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Three articles discuss the nature of biological agency considered as the disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish (treated as a biological axiom). The topic is introduced in the article Life as agency. The article on human-talk examines why we use anthropomorphism (cognitive metaphor) to describe biological agency. The article on biological normativity considers how the biological values expressed in the biological axiom ground human values. Together these three articles conclude that, contrary to current scientific and philosophical convention, biological agency and biological values are not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is an  evolutionary development of real biological agency. That is, agency in nature is real agency, it is not agent-like.



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 connection to nature’s mindless biological 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 physical features and agential characteristics that are a consequence of descent with modification. Accepting minded human intention as an evolutionary development of mindless biological agency has substantial philosophical implications.

see Life as agency

Always in biology there has been a tendency to use the language of human intentional psychology in relation to non-human organisms. We say that a plant needs water or that a spider builds its web in order to catch flies. This application of the language of agency and mental states to organisms that do not have minds is generally known as anthropomorphism but here it is referred to more simply as human-talk.

Since human-talk is a misrepresentation – it associates organisms with cognitive properties that they do not and cannot possess – it is treated as cognitive metaphor. That is, it is only as if these organisms are agents that have wants, needs, and intentions.

This article explains how agential language like this is not the language of metaphor, but the language of likeness, of simile: how the use of human-talk is usually attempting to capture the real likeness of the agency shared by all organisms, rather than the unreal uniquely minded agency of human beings: human-talk draws attention to the sharing of biological goals, not the meeting of minds.

This unlikely claim requires some explanation.

The problem of metaphor

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.

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, upon close inspection, extends beyond human cognition into the reality of all biological 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 within the parameters of space and time (the transcendental aesthetic) and provides the logical categories that bind our experience into a unified whole (the transcendental analytic). That is, we see the world not ‘as it really is’, but as it is constructed by our biology (which science attempts to transcend). 

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 as a whole.

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 also 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 mode of thinking looks to nature (not the human mind) as an originator, source, or creator.

How are we to make a scientific assessment of our tendency to humanize nature? Do we humanize non-human behaviour in the same way that we humanize non-human body parts? Are the rules of physical and mental humanization different? And how does the anthropomorphic or intentional 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, because 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 treatment of all anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor, rather than biological simile. This relates to a confusion between concepts describing the mindless universal agency inherent in all organisms (as expressed in the biological axiom), and concepts describing the uniquely minded (additional) agency present in humans. Biological anthropomorphism as human-talk usually 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 treatment of anthropomorphism as metaphor dates back to ancient pre-evolutionary times based on the association of mental concepts with the absolute distinction between organisms with minds and those without minds. It 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 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).

When considering biological metaphors it helps to compare metaphors of the body and metaphors of the mind – the human-talk that we use to describe non-human physical structures (non-cognitive human-talk), and the human-talk language of mental states that we use to describe non-human biological agency (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. These are known (metaphorically) as ‘dead’ metaphors e.g. car ‘body’ and 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 referred to 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 referring to 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 the word ‘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 have autonomy, they 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. We even speak of the behaviour of molecules? Again, the word ‘behaviour’ is being used here in such a broad sense that it is mistaken to suggest its use 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 grounded in mindless organisms and implying a biological connection that our  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 (minded) evolutionary development of (mindless) 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 (the intentional idiom), is widely interpreted through the literary notion of the metaphor and, more specifically, the cognitive metaphor.[25] Minded (intentional) agency is then treated as genuine agency and mindless (natural) agency as figurative or ‘as if’ (unreal) agency. For example, philosopher of biology Okasha notes the view that ‘ . . . uses of the intentional idiom in biology should be read in an ‘as if’ sense; they simply reflect the fact that organisms and genes are evolved entities and thus display or encode adaptive traits‘.[25] As mentioned elsewhere, ‘. . . the fact that organisms and genes are evolved entities and thus display or encode adaptive traits’ needs more than this bald statement to count as evidence of metaphor and, indeed, Okasha himself takes a more moderate view that ‘ . . . agential thinking in biology, when used carefully, can be a powerful tool for [sic] understand adaptation.’

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: no agency. With this leger de main, the attribution of ‘as if’ metaphorical (figurative, unreal) status seems secure.

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) brings with it a commitment to the logical inference contained within the 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 (assuming a literary device is appropriate to adjudicate this issue) 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 and a reinterpretation of word usage that, of themselves, have nothing to do with philosophy. What is of crucial philosophical importance, however, are the metaphysical implications of this clarification for our scientific worldview – to what we understand as real or unreal in debates that engage grand concepts like reason, value, knowledge, agency, and more.

The relationship between the ‘minded’ concepts of agency, purpose, reason, value, and knowledge, and their ‘mindless’ grounding concepts in biological agency are discussed in the article on being like-minded.

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


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

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

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

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

Organisms are autonomous biological agents with a unity of purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reality of biological agency 
Because the purpose, agency, and values of biological agency can only be understood by (represented in) human minds, it is often assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are therefore a creation of human minds. From this error of reasoning it follows that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like.

In fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the biological substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

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

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

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

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

For example, we accept that sexuality exists (almost) universally across the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Simply because human sexuality is expressed in a uniquely human way does not mean that only human sexuality is real, and that the sexuality of other organisms is only sexual-like.

Proximate & ultimate goals
Human agency is a minded evolutionary development of mindless biological agency. Human minded goals are, in this sense, only proximate goals that serve the ultimate and mindless goals of biological agency.

So, for example, we humans eat for minded proximate ends (taste and smell stimulation and the satiation of hunger), that have the mindless ultimate biological end of survival. We have sex for minded proximate ends (orgasm, physical and emotional gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We develop moral and political systems seeking the minded proximate ends of happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure, while serving the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

Consider the sentence -

'The design we see in nature is only apparent design'.

We say that design in nature is ‘apparent’ (not real) because it is not human design, it is not created by human minds. But nature and organisms are replete with real designed structures in patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the miraculous and intricately integrated human body, including the brain that provides us with conscious representations of nature’s real design.

The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘prefer’ or ‘believe’ - words that are used uncomfortably outside the context of the human mind. Thus, the word ‘design’ is only used nervously in relation to organisms because it implies that either they have minds, or they were created by god. So, we overcome the real design with verbal obfuscation. We say that nature is 'design-like' or 'designoid'.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive.

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

Aristotle maintained that the ultimate goals of biological agency drive us to the conclusion that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘, and ‘it is better to live than not live’ – referred to here as Aristotle’s biological normative imperative. Humans describe such statements as subjective value judgements that have no logical necessity. But as statements expressing the objective nature of all organisms, including humans, (but not in inanimate objects) they do express biological necessity.

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

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to temporarily resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make the minded and contestable value judgement, that 'it is good to live', but mindless organisms do not make value judgments, their biological 'normativity' is expressed in the way that they are. But humans, since they express both mindless biological agency (objective behavioural orientation) and minded human agency (subjective value) thus express both fact and value simultaneously (cf. the philosophical distinction between fact and value).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is a further difficulty because, as already pointed out, biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive concepts. The proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency.

Mindedness is not a precondition for agency in living organisms: mindedness is simply one expression of biological agency. We conflate the simple distinction between the minded and the mindless with the complex distinction between biological agency and human agency. It is not that biological agency is a subjective creation of the human mind (cognitive metaphor or heuristic), rather that the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency. More simply, the objective behavioural orientation of mindless organisms (mindless purpose) created minds: minds did not create purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, in many cases of so-called cognitive metaphor, the language is clearly intended to convey the biological likeness associated with the grounding characteristics of biological agency, not inferring that the organism has cognitive faculties. In other words, anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution) not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device. It expresses a meeting of shared biological agency, not a meeting of minds.

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

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

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

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

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

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on several interrelated confusions concerning the distinction between, on the one hand, organisms with minds and those without minds and, on the other, biological agency and human agency.

First, an inversion of reasoning. We assume that since humans are aware of their own agency (their goals, purposes, intentions, values etc.) and we know that non-human organisms do not share this same awareness, then they either have no agency or are, at best, only agent-like. We currently hold the scientifically unjustified conviction that agency is necessarily mind dependent. We mistakenly believe that undifferentiated and mindless biological goals play no role in their evolved and differentiated minded forms.

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

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

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

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor, and minded humanizing language as cognitive metaphor.[42] This fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an 'as if' (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device the appropriate mechanism for making this comparison then, in strict literary terms, the likeness is not metaphor but simile.

Fourth, and related to the third, we make an agency error – whereby anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it is evident that, in general, such language is not, in fact, referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry. This is the traditional and mistaken assumption that the agency we imply when using anthropomorphic language is the unique agency of humans when, in fact, its intended meaning relates to the universal biological agency that is present in all living organisms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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
. . . 18 March 2022 – critical editing
. . . 13 September 2022 – added new introduction

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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