say those plants ‘want’ or ‘need’ watering we are not claiming that plants will feel disappointed or angry if they are ignored, we are drawing attention to the fact that plant survival is at stake (the agency of the biological axiom). Much of so-called cognitive metaphor attempts to convey biological agency, not human intention e.g. Darwin’s natural selection. In other words, cognitive metaphor its frequently biological simile in disguise.

Scientific acceptance or rejection of anthropomorphic human-talk thus devolves into the question of whether the controversial words are being used as a biological simile (biological comparison), or a genuine metaphor (figurative comparison).

It turns out that much of the human-talk that has proved problematic in biology has ignored the capacity of cognitive language to infer both grounding and emergent concepts.

The metaphor fallacy

The use of humanizing language in biology, especially that of human intentional psychology, is widely interpreted through the literary notion of the metaphor. Minded (intentional) agency is then treated as genuine agency and mindless (natural) agency as figurative or ‘as if’ (unreal) agency. This subtle and mistaken distinction needs explanation.

The traditional and erroneous attribution of metaphor to the relationship between the minded and mindless can be attributed to what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a ‘strange inversion of reasoning‘. We assume that since, as humans, we are aware of our agency, and we know that non-human organisms are unaware of their agency, then we can make the unwarranted logical leap of assuming that they therefore have no agency. No awareness, therefore no agency. We that established, the attribution of ‘as if’ metaphorical (figurative, unreal) status seems fully justified.

Nature is a graded continuum with all organisms genetically connected to one another by descent with modification from common ancestry, their degree of physical similarity determined by evolutionary proximity.

Using the literary device of metaphor as a tool for comparing biological relata (the items being compared) there is a commitment to the logical inference of metaphor, which is a real-unreal distinction since one of the relata of a metaphor is, by definition, figurative (unreal). Since all organisms are evolutionarily related, albeit sometimes very distantly, it is more scientifically accurate to treat anthropomorphic comparisons as similes, the comparison expressing not the presence-absence, either-or, true-false, real-unreal contrasts implied by metaphor, but degrees of organic likeness, or gradation, that are more akin to simile.

An amoeba shares many genes with humans, many biochemical processes, and many similarities in behaviour that are grounded in the agency of the biological axiom. The evolutionary connection is very distant, and the similarities small, but they are not metaphorical, they are real. Also, the similarities that exist between an amoeba and a human connect amoeba more closely to humans than to inanimate nature.

Our association of human-talk in biology with the notion of a metaphor (‘as if’ language) has caused untold misrepresentation down the ages as we conflate non-human with the figurative non-existence that is built into the logic of metaphorical relata. The situation is complicated by the occasional use of metaphor in its correct form.

We acknowledge for physical structures that the meaning of ‘leg’ moves beyond physical identity (same as a human leg) to similarity of function (organ of locomotion) and for this reason we do not invoke metaphor. That is, we do not infer that because insect legs are not identical to human legs then they are not legs. However, although the meaning of ‘know’ has substantial non-human connotations (a capacity to gather, possess, and communicate information) we nevertheless invoke metaphor here. We infer (by semantic convention) that because non-human knowing is not identical to human knowing then it is not knowing – the metaphor fallacy.

By treating the biological similarity between humans and other organisms as metaphor we deny the reality of their shared biological agency that is grounded in evolutionary connection. Mindless organisms denied agency assume an equivalence with the inanimate world.

By convention that is built into the semantics of everyday language we cannot attribute mindful properties to mindless organisms. But nature itself does not acknowledge this distinction: it follows the rules of graded likeness as revealed by evolutionary biology – similarities that exist by degree. By accepting controversial anthropomorphic language as simile, the reality of organic gradation can be legitimately added to the semantics of the language that we use to describe nature, although it is more likely to be accepted via the use of new technical terms.

Before Darwin, organisms shared disconnected similarities. Eyes existed in many different forms and in many different organisms, but there was no deeper connection than this. After Darwin it was clear that most (but not all) eyes were connected through evolutionary descent: the connection was not incidental but a product of historical physical continuity which, today we know as the information that is passed between generations within shared genes.

Principle – science does not have the technical vocabulary to express the gradation of many of its concepts especially those whose primary understanding comes from the human experience e.g. consciousness.  To overcome this, we can either imply an extension of the semantic breadth of existing language (e.g. infer that consciousness extends beyond humans) or we can restrict the use of these words to humans (denying any evolutionarily pertinent connection) and wait for scientific terminology to catch up

Scientific semantics

Many scientific words have precise meanings, but often the meanings change informally in line with the facts of current scientific research. Scientists do not collectively decide to change the meaning of these words – the change in meaning simply follows along with the latest scientifically accepted findings.

Informed by evolutionary theory we now have a broad understanding of what it means to be a heart . . . and it is much more than just a human heart. Now, when biologists talk about hearts they don’t say that it is ‘as if’ a worm has a heart (on the grounds that worm hearts are very different from human hearts) they automatically consider ‘heart’ in its wider semantic context – the context of the similarities and differences exhibited by all the organs that biological science accepts as hearts.

When we move from the realm of physical structures to that of agency and mental concepts things become complicated and the same rules do not apply. We do assume that it is only ‘as if‘ a spider knows how to build its web because we believe there is a crucial difference between spider knowing and human knowing.

But when we speak of spider ‘knowing’ we may simply be referring to the miraculous way spiders make webs automatically and effortlessly. If we imply that spiders ‘know’ in the same way as humans then we are probably taking ourselves too seriously – being too scientific – that is, we are confusing grounding and emergent concepts.

There is an important consequence to this claim. In cases like this where the meaning of ‘knowing’ (and other intentional concepts, like consciousness, reason, knowledge, and value) has been misinterpreted or ignores emergent properties as evolutionary precursors in non-human organisms then the scientific meaning of these words must change to take this into account, regardless of current semantic convention.

What is being claimed here is that intentional concepts are, in fact, denoting the properties, not of human minds, but of biological agency. And if good science is a constant reappraisal of the scientific categories we use to understand the world and meanings change, then so be it.

This is a hard pill to swallow. It is like a philosophical antinomy. On the one hand we have clear statements attributing intentional properties to non-intentional organisms. Obvious metaphor. Yet it does seems that the likeness being inferred is more that of biological agency than human agency. In which case either we invent new language, or we change the meaning of existing vocabulary. Why do we resist such a move?

Human exceptionalism either ignores or downplays the power of biological agency. We deny that nature can even remotely approximate human consciousness, reason, value, knowledge, agency, or purpose. We draw a heavy line between human agency and biological agency, between the minded and the mindless.

This, then, is what needs closer inspection: the biological grounding that underpins our mental concepts.

Metaphor vs Simile

What is the significance of something so apparently trivial as the distinction between metaphor and simile?

Settling this antinomy entailed a linguistic clarification, a reinterpretation of our word usage that, in itself, has nothing to do with philosophy. What is of crucial philosophical importance, however, are the metaphysical implications of this clarification for the western scientific worldview – to what we understand as real or unreal in debates that engage grand concepts like reason, value, knowledge, agency, and more.

The following brief discussion of purpose, reason, knowledge, and agency provides just a hint of the way cognitive concepts, held so close to humans, bring with them grounding concepts that have real connection to the community of life when used as human-talk.


All organisms display goal-directed behaviour, and where there is goal-directed behaviour there is agency and purpose. About 2500 years ago ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this end-directed characteristic of life telos. He also noted that biological explanations, unlike those of physics, were constrained by this feature of life: they provided answers to the crucial question What is it for? And this is why much of biology is about reverse engineering. We can reasonably ask, What are hands, eyes, and leaves for? while the question, What is the moon for? does not make much sense. That is, we understand, intuitively, this crucial agential distinction between life and inanimate matter.

The source of life’s goal-directed behaviour – of its agency and purpose – is its propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish – our most succinct statement of the necessary and sufficient conditions for organic agential existence – referred to on this web site as the biological axiom.

It seems that in biological science we have no option but to adopt this agential outlook on life because (as Aristotle observed), without understanding what biological structures and processes are ‘for’, biology is reduced to a listing of dissociated facts about the universe.

Concerns about the use of purpose-talk in biology have stemmed from worries about the insinuation of conscious deliberation into the operations of non-human organisms. Part of that concern is the possibility that that source of agency might be God. A philosophical industry has been generated to find ways of avoiding this taboo word. We no longer speak of the purpose of eyes, wings, and leaves: instead, we refer euphemistically, and circumspectly, to their function or adaptive significance.

Why has so much time been wasted on this debate?

Before Darwin it was assumed that God had imbued nature with purpose (teleology) 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 in Darwin’s day with sufficient sophistication to compete with the biblical account of the origin of purpose in nature. Before Darwin, each species was a unique creation of God regardless of any similarities or differences it might have to other creatures. After Darwin similarities and differences, it was realized, were a consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Darwin established the temporal and physical continuity that connects the entire community of life, humans included. Even so, the idea that nature itself could display independent agency was counter-intuitive to the traditional mind-set. 

Darwin himself was ambiguous about teleology, making various references to final causes[10] and concluding that the question of design in nature was ‘insoluble‘. In 1874 he agreed with American Christian botanist Asa Gray that his (Darwin’s) evolutionary theory supported the perception of design and teleology in nature. What you say about teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else has ever noticed the point. I have always said you were the man to hit the nail on the head.’ But he also wrote to his lawyer friend Thomas Farrer ‘(I)f we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance – that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble,  . . . ‘[10][11]

Paradoxically, Darwin could not concede the Aristotelian goal-directed purposiveness of nature even though he had provided compelling evidence of the way it had arisen. Purpose and design in nature was, in Darwin’s day (and for many scientists and philosophers today), evidence for God – and that the agnostic Darwin could not countenance.[11]

Today, Darwin’s work is not seen as evidence for religious conclusions because he changed our perception of life in two major ways.

First, he explained how natural selection gives rise to adaptive (purposive/functional) traits in a natural and mechanical way without the need to postulate foresight or backward causation. Nature really could be ‘for without foresight’ and ‘competent without comprehension’. Purpose and design could therefore exist in nature without supernatural intervention. Nor was purpose metaphorical (human purpose in disguise) and therefore a heuristic device employed to facilitate the explanation of nature. This is all the arrogance of human exceptionalism.

Darwin, like Aristotle 2,200 years before (through his work, rather than his belief) placed purpose and design within nature itself. Darwin did not 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 humans or God. In one small book he demolished a major argument for the existence of God while naturalizing our intuitive talk of the purpose, function, and design that is self-evidently present in nature, independent of human existence, and therefore real.

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

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

The teleological idiom

The purportedly mistaken ascription of purpose to nature is attributed to the inappropriate or imprecise use of language.  Purpose-talk includes the entire toolbox of human-talk (as metaphor, simile, personification, intuitive connection, semantic extension etc.) and is sometimes referred to as the teleological idiom.[1] Here it is important to distinguish between teleology (the study of ends, aims, goals and purposes themselves, as in Aristotle’s notion of telos or final cause) and anthropomorphism (making things human-like) which, implies intentions or goals via human characterization.

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

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

Principle – human-talk is not metaphor, it is a linguistic device used to compare the human experience with real similarities in nature that exist by degree

Darwin described how eyes and legs, leaves and spines, arose in nature as adaptations that were ‘for’ walking, seeing, food production, and deterrence. They were also ‘for’ without human or supernatural foresight. 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’.

Aristotle recognized the way that the structures, behaviour, and activity of all organisms tends to preserve and further their existence (in accordance with the biological axiom). This pervasive goal-directedness (grounding concept) of nature (called intentionality as an emergent concept) he called telos and we call ‘purpose’. The fact that purpose exists in nature in a mindless and unconscious way that is only evident to humans does not negate its existence outside humans. Only humans (as conscious and rational reason-representers) can represent and appreciate purpose in nature. But that does not mean that humans create or imagine nature’s purpose and agency.

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 purposes and reasons.

Cactus spines protect cactus plants from predators. This is self-evidently why cacti have them; it is what they are for, their purpose  . . .  the reason why they are there  . . .  it is why cactus spines exist. This is a biological fact, and it is therefore real.

In short: purpose in nature is not a supernatural creation, a metaphor, or a figment of human imagination. Purpose has nothing to do with backward causation or mindful human foresight superimposed on mindless nature. The purpose of spines exists independently of humans, even though it is only humans, as purpose representers, that can appreciate their significance.

Why have we ever doubted this?

Human exceptionalism finds it difficult to admit that purpose can exist outside itself, that only conscious and mindful humans can manifest purpose. Thus, the agency of nature is denied, and organisms are condemned to the same purposelessness as inanimate matter. The undeniable purpose that saturates nature then becomes a human creation (metaphor), a view that also circumvents potential supernatural explanations.

This was the account of nature accepted by (pre-Darwinian) intellectuals of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Being a cognitive metaphor or heuristic, purpose was removed from Western science along with the reality of agency and normativity that also exist mindlessly in non-human nature. It was a denial of what we now know to be a graded physical reality – the evolutionarily and genetically based connection that exists between all organic structures and functions.


Though we might accept a contemporary definition of reason as ‘knowledge used to achieve a goal‘,[21] as biologists we must consider this being applied beyond the human sphere.

Reason in nature is a protean concept. In simple human terms we can regard it, in part, as the capacity for self-correction. But in broader biological terms it is the capacity for goal-directed adjustment to inner and outer environments, both the immediate adjustment expressed in behavioural flexibility, fitness maximization, and the long-term adjustment of genetic adaptation.

Like Aristotle, we are inclined to regard reason as a supreme human faculty. How could nature and non-human organisms possibly engage in conscious deliberation? But today we know (unlike Aristotle or intellectuals of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment) that human reason must have had evolutionary precursors. The natural process that created the human brain was powerful in the extreme.

What is of special interest to us here is not so much brains and their evolutionary increase in neurophysiological complexity over time, more the grounding concept of reason itself. Non-human organisms cannot reason like humans but that does not mean that they have no reasoning capacity at all. What are the elements of our grounding concept of reason?


The orderliness of nature – the existence of physical constants that make some things happen rather than others and constrain possible outcomes – creates patterns that are not totally random or chaotic. It is this orderliness that makes science possible.  Constraints on physical activity create a ‘direction’ or ‘path’ so that it is possible to discern why some things happen rather than others – that there is a reason why things happen as they do (even if we do not understand why nature’s constants are as they are). It is for these reasons that we can both understand and explain why the Earth orbits the Sun.


Purposes are reasons, but reasons of a special kind. We do not say that the purpose of the Earth is to orbit the Sun.  Purposes (emergent concept) are, as it were, a subset of reasons (grounding concept). Purposes are the objects of goals.

When we say that ‘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 (in accordance with the values of nature that are inherent in the biological axiom), then there is purpose that is independent of human intention – purpose that exists in nature, not just in human minds (as ‘as if’ metaphor). Purposes in nature are reasons with beneficiaries: they are instilled in life by the process of natural selection acting as an iterative algorithm – a mindless physical filtering or selection mechanism.

Today we denote the adjustment of the inner processes of autonomous individuals to outer conditions by using the word ‘adaptation’. Adaptation, then, is a mindless (non-cognitive) process that closely mirrors the cognitive capacity for self-correction, for reason.  Mindless adaptation is a grounding concept for mindful deliberation.

We should not assume that nature’s lack of human-like consciousness signals mental dullness or inefficiency. The calculations in the brain of a bird catching a fly in mid-flight far exceed any similar human brain facility.

Philosopher William James distinguished a rational from a non-rational entity by comparing the attraction of iron filings to a magnet, and the attraction of Romeo to Juliet. In ‘seeking’ the magnet, filings have a fixed path, and whether the ‘goal’ is reached or not depends on circumstance. For Romeo and Juliet it is the end that is fixed as they explore numerous alternative paths to one-other. This observation on paths and goals distinguishes not only the rational and irrational, but the animate and inanimate. But this analogy does not separate the mindful from the mindless.

Reason as been recently defined by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his 2021 book Rationality as ‘the ability to use knowledge to attain goals’ (p. 36, where knowledge is ‘justified true belief’) a definition that does not exclude organisms other than humans. He goes on to point out (p. 37) that ‘Rationality is what allows us to achieve ends’. On such a definition rationality may clearly be either minded or mindless.

But what kinds of reasons are mindless reasons? We can 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 conscious intention.

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.

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. As conscious beings we are aware of our constant intentional adjustment to circumstance – but we also realize intuitively that other organisms are doing exactly the same in a mindless way.

Informed by the biological axiom, grounding concepts of intentional states give an impressive account of the connection with our non-human relatives that is refreshingly different from the usual narrative of human exceptionalism. It turns out that core human cognitive concepts can be represented as united in a simple ancestral form, much as matter once existed in an undifferentiated form. These core concepts are the conceptual and cognitive seed that has subsequently grown and diversified. For example, reason is the deployment of knowledge to attain goals. Knowledge is, in effect, information. This is hardly different from ancestral value and ancestral purpose. It seems that reason and value have a common conceptual origin that subsequently diverged. Learning is the capacity to modify and accumulate information.

Evolution of reason

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

Natural ‘selection’ further constrains the possible organic outcomes possible given the universe’s physical constants (the laws of physics) in a manner that has the semblance of human reason. With increase in organic physical complexity comes increase in conceptual complexity and behavioural plasticity becomes a precursor to cognition (Okasha).

Philosopher Dan Dennett in public lectures titled Bacteria to Bach examines some of 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 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, as the crucial factors comprising our human ‘reality‘) have been progressively and finely tuned.

Intellectual evolution was fostered by cultural evolution as the interaction of language, 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 mindless and relentless iterative algorithm of ‘generate and test’ created the physical grounding conditions for what would become the grounding concepts of reason, knowledge, value, agency – and, indeed, the entire toolbox of intentional psychology.

Knowledge, Information, Communication

Knowledge can be unconscious; it does not have to be self-reflective. That is, we do not always need to self-reflectively justify beliefs. A dog knows when a cat is nearby because it smells it, but it cannot justify its knowledge, and much human knowledge is also of this intuitive form.

Though yet to be philosophically developed, since the 1950s and the DNA revolution, biology has imbibed the human-talk relating to non-cognitive organic ‘information’, ‘communication’, and their processing (among many others – ‘editing’, ‘coding’, ‘translation’, ‘transmission’, ‘transcription’, ‘messages’, ‘messengers’, ‘signals’, ‘sending’, ‘receiving’, and ‘feedback’). Perhaps more than in any other area of biology the utility of biological simile (not metaphor) is apparent here.

Just as words are not just ink on a page or pixels on a screen, so genes are not just DNA as bits of matter. We must wrestle with the bewildering idea that DNA is information that re-creates itself.

Heredity brings with it the incorporation of historical information into present structures and processes – it accumulates ‘knowledge’. From the iteration of ‘generate and test’ organisms have ‘learned’ how to exist – to meet the conditions of the biological axiom. Genes are not just physical molecules, but coded information communicated across time generated in response to the ancient environments of the first organisms billions of years ago.

Organisms are the ‘beneficiaries’ of historical information contained in their genes which acts as a ‘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.

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.

But how can the ‘knowing’ of a human possibly compare to, say, the ‘knowing’ of a tree? The answer is that the likeness (when knowing is treated as simile not metaphor) is indeed extremely small and evolutionarily very distant, but there is a biological relationship in so far as ‘knowing’ entails the grounding concept of information acquired from the environment and retained in special kinds of organic chemical and energy relationships, and passed on to offspring. In this sense the ‘knowing’ of a human and the ‘knowing’ of a tree demonstrates far greater likeness than any kind of ‘knowing’ we might concede to the inanimate world (even the ‘knowing’ of computers).

Importantly, though, the ‘knowing’ of, say, humans and worms though very different, has an underlying real biological connection. Human ‘knowing’ compared to ‘worm knowing’ is not metaphor, it is a distant evolutionary similarity – a biological simile.


The biological axiom provides us with an conceptual seed – the grounding concepts for all life that become elaborated with increase in organic complexity.

It tells us, in a 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.

Normativity & reason

The biological axiom is our most succinct crystallization of life as agency. It is a statement, not of logical necessity but of biological necessity, and as such it declares biological values, goods, and interests.

In the absence of appropriate technical language, our intuitive recognition of the biological connection between human cognitive (mindful) goals and the non-cognitive (mindless) goals of non-human nature we have no alternative but to  describe the values inherent in the biological axiom using the human-talk of biological cognitive simile.

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.


Consider the sentence ‘Biological agents pursue their goals using diverse strategies‘.

All the italicized words here may be considered human-talk.

Animals and plants are not ‘agents’ in the same way that humans are agents; and they ‘pursue’ things in an altogether different way from humans. Human conscious goals are very different from the unconscious and mindless ‘goals’ of plants and most animals. Likewise, if ‘strategies’ are creations of human conscious deliberation then such words are best avoided altogether. Such language, we might assume, is scientifically imprecise, if not totally confusing, and therefore to be used with extreme caution or, preferably, avoided altogether.

We think of agents as having interests, goals, and strategies.[9] this being factually, not figuratively, founded. 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]

Similar rules apply to major bodily activities like ‘eating’, ‘sitting’, ‘running’, and ‘breathing’, although more derived activities are less acceptable, like ‘talking’ and ‘thinking’, which are covered by more generalized concepts like ‘communicating’.

First, a realization that anthropomorphism is rife in biological science. Some biologists might take exception to this sentence but, I contend, most would let it pass. We might draw attention to glaring examples of anthropomorphism but we allow the vast majority to pass by.

3. For semantic breadth

e.g. using the word ‘leg’ to indicate all organs of locomotion in the animal world

4. As an intuitive acknowledgement of real connection

e.g. ‘the dog was devoted to its master’

This kind of language has been called agential thinking where organisms are treated as agents pursuing the goals of survival and reproduction (biological axiom) using strategies that are, in effect, their evolved traits.[4]

But in all the cases listed above it is possible to discern simple antecedent or ‘ancestral’ conceptual conditions that prompt an intuitive response of recognition.

This unlikely situation flows from our acknowledgement of mindless agency as expressed primarily through the biological axiom. We humans are aware of the goals inherent in non-human organisms even though the organisms themselves are not. These goals are not confined to human minds – they are present in nature.

We can now see how this might relate to the concepts listed above.

First comes the recognition that the differentiated concepts of reason, value, knowledge, purpose, memory, learning, and sensation have emerged from a simpler foundation.

What do you think about calling an organism an ‘agent’? Is this just more of the same misrepresentation, or perhaps some kind of semantic leger de main? 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?
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.

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’, ‘direction’  and ‘normativity’ – it is a 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.

Source of agency

Consider the difference between a living and a dead body. We might regard ‘agency’ as an appropriate term expressing this difference since it is agency is what animates, motivates, drives, or directs organisms.

Agency, as studied by physicists, could well be regarded as a force. In physics a force is the push or pull of an object: something capable of changing the state of rest or motion of a particular body. Agency, then, is a non-mysterious life-force. But where does the agency or life-force of organisms spring from?

What we have found is that organisms are matter that

How do organisms ‘reason’ – that is, how do they use ‘knowledge’ to ‘pursue’ their ‘goals’? Their ‘motivation’ emerges from the biological axiom while their ‘strategies’ are their evolved traits which include both adaptations and fitness maximization.

Semantics & metaphysics

We cannot legislate the meanings of non-technical words: their meanings depend, not on what we would like them to be, or even on their dictionary definition, but on the way that they are used by their consumers.

When we say that a spider ‘knows’ how to build a web, it may be pointed out that the very meaning of ‘knowing’ entails human cognition. ‘Knowing’ is a mind word. This is to confuse semantics with the metaphysical claims being made in this article.

When we say it is ‘as if’ a spider ‘knows’ (by treating biological anthropomorphism as metaphor) we are making a distinction that becomes exclusive. Either a spider ‘knows’ in the way a human ‘knows’ or – albeit by implication rather than logical necessity – it does not ‘know’ at all. 

Putting philosophical objections aside (the inversion and conversion of reason, the metaphor fallacy, and agency error). The claim in this article is that the semantics of ‘knowing’ would better reflect reality (and therefore be more scientific) if the meaning of ‘knowing’ were to add semantic breadth to include the kind of ‘knowing’ that is expressed by all organisms. The point is that ‘knowing’, like physical structures, is expressed in nature by degree in a gradation that is a consequence of descent with modification. 

There are, for example, more shared characteristics of ‘knowing’ existing between a human and a plant than between a human and a rock because both humans and plants share the common goals of biological agency. We recognize this intuitively.

Just as humans evolved out of nature sharing characteristics of their ancestors, so human agency is a specialized form of biological agency, and the language of human agency carries within it the semantics of biological agency.

Key points


  • ‘Human-talk’ is a simple term referring to the attribution of human characteristics to non-human organisms, objects, and ideas: it includes the literary devices of anthropomorphism, personification, simile, and metaphor
  • By tradition, biological anthropomorphism has been viewed through the lens of metaphor by treating the relata as being in an either-or (real vs unreal (figurative)) relationship. Scientifically such comparisons are of heuristic value only. It is more scientific to treat the relationship as akin to simile (as likenesses that are all evolutionarily physically connected, but by degree). This is a more or less distinction. Treating biological anthropomorphism this way means that the relationship between the relata though not literally the same, is real, with the connection one of degree (‘not literal but like’). Rather than being a figurative literary device, biological anthropomorphism reflects real evolutionary connection across time and space.
  • Studying an amoeba we discover that there is much about its behaviour that is similar to our own, but we do not have the technical vocabulary to describe an amoeba in amoeba terms. With no other option we resort to anthropomorphic language (human-talk) instead
  • We intuitively recognize evolutionary connection, even when it is distant and that is why we are more amenable to the idea of a plant ‘wanting‘ water than a river ‘wanting‘ the sea
  • Close inspection reveals that the human-talk of biology usually expresses, not the unreal ‘as if’ relations of metaphor, but the ‘likeness’ relations of simile, where the likeness is founded on the physical continuity (reality) of evolutionary descent
  • Evolutionary description includes both the novelties that establish difference and the similarities that determine common ancestry
  • We intuitively identify with evolutionary connection. Life has autonomous agency that that is not present in inanimate matter. This is why it makes more than metaphorical sense to speak of a plant ‘needing’ water


All organisms display goal-directed behaviour, and where there are goals there is agency and purpose. It is this biological agency that distinguishes life from the inanimate and the dead.  The goal-directed behaviour of organisms derives from their predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. These are the necessary and sufficient (universal) conditions for organic agential existence – referred to on this web site as the biological axiom, which is also our best articulation of life’s ultimate purpose when expressed in biological terms.

About 2500 years ago ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described this end-directed characteristic of life as telos, the actualization of potential, later named teleology.[23] He noted that in biological science we must adopt an agential outlook because without understanding what biological structures, processes, and behaviours are ‘for’, biological explanations are reduced to lists of dissociated facts. We have no choice but to explain an organism, not in terms of its material ingredients (the stuff out of which it is made), but its functional organization. The material constituents of organisms change constantly over time: it is the continuity of organisms as autonomous agents that establishes their identity. Much of biology is therefore about reverse engineering. We can reasonably ask questions like What are hands, hearts, and eyes for? while the question, What are the stars and moon for? does not make sense. That is, we intuitively understand the crucial agential distinction between inanimate matter and the biological agency of life.

Aristotelian teleology was ostracized by intellectuals of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment who perceived it as an unnecessary and mysterious metaphysics and a metaphorical projection of human agency onto nature – a view that persists to the present day. Even though Darwin supplied a naturalistic causal explanation for the implied teleological anomaly of foresight and backward causation, and also removed any need to invoke the supernatural or human projection, it is still conventional for both scientists and philosophers to treat biological agency as unreal, or of only heuristic value[35] by arguing that, since only (minded) humans express intentional states then only humans are real agents expressing real purpose: it is only as if other (mindless) biological agents are real agents.

While acknowledging the extraordinary cognitive powers of the human brain this perspective on life is, in biological terms, both an anthropocentric exaggeration of human agency and a devaluation of biological agency. It is a view that is victim to two errors of logic (the inversion of reasoning and metaphor fallacy) and a mistaken linguistic interpretation (agency error).

The inversion of reasoning incorrectly assumes that since biological goals (purposes) can only be understood by human minds, then they only exist in human minds, and are therefore a creation of human minds.

The implied unreality of biological purpose resulting from this inversion of reason is then reinforced by its traditional interpretation through the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). Thus, the likeness between the minded and mindless becomes an as if (unreal) relationship.

This devaluation of biological agency is further compounded by the agency error, another historically perpetuated claim which reasonably but incorrectly interprets anthropomorphic language literally, as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer scrutiny it is evident that much anthropomorphism clearly refers, in fact, not to minded human agency, but to the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry (agency error, see examples below).

Thus, the purposive and agential intentional explanations so prevalent in biology are not the metaphorical insinuation of human agency into nature (the metaphor fallacy) but an attempt to communicate the real biological agency that is inherent in all organisms. Anthropomorphic analogical language is not the as if of cognitive metaphor, but the real likeness of biological simile (see human-talk).

From an evolutionary perspective human agency evolved out of (is a subset of) biological agency. We have given precedence to human agency by developing a uniquely minded descriptive vocabulary (that of intentional psychology) to describe the uniquely human expression of biological agency. An objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task.

So, why do we use minded language to describe mindless organisms?

We use the human-talk of anthropomorphism (sometimes called cognitive metaphor) for many reasons. Lesser reasons include: literary embellishment, our natural anthropocentric cognitive bias, and the convenience of brevity. But there are two much more significant reasons. First, the lack the scientific vocabulary needed to describe the unique modes of biological agency expressed by each individual species (so we resort to the vocabulary of our own species). Second, because we intuitively recognize in other organisms, not the human agency implied by anthropomorphic language, but the biological agency that we share with all organisms and which is in fact the focus of reference.

We say that a plant wants water, not because we think that plants experience cognitive states, but because we intuitively appreciate the significance of survival for all life. It is not as if a plant wants water, rather, in terms of biological agency, a plant depends on water for its survival. The agency being communicated here is not as if or even like, but the same as our human biological dependency on 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, in the light of biological agency, we understand the 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, that they have self-evident agential significance.

We say a spider knows how to build its web, not because 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 our human cognitive capacity to learn, remember, and apply accumulated knowledge (human agency).  

In sum, we use minded language not because we believe non-human organisms have cognitive faculties (cognitive metaphor), but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile). 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). 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.

At its heart, this philosophical confusion has been perpetuated by a pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism. We have yet to scientifically accept that human agency is an evolutionary development of real biological agency: biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency.

First published on the internet – 9 October 2021
. . . substantial revision 26 January 2022
. . . substantial revision 6 February 2022
. . . critical editing 1 – 13 February 2022
. . . critical editing 2 – 14 February 2022
. . . critical editing 3 – 17 February 2022
. . . critical editing 4 – 25 February 2022
. . . critical editing 5 – 2 March 2022
. . . minor amendment – 6 March 2022
. . . minor amendment – 9 March 2022
. . . added article as external link to Wikipedia under ‘anthropomorphism’, and ‘metaphor’ – 18 March 2022
. . . critical editing – 18 March 2022

Sir Dent-de-Lion
A dandelion flower illustrated ‘as if’ it were a knight – an example of a pictorial metaphor
1899 Walter Crane (1845-1915). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Fae, Accessed 20 Oct. 2015

Sir Dent-de-Lion
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