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Biological intention

The article being like-minded examined the way that the goal-directed agency of non-human organisms that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead of non-human organisms is currently either denied or treated as being only agent-like. This has resulted in a poverty of both language and ideas relating to biological agency. Also, how this biological agency displays many features that are similar to human intentions. They retain a record of the past that is like human memory, they deceive other organisms with camouflage, they care for their young, both their short- and long-term adaptation demonstrates a kind of reason, and so on. What exactly is the connection between mindless biological agency and minded human agency.
Biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive: while human agency displays uniquely minded characteristics, it also shares many of the mindless characteristics of biological agency. This article examines several aspects of this sharing. First, the mindless or unconscious aspects of our human mental lives that may be regarded as expressions of our biological agency. Second, the way that concepts we have traditionally treated as exclusively human minded concepts include within their semantic range concepts that relate more to biological agency: included here are agency itself, purpose, reason, knowledge, and value. Third, the way that human proximate and minded goals are an expression of ultimate and mindless biological goals. Fourth, an examination of the subordinate role of human intentions to biological goals in biological evolution, and of biological goals to human intentions in cultural evolution.

We regard the human mental attributes of conscious intention and deliberation as among the most obvious defining characteristics of what it is to be a human being – a member of the species Homo sapiens. Intentionality, especially, is one of the key characteristics that we associate with human mental agency.

If we assume that human agency evolved out of the more generalized biological agency, as it surely must have, then it is likely that many human agential traits will share features in common with the biological agency found in all organisms.

This article investigates some of the most obvious mental characteristics associated with human intentionality and agency – reason, knowledge, and value – and the features that they share with biological agency. This comparison begins with the shared similarity of goal-directed behaviour (biological ‘intention’) and minded human intention. We usually restrict the use of the word ‘intention’ to mental activity, although it is like (because evolutionarily related to) the goal-directedness that is found in all organisms. Thus uniquely human intentions (emergent properties) evolved out of more generalized biological ‘intentions’ as (grounding properties) that are shared by all living organisms.

We accept, without question, that every physical biological structure has an evolutionary history. Applying this principle to the concepts we use in the language of human intentions seems somehow inappropriate and scientifically unjustified. However, our science and its descriptive language would better describe nature if it were accepted that mental concepts bring with them the associations of their physical evolution. When speaking biologically of ‘hearts’ we accept that the heart of the worm, as an invertebrate evolutionary precursor of the human heart is a heart – it is not a metaphorical heart. So why do we regard biological intention, as an evolutionary precursor to human minded intention, as being only a metaphorical trait?

Under scrutiny it becomes clear that many of the concepts that we associated uniquely with minds have a semantic range that takes account of biological agency. Such notions as agency, purpose, value etc. thus become confusingly implicit in biological discourse. Confusion arises because uniquely emergent mental properties and shared grounding properties are not mutually exclusive – grounding characteristics are shared characteristics. But, the conflation of grounding and emergent properties results in confusion about what is truly scientific.

So, for example, human intentions are not separate and distinct from biological intentions, they are, instead, one of its highly evolved (minded) forms: proximate human intentions are evolved forms of ultimate biological intentions.

These general ideas about semantic range – with grounding and emergent properties as ultimate and proximate reasons – are best understood through practical examples.

This article applies these ideas to the ‘minded’ concepts of agency, purpose, value, reason, and knowledge. For each it considers the semantic range, grounding, and emergent properties.

It is argued here that much philosophical and biological confusion could be avoided if the currently implicit characteristics of biological agency and their relationship to characteristics of human agency were made explicit.

Human agency

Agency, loosely defined, is the power of an actor (agent) to influence outcomes. In the typical case we think of human agency as the power of humans to determine the course of events, both individually and collectively.

At one time natural events like storms, floods, and famines were attributed to human-like Gods but today we distinguish between the causal processes that occur in the inanimate physical world, and the purposeful goal-directed behaviour of autonomous living organisms acting as biological agents. That is, we make a distinction between the living and the inanimate and dead – between life and non-life. Among the living we recognize as unique and special our own human capacity for behaviour that is self-aware and strongly influenced by our mental ability to reason. When coupled with our ability to communicate using symbolic languages this has resulted in a high degree of sociality.

Human behaviour

The so-called ‘higher’ functioning of the brain, our reasoning faculty, is found in the pre-frontal cortex, a relatively recent anatomical evolutionary addition to the brain. Our mental processing is impossibly complex but may be crudely described as a constant state of mental adaptation to internal and external conditions as related to an inner autonomous sense of ‘self’. Perceptions and cognitions are segregated into objects of experience; we focus on a limited range of these, group them according to similarities and differences, and prioritize them according to interest and purpose in preparation for action. Knowledge when combined with reason and desire then provide us with the tools for hindsight, foresight and, where necessary, action.

This superficial account of mental adaptation describes mental operations often barely conscious but which make up part of the self-awareness we associate with human intentionality and agency. 

Human behaviour is, however, much more than the thoughtful decision-making of conscious intention; it has a substantial unthinking and unconscious component. Our behaviour is also influenced by more ‘primitive’ parts of the brain that arose earlier in evolution. Though our brains miraculously integrate our mental activity, it as though they were built by evolution in a modular way with some capacities superimposed on pre-existing ones.

Our behaviour is much more than conscious and intentional decision-making. First, there are the various mindless involuntary processes that are part of our bodily living agency – the sweating, metabolizing, digesting, blinking, yawning, sneezing etc. Then, there are the many unconscious mental processes that influence our behaviour – our instincts, intuitions, fears, and other spontaneous emotions.

But we feel that ‘on top’ of all this biology there is the guiding hand of careful deliberation – the reasoning core of our conscious behaviour. It is this self-reflective aspect of human agency – the capacity to think abstractly by asking ‘should this have happened?’ and ‘I ought to do this?’ that seems to single out human agency as special.

To these mostly internal factors guiding our behaviour must be added the external social influences of collective learning, behavioural codes, and other elements of symbolic culture communicated through language.

Integrating biological & human agency

Human agency is an evolutionary development of biological agency, it did not replace it. Human agency and biological agency are not mutually exclusive: while human agency has some unique agential features it also shares other agential features with its evolutionary antecedents.

But how is this claim cashed out in hard biological terms?

The crucial distinction currently drawn is between the minded conscious intention of humans and the mindless, or merely sentient, capacities of other organisms.

The object of articles on this web site is not to deny this distinction, but to draw scientific attention to the way that history, ignorant of evolution, has emphasized the differences that exist between humans and other organisms, while ignoring the similarities. Though a seemingly trivial matter, the perceptual consequences are profound. Our anthropocentric conceptualization of nature treats the mind, not nature, as a creator and cause.

We forget that it is nature that made subjectivity (consciousness, intentionality, understanding) possible. It was not humans or gods that created the human brain but the mindless processes inherent in nature itself. We do not live in a mind first, but a matter first, universe. Mindless life is competent without comprehension as, in the course of evolution, meaning and purpose bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top (quotes of philosopher Dan Dennett). In the more direct biological terms expressed here, human agency evolved out of biological agency. Meaning, purpose, intention, reason, knowledge, and value arose out of real nature – they are not metaphorical inventions of the human mind.

Metaphor & Simile

Literary devices are not the best way of making scientific comparisons, although they sometimes help to make a point. In metaphors the objects being compared, the relata, are imaginary, figurative, or unreal as in ‘You are a rat!‘, while in a simile the relata may be grounded in reality as in ‘You are running like Usain Bolt‘ which is simply implying that you are running very fast.

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. We are mistakenly implying that spiders have human-like brains, and, since it is only ‘as if’ spiders have human brains, this use of language is aptly described as cognitive metaphor.

But we can too quickly dismiss the content of the likeness that we are trying to convey – the likeness between human ‘knowing’ and spider ‘knowing’ – as unreal.

But the language used in such instances generally attempts to convey likeness that, on closer inspection, is seen to be based on likeness by evolutionary degree as a gradation that is a consequence of descent with modification. 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. Spider ‘knowing’ is not ‘as if’ it is human knowing, it is ‘like’ human knowing.

Of course, 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.

To say that a plant wants water is indeed cognitive metaphor because a plant does not ‘want’ in the same way that a human wants, but the language used here is drawing attention to a real grounding feature of biological agency (that of survival), not the inference that plants have emergent cognitive faculties. The acknowledgement of mindless biological intention dissolves the cognitive dissonance that arises in such cases when we feel that something significant is being communicated but in the wrong way.

The problem is that metaphor denies any form of agency; it treats living organisms as inanimate objects. But we recognize intuitively that all organisms share the common goals of  the biological axiom, and it is this biological agency that makes them different from inanimate objects. We are tempted to dismiss non-minded ‘intentions’ (the goals of biological agency) altogether, precisely because they do not occur in conscious minds, but this condemns living organisms to the same intentional status as inanimate objects.

Just as humans evolved out of nature sharing some physical features with their ancestors, so human agency is a specialized form of biological agency, and the language of human agency brings with it (whether we like it or not) the semantics of biological agency.

This point is discussed in more detail as an investigation into the mutually exclusive distinction between the minded and mindless (see being like-minded).

Minds & agency

We accept that when, in biology, there is talk about the heart, then this may just as well be about a worm heart as a human heart. We assume an ‘all of biology’ outlook because evolutionary theory has conveyed to us the notion of physical connection and relationships established, across the community of life, by shared characteristics.

But when we say a spider ‘intends’ to catch flies, we overstep a biological boundary because ‘intending’ is a property of minds – and spiders don’t have minds – not minds like human minds anyway. This is like saying that a daffodil is thinking, and that is absurd, because thinking requires a mind, and daffodils don’t have minds.

But even daffodils share with humans the goal-directedness expressed in the biological axiom. It is self-evident that daffodils, as a kind of plant, have managed to persist (survive and sometimes flourish) on Earth by reproducing themselves for many millions of years. The capacity to survive, reproduce, and flourish is a fundamental biological characteristic that daffodils share with humans, but not with rocks. This biological agency is like human minded intention in the sense that it is goal-directed behaviour, but it does not share the specialized minded properties that are unique to humans.

The acceptance of evolutionary connection in physical attributes while denying evolutionary connection of mental attributes relates to long philosophical and religious traditions treating the mind as a locus for mystical, mysterious, and inexplicable aspects of human nature, the place where the body-surviving soul resides, and as an organ of unique and inexplicable biological complexity. For these reasons the brain, mind, and its concepts have always been treated as different from other aspects of our biology, but modern science is coming to treat the brain as an organ like any other, albeit a highly complicated one.

All this is simple and straightforward: but consider how crucial it is that human intentionality is focused on objectives – how wants, needs, preferences, desires, beliefs etc., are of, or about something. They are a manifestation of agency, of goals. We say these are subjective properties since they are products of the mind, but they are manifest in objective goal-directed behaviour. It is this goal-directedness (agency) that humans share with all other organisms: we do not share it with rocks or other objects of the inanimate world.

This shared goal-directedness in both minded and mindless organisms (biological agency) is grounded in evolution by descent from common ancestry. But biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive: human agency is specialized minded form of biological agency.

Minded & mindless

We are rightly mesmerized by the wonder we feel for consciousness, sentience, and subjectivity – our human capacity to engage knowledge, reason, and value. These are the biological tools of human agency that we use to understand and explain the world, and we are fascinated with the neurological substrate and mental processing that makes conscious experience possible.

But we run ahead of ourselves because we still have no answer to a much simpler foundational question: what is it in nature that made subjectivity possible – how could matter become aware of itself? We are absorbed in the product without understanding the process that produced it.

Articles on this web site attempt to articulate a response to this question by looking to evolutionary biology. Human agency evolved out of the goal-directed behaviour of the biological agency that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead. We like to draw categorical boundaries around concepts (e.g. there is no reason without sentience) when evolution teaches us about gradation and the way that novelty (difference) arises out of a shared history (similarity).

One critical boundary that the human intellect cherishes above all others is that between the minded and mindless.

The biological (evolutionary) meaning of ‘heart’ (like that of all organic structures) depends on both its shared (grounding) features and the uniquely emergent features that apply when describing the heart found in a particular species of organism.

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.

Concepts of biological agency

Biological agency (the goal-directed behaviour described in the biological axiom) is the agential foundation for all life. This is the substrate of conditions out of which physical forms have differentiated and radiated into the diverse modes of species-specific agency we see today as expressed by the entire community of life. This is what motivates organismal behaviour as a scientifically explicable life-force.

Among the many species-specific behaviours there is the uniquely minded and highly evolved conscious deliberation that underpins human behaviour. In this minded form the simple and generalized properties of biological agency have become differentiated into the range of behaviours expressed by the language of human intentional psychology.

The following table illustrates the grounding of some differentiated mental attributes of human agency in the universal characteristics of biological agency. The similarity of the conceptual characteristics defining biological agency is reminiscent of the undifferentiated physical evolutionary precursors to current diversity of evolutionary forms.

BIOLOGICAL AGENCY - grounding & mindless -
the filtering or constraining of possible outcomes
goal-directed behaviour
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
what motivates behaviour
adjustment of atrait to its environment
HUMAN AGENCY - emergent & minded -
conscious human choice
mental objective, aim, or purpose
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
what motivates conscious intention
learning, remembering, problem-solving

Many of the universal grounding concepts of biological agency are manifest in a highly evolved and uniquely minded human form and described in the language of intentional psychology. So, for example, the purposes that exist throughout nature have the human minded form of intentions; the autonomy that characterizes the agency of every organism is manifest in humans as a sense of self; the universal motivation to reproduce is manifest in humans as sexual desire, and so on.

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

Conceptual gradation

We are accustomed to thinking of agency and mental states as instantiated in nature in an abrupt rather than graded way. Tradition and conventional semantics tell us that it is only our human minds that can manifest the properties we associate with purpose, reason, and value etc. How can ‘wanting’ exist in nature by degree – could a plant ‘want’? . . . that is absurd. Either organisms have minds (with all their associated mindful properties) or they do not – a simple application of the law of excluded middle.

But could it be that in nature, in reality, what we currently call ‘reason’ exists across the community of nature in a graded form?

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 the variation of these factors between species that are evolutionarily related to humans?

Science associates consciousness with the activity of a central nervous system (CNS), and we assume that the richness of conscious experience is correlated with the degree of complexity of the CNS. Thus consciousness exists as a ‘degree of awareness’ in, say, domestic animals, fish, and even worms. Though the likeness between the consciousness of a human and that of 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 – and it is a semblance of features that is much stronger than the semblance between the consciousness of humans and that of a rock!

When we try to explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, we must confront both those characteristics of consciousness that make human consciousness unique (emergent characters), and those features that are shared with other organisms (the ancestral or grounding characters).

If we regard consciousness as a faculty restricted to Homo sapiens then whatever evolution-based characteristics human consciousness shares with other organisms, we cannot call ‘consciousness’. We must find another word.

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 word or two?

Biological binomial nomenclature is one of biology’s most effective ways of doing this: the genus name expresses features held in common with other species, the specific epithet the unique features of the species. It is an ideal way of expressing differentiation from a common ground plan – evolution by descent with modification from common ancestors. 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.

Imagine you are researching different kinds of  mental awareness (‘consciousnesses’) as it is found in, say, humans, dogs, and bats. Although you might be tempted to speak of ‘dog consciousness’, and ‘bat consciousness’, the use of the word ‘consciousness’ becomes clumsy if you are convinced that these kinds of awareness are unrelated human consciousness and must be treated separately from it.

Scientifically uniqueness can be locked in with a narrowly defined technical term. So, we might isolate human consciousness with the word humcon and then use another word, say dogmind for dog (meaning dog awareness sufficiently different from human consciousness as to warrant a unique term), and bathead for bat awareness. This establishes a unique condition in nature with a unique name. But scientifically (from an evolutionary perspective) we must also establish ancestral connection, no matter how distant, so that we can investigate degrees of evolutionary similarity that must inevitably exist between humcon, dogmind, and bathead.

One way of addressing the problem of expressing both similarity and difference might be to designate commonly held grounding features with the prefix all and the emergent properties could then be indicated with the unique suffix to produce technical terms like allhumcon, alldogmind, and allbathead.

This specially devised terminology now incorporates the key evolutionary ideas of both individual difference, and underlying evolutionary similarity – of both grounding and emergent concepts.

This long-winded explanation illustrates how, if human agency evolved out of biological agency then we would expect both unique and shared characteristics (grounding and emergent features) to be represented in our understanding (the meaning, or semantics) of ‘agency’.

If it is granted that our understanding of human agency somehow incorporates our understanding of biological agency then the question arises as to whether the key components of human agency – like reasoning, knowing, and valuing – also share characteristics with (mindless) biological agency? This is certainly not part of our current understanding and semantics.

But 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, rather than being completely restricted to human minds?

For the scientific meaning of ‘reason’ to change in line with this scientific interpretation the semantics of human intentional psychology would need to catch up with the evolutionary theory on which it is based. In this case the meaning of ‘reason’ would incorporate non-human phenomena.  This seems extremely unlikely – as does the use of technical vocabularies. We can, of course, continue with the misrepresentation of human-talk and especially cognitive metaphor.

Our emphasis on the mental aspects of our biology is an understandable anthropocentric cognitive bias. Nature created our brains, but our collective learning created the culture that now dominates the planet.

Even so, some humility is in order when comparing the minded and mindless. We now know that the cognitive reaches back in evolution to the non-cognitive, human agency is grounded in biological agency, our intentional concepts bring with them the evolutionary baggage of mindless biological goals.

It remains to investigate how it is that knowledge, reason, and value – as key mental concepts – can reach back into mindless goal-directed origins.

Cognitive grounding concepts

The distinction between the minded and mindless seems clear-cut, and decisive. It is related to similar distinctions that we make between the sentient and non-sentient, the reasoning and unreasoning, valuing and non-valuing, the conscious and non-conscious etc. Despite science’s constant erosion of human exceptionalism, the cognitive domain of human intentionality seems impregnable. On the one hand there are organisms that are critically self-aware, and then there are the rest.

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 convenient to fragment nature into species and other taxa.

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

Am I scientifically entitled to say that my dog was ‘angry’ when I dragged it off the neighbour’s dog that had wandered into our garden? 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 description 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). The similarity of dog anger and human anger 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 metaphor, grounding concepts, or emergent concepts; or would your decision depend on the context of the claims being 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?

Remember: our 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 language of intentional psychology

But let’s look more closely at the language we use to describe the specifically human mode of this agency and see if it provides any clues, or reflects in any way, the evolutionary connections that we know connect the community of life through the materiality of heredity.

This exploration must begin with the relationship between the mindless but objective goals of biological agency and the additional minded intentions we associate with human agency. Both intentions and goals are about ‘ends’, what things are ‘for’ . . . their ‘purpose’.

Teleology and purpose are addressed at length elsewhere, but the relevant considerations are briefly outlined here.


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

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

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

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

Why has so much time been wasted on this debate?

Before Darwin it was assumed that God had imbued nature with purpose (teleology) at the time of the Creation. Birds had wings to fly and eyes to see because God had made them that way. There was no scientific account in Darwin’s day with sufficient sophistication to compete with the biblical account of the origin of purpose in nature.

Before Darwin, each species was a unique creation of God regardless of any similarities or differences it might have to other creatures. After Darwin similarities and differences, it was realized, were a consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Darwin established the temporal and physical continuity that connects the entire community of life, humans included. Even so, the idea that nature itself could display independent agency was counter-intuitive to traditional ways of thinking.

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

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

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

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

Darwin, like Aristotle 2,200 years before (through his work, rather than his belief) placed purpose and design within nature itself. Darwin did not remove purpose from nature, he explained how it had arisen in a natural way – how organisms and processes in nature can be ‘for’ without the foresight we associate with humans or God. In one small book he demolished a major argument for the existence of God while naturalizing our intuitive talk of the purpose, function, and design that is self-evidently present in nature, independent of human existence, and therefore real.

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

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

The teleological idiom

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

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

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

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

Reason, knowledge, value

The agential language of human intentional psychology includes a host of words expressing goals as intentions (significantly, these are not necessarily conscious intentions) – words like as ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘like’, ‘prefer’, ‘interest’, ‘strategy’, ‘goal’, ‘love’, ‘deceive’, ‘consider’, ‘desire’, and so on . . . the list is a long one.

The biological axiom expresses biological agency in its simplest, shared, and undifferentiated form. The language of human intentional psychology then describes minded human agency in all its differentiated variety.

An intuitive taxonomy of this minded vocabulary (the language of intentional psychology) reveals three word clusters. The conceptual focus of these three clusters expresses the core ways in which human minded agency is differentiated from its grounding biological agency. That is, the language of human intentional psychology revolves around the three central ideas of reason, knowledge, and value.

This might, at first, appear an arbitrary and personal selection of categories, but it is one reinforced both by superficial and more in -depth examination, and its emphasis in many areas of human life, not least of which is the long-standing philosophical distinction between logic, epistemology, and ethics.

It is also supported by the preconditions necessary for the biological axiom to apply. It is the information (knowledge) contained in DNA, subjected to environmental feedback (reason), on a (behaviourally orientated i.e. evaluating) agent, that makes life possible.  Thus, in the course of evolution mindless information, subjected to environmental feedback in goal-directed  individuals has become differentiated into minded knowledge, reason, and value (also present mindlessly in minded organisms). 

Reason – vocabulary would include: ‘deliberation’, ‘consideration’, ‘strategy’, ‘plan’, ‘calculation’.
Knowledge – vocabulary would include: ‘knowing’, ‘learning’, ‘remembering’, ‘recognizing’.
Value – vocabulary would include: ‘want’, ‘prefer’, ‘like’, ‘attract’, ‘need’

These three core aspects of human agency are like the minded and differentiated evolutionary developments of less differentiated (more generalized, primitive, or ancestral) and grounding biological agency.

If we want to understand human agency – what is needed for humans to function in a uniquely human way – then we must look beyond consciousness to these three elements of our mindedness. Reason, knowledge, and value are our most informative general summary concepts for human agency.

To comprehend human agency in an evolutionary sense we must understand both its relationship to other forms of biological agency – through the grounding characteristics expressed in the biological axiom – but also its uniquely defining and refined emergent minded characteristics of reason, knowledge, and value.

Of necessity, the human capacity to reason, evaluate, and accumulate knowledge evolved out of the more generalized shared goals of the biological axiom? But what form do these concepts take when linked to mindless nature?

This needs closer scrutiny.

A closer glimpse of links to biological agency comes with the realization that purpose, reason, knowledge, value, and agency can be present in humans in unconscious forms: they are not necessarily related to conscious minds.


There is a difference between reason as a capacity or ability, and reasons as causes, explanations, or justifications for actions or events.

It is the capacity to reason that mainly concerns us here although the two are obviously related. We use our capacity to reason as a means of understanding reasons . . . we are reason representers. 

Reasons generated by the goal-directedness inherent in biological agency are worth distinguishing from the orderly reasons of the physical world. There is a reason why the moon orbits the earth, and a reason why spiders build webs – but they are different kinds of reason.

‘Reason’ is a word of considerable semantic breadth. Its applications to a wide range of circumstances make it an impenetrable concept that would benefit from taxonomic subdivision. We might, for example, speak of reasons motivated by the biological agency expressed in the behavioural flexibility of individual organisms as ‘purposes’, the reasons for their supporting structures, processes and behaviours as ‘functions’, of human conscious reasons as ‘intentions’, and long-term adjustments to environments as ‘adaptations’.

The capacity to reason is captured neatly in the definition of rationality given by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker as, ‘the ability to use knowledge to attain goals’. With ‘knowledge’ interpreted in a broad sense this encompasses the grounding breadth of biological agency while the emergent and proximate human minded form of rationality is understood more as a dictionary definition like ‘the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically’. [1]

Philosopher Jonathan Birch has suggested a working hypothesis of ‘no reason without sentience’, tentatively drawing a boundary of sentience around the amniotes.[3,4]

Philosopher Samir Okasha cautiously acknowledges the grounding of reason in biological agency, and the possibility of its gradation, but only in animals and, presumably, those relatively closely related to humans as, ‘one interesting hypothesis‘ that ‘. . . adaptive behavioural plasticity in non-human animals constitutes a sort of proto-rationality, in the sense of being functionally similar to the behaviour of an instrumentally rational agent (and probably an evolutionary precursor of it)‘. He then distinguishes between grounding and emergent rationality by stating, ‘An animal that exhibits such plasticity performs actions that are appropriate to its goal of surviving and reproducing, or maximize [sic] its fitness, given the information it has about the environment, while an agent that behaves rationally chooses actions that are appropriate to their goal, or maximize [sic] their utility, given their beliefs‘. Adding that ‘. . . there is some evidence that belief-desire cognitive architecture, which is widely thought to underpin human rational action, is also found in animals‘.[2]

Okasha takes a fine-grained traditional scientific view of agency and rationality as linked strictly to the emergent properties of brains in various stages of development. From this perspective the possibility of any deeper evolutionary connection – or grounding in a more generalized biological agency – would, of course, seem fanciful. But we need an account of the reality of biological agency that goes beyond metaphors and dismissive anthropocentrism.

Okasha refers to one sense of rationality (P-rationality, as used in philosophy and psychology) as ‘acting or believing on the basis of reasons‘, and B-rationality as behaviour that is adaptive or biologically optimal – if it furthers biological goals like surviving and reproducing (p. 152).

We acknowledge that there are biological reasons of many kinds – that, for example, plants photosynthesize for a reason. But the plant itself does not act for reasons: that is, it cannot judge itself as making a mistake (B-reason). And now we are back to teleology, the problem of mindless reasons and their relationship to conscious intentions.

The view argued here is that conscious reason (P-reason) is a highly evolved and minded form of B-reason (mindless goal-directed behaviour) – that these two kinds of rationality are not mutually exclusive. We look to central nervous systems to account for reasons since we assume that CNSs are the reason-representers that we are familiar with.

But what were the preconditions in nature that made subjectivity possible? We would do better to look to nature for an account of subjectivity and its ingredients (including reason, knowledge, and value). Human reason as one aspect of human agency is a minded and highly evolved manifestation of processes of biological agency (the motivation inherent in the biological axiom) that pre-date central nervous systems.

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

Aristotle recognized the way that the structures, behaviour, and activity of all organisms tends to preserve and further their existence (in accordance with the biological axiom). This pervasive goal-directedness (grounding concept) of nature (called intentionality as an emergent concept) he called telos and we call ‘purpose’.

The fact that purpose exists in nature in a mindless and unconscious way that is only evident to humans does not negate its existence independently of humans. Only humans (as conscious and rational reason-representers) can represent and appreciate purpose in nature. But that does not mean that humans create or imagine nature’s purpose and agency.

Adaptation is anything that enhances an organism’s fitness – that improves its likelihood of survival – that ‘benefits’ or ‘promotes’ the organism vis-a-vis the biological axiom. To understand and explain nature and organisms we must reverse-engineer these purposes and reasons.

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

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

Why have we ever doubted this?

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

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


Though we might accept a contemporary definition of reason as ‘knowledge used to achieve a goal‘,[21] as biologists that are now aware of the place and power of biological agency in the biological scheme of things, and we must be prepared to consider how we might apply this definition beyond the human sphere.

Reason in nature is a protean concept. In simple human terms we can regard it, at least in part, as the capacity for self-correction. But in more general (not just ‘minded’) biological terms, it is the capacity for goal-directed adjustments in response to the circumstances of both inner and outer environments. These adjustments may be immediate responses, as expressed in behavioural flexibility; or more long-term as expressed through fitness maximization or genetic adaptation.

Adaptation is the biological mechanism for behavioural and structural modification based on environmental feed-back. It is a form of mindless ‘error correction’ and it is hardly preposterous to understand this as contributing to the antecedent preconditions for minded human reason.

Our reason is a further step towards greater autonomy and individual freedom, potentially releasing us from are making allowance for some of the shackles of mindless and unconscious biological agency. Collective or cultural reason provides us with codes of behaviour and cultural norms that facilitate the development of social organization (the major driving force of human history).

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

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


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

Today we refer to the adjustment of autonomous individuals to their surrounding conditions as ‘adaptation’. Adaptation, then, is a mindless (non-cognitive) process that closely mirrors the cognitive capacity for self-correction, for reason.  Mindless adaptation is a grounding concept for mindful deliberation.

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

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

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

But what kinds of reasons are mindless reasons? We can understand the adaptive significance of every aspect of life – the reasons why structures and processes have functional and instrumental value – without inferring the metaphor of conscious intention.

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

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

Being evolving creatures, organisms have the potential for ‘self-correction’, part of which is the ability to respond in different ways, to be flexible and adapt, both short- and long-term. As conscious beings we are aware of our constant intentional adjustment to circumstance – but we also realize intuitively that other organisms are doing exactly the same in a mindless way.

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

Evolution of reason

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

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

Philosopher Dan Dennett in public lectures titled Bacteria to Bach examines some of the steps that occurred on the path from mindless reasons to conscious deliberation.[6]

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

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

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

Natural selection’s mindless and relentless iterative algorithm of ‘generate and test’ created the physical grounding conditions for what would become the grounding concepts of reason, knowledge, value, agency – and, indeed, the entire toolbox of intentional psychology.


The concept of knowledge is intimately connected to the ideas of information and 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.

Knowledge (Information, Communication)

Human knowledge can be unconscious; it does not have to be self-reflective – 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. Much human knowledge is of this intuitive form.

Though yet to be fully philosophically researched, the 1950s DNA revolution in biology has generated a rich vocabulary of human-talk relating to non-cognitive organic ‘information’ (aka knowledge) and its processing. There is unrestrained reference to non-conscious ‘communication’, ‘editing’, ‘coding’, ‘translation’, ‘transmission’, ‘transcription’, ‘messages’, ‘messengers’, ‘signals’, ‘sending’, ‘receiving’, and ‘feedback’ between chemicals and a wide range of chemicals and processes although it is in the discussion of genetic processes that this is most apparent. More than in any other area of biology the utility of biological simile (not metaphor) finds utility here.

Just as words are not merely ink on a page or pixels on a screen, so DNA is not just strings of matter. Science is currently wrestling with the abstraction of ‘information’. We must struggle with the bewildering idea that DNA is more than mere matter, it is also information that re-creates itself. Aristotle’s rejected ‘form’ is gradually finding its way back into mainstream science.

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, at first, 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.  This information acts as a ‘memory’ in a way that has no correlates in the inanimate world.

A living agent replicates its kind by unconsciously passing on the biological instructions within DNA 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 tenuous 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 demonstrate 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. I know, am consciously aware, that Paris is the capital of France as something a worm could not know. But I also know, am unconsciously aware, that I am cold. A worm is also sensitive to hot and cold. There is biological connection.


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.


The biological axiom is our most succinct definitional distillation of life as agency. It is a statement, not of logical necessity, but of biological necessity. In human-talk, it addresses grounding ‘values’, ‘goods’, and ‘interests’.

The biological axiom provides us with a conceptual seed – the grounding concepts for all biological agency. Human agency uses language to represent biological agency as it has become manifest in ever more complex organic forms.


It describes the necessary natural propensity or predilection of all living organisms – what they are naturally inclined to do – in the most general or ultimate sense. It tells us, in the broadest possible way, why organisms do what they do. This natural propensity gives life a ‘direction’, ‘mission’, or ‘point of view’.



Using ‘human-talk’ it tells us, in the broadest possible way, what they ‘value’ on the path to the ultimate goals of survival and flourishing and the proximate goals of flourishing. Values, then, driven by the biological axiom are what grounds the behaviour of all biological agents including, of course, humans.

Human values are minded values but – like human reason and human knowledge – they can be either conscious and unconscious. Though the ultimate values of the biological axiom are universal, the proximate values of flourishing will be, in part, determined by the physical and other characteristics of the particular agent. Fish, birds, and humans demonstrate different ‘preferences’ as proximate goals.

Normativity & reason

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.

 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.


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


- 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 we recognize that there is biological agency in the goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms and that human minded agency is a highly evolved form of 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, bioteleological realism, and biological normativity (moral naturalism).  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; and why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as real agents rather than being agent-like.

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 that share a unity of purpose, the goal-directed activity of the biological axiom (see below).

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).

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 universal and ultimate objective statement of biological agency the biological axiom is a grounding statement for all biological agency, purpose, intention, and normativity, including minded human agency. It is a statement about the way all organisms, including humans, are, and what they do. 

As a universal statement about living organisms, the biological axiom is a declaration of the necessary and sufficient conditions for life - the conditions that are a biological necessity.

Biological agency
Mindless living organisms have the autonomous capacity to discriminate between the objects and processes of their inner and outer environments, adapting to these circumstances with a goal-directed unity of purpose. This behavioural flexibility, as constrained by the objectives of the biological axiom, expresses the biological agency that is at the heart of biological science and its explanations of the natural world. And it is out of this mindless behavioural flexibility and agential autonomy that our minded human conscious capacity to discriminate between 'self' and 'other' evolved.

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) - as structures, processes and behaviours subordinate to the attainment of the organism's ultimate 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. Whereas, 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-directed behaviour is purposeful behaviour. Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding the reasons for (purpose of) organismal behaviour - including its functions, structures, and processes - biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts.

We ask about purposes and functions in biology precisely because organisms are agents. We do not ask what the moon or rocks are 'for', because they do not behave in a purposeful 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 miraculous precision of mindless purpose and agency 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 as cognitive metaphor.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how have science and philosophy persisted for so long in 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 simultaneously a statement of biological agency, biological purpose, and biological normativity.

As a statement of biological normativity it expresses the temporary, objective, universal, and ultimate  behavioural orientation of all living organisms towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing. This behavioural orientation resembles a set of generalized and mindless rules for living, like a human code of conduct, and since these goals were the evolutionary precursors to human behavioural codes they are appropriately referred to as biological normativity. But, as a mindless form of normativity, these biological values are not recommendations for behaviour, or judgements about behaviour, they are objective statements about the way organisms are.

Biological values are manifest differently in each biological agent. The physical structures, processes, and behaviours adopted by a spider to obtain its life energy, produce offspring, and flourish are very different from those of a sea urchin, eucalyptus tree, or the minded and proximate values of humans.

The mindless behaviour of the biological axiom 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. This was the evolutionary precursor to human proximate minded goals that arise as both organismal biological desires and the culturally reasoned beliefs and codes that result from a critical examination of behavioural consequences. It is also why ultimate and objective biological goals can be expressed in human proximate subjective terms as the behavioural flexibility that allows organisms to exercise choices in relation to their interests.

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive. In behavioural terms, biological normativity is the lived expression of both unconscious (mindless) and conscious (minded) goals, where these occur. In humans they have taken on a highly evolved and minded form that includes reason.

Ethics (moral naturalism)
We often assume that judgements about what can 'help' or 'hinder' our lives, what makes a situation 'better' or 'worse', what is 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' and 'bad', are part of a human domain of subjective normative assessment that has little, if anything, to do with nature. How could it be otherwise? After all, nature itself does not think, it just is. Nature does not make moral decisions, or recommend codes of behaviour - that is nonsense. Moralities are obviously creations of human subjective deliberation, the application of what we call 'reason' as found only in human minds.

But . . .

We have inherited from nature a legacy of biological normativity as a behavioural orientation (a mindless 'code of conduct') - the behavioural goals of the biological axiom. When human minds evolved, along with their uniquely conscious and reasoning subjectivity, this universal, objective, and ultimate biological behavioural orientation was manifested in proximate minded form - in part as organismal needs, desires and intuitions, but also in part as cultural moral, and other, codes of behaviour - still grounded in ultimate biological normativity, but fine-tuned by reason. Moralities are human creations, but they are grounded in natural facts.

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
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.

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


1 March 2019 – First published on the internet in rudimentary form
27 February 2023 – first published in heavily edited form under the heading ‘Biological intention’
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