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


Life as agency


‘We understand and explain life from many perspectives and scales. From our human perspective the most familiar scale is that of autonomous organisms acting on, and reacting to, their internal and external environments. It is this goal-directed (and therefore purposive and agential) process that we recognize as a common feature of life in all its diversity. As open and dynamic systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. The many proximate goals of biological activity that express biological agency are unified in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom).


In the short-term (one generation) agential behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) all organisms, as products of natural selection, display species-specific adaptive design and the potential to evolve new forms when heritable variation, transmitted to phenotypes via the chemical DNA, is subject to environmental selection.’


‘The biological axiom (all life is predicated on its survival, reproduction, and flourishing) is our best objective scientific summary statement of life’s universal agential preconditions, referred to here as biological agency. Biological agency is a crucial concept in biology because goal-directedness in nature is real and, without understanding what biological structures, processes, and behaviours are ‘for’, biological explanations become incoherent listings of dissociated facts. The simplicity of the axiom belies its semantic range and conceptual generality. It is from these universal (mostly mindless) grounding properties of biological agency that the unique (minded) intentional properties, and conscious deliberation we associate with human agency, evolved.


– For a summary of the claims argued in this and related articles see the Epilogue

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-directedness we find in the natural world telos.[33] He also noted that biological explanations were constrained by this life-defining characteristic. That is, to be meaningful, biological explanations of organisms, including their structures, processes, and behaviour must address the question, what is it for – what is its purpose? [38]

We have no option but to adopt this purposive outlook in biology because, without understanding what things are ‘for’, biology becomes a list of dissociated facts. Thus, much of biology is about reverse engineering as we describe organisms, not just in terms of their material composition (as we would describe a rock or the moon), but in terms of functions and purposes. We understand intuitively that asking, What are hands and eyes for? is a sensible question that can receive a meaningful answer, while asking, What are mountains and the moon for? does not make much sense.

Our understanding of biological agency has gathered significance with the emergence of a completely new scientific worldview during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some old ideas have persisted, most notably the philosophical resistance to Aristotelian teleology, and a denial of the reality of biological agency.

This article revisits the question ‘What is life?’ It then makes a critical investigation of the view, still widely held, that the only genuine agency in nature is human agency – that the agency we attribute to nature is not real agency, but the metaphorical as if projection of human agency and purpose onto mostly mindless, purposeless, and merely agent-like organisms. It is argued that this is an unscientific and anthropocentric elevation of minded conscious intention and a dismissive downgrading of mindless biological agency.

By treating the purpose and agency we see in nature as cognitive metaphor or heuristic we deny the real agential and evolutionarily graded reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life. By denying organisms agency they assume an equivalence with the inanimate world.

A notion of biological agency is proposed here based on a biological axiom that provides a simple and practical universal definition of what it is to be a living being. This facilitates a more enlightened and objective scientific evolutionary approach to human agency as being just one manifestation of biological agency (albeit highly evolved and of great human interest).

A follow-up article on human-talk (the attribution of human characteristics to non-human organisms, objects, and ideas) then examines the similarities, differences, and connections between humans and other organisms as represented in humanizing language. A further article investigates extending the idea of biological agency into biological values and biological normativity.

As always, key claims are presented as principles to reflect on and criticize. The principles in this article are not intended as strict definitions, but as clarifications of key terms and ideas presented in the article.

Contemporary cosmology

Our understanding of the universe – its origin, physical composition, properties, and age – has, over the last 150 years, been totally transformed.

The combination of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin . . . (1859), and the replacement of the Steady State Theory of the universe with the Big Bang Theory of its origin in the 1930s overturned the prevailing scientific worldview. Darwin showed how all organisms are biologically related to one another in a community of life, while modern cosmology demonstrated that life was, in turn, composed of the stuff of the universe – that all organisms were reconstituted stardust.

Before Darwin it was assumed that the universe was either a supernatural creation or had existed for all time, and biological species were immutable, each created individually by God. The Steady State theory of the universe and biblical account of God’s Creation, including that of biological species, were static and eternal accounts.

Today science presents us with a universe of process, change, and evolution.  In its first moments it existed as undifferentiated plasma, while today it contains a multiplicity of physical kinds. During cosmic evolution matter increased in complexity in a process of emergence as everything, including space and time, evolved from a point source.  Everything in the universe, though not necessarily graded uniformly from one physical form to another is, nevertheless, cosmically continuous and connected.

In a chronometric revolution that has taken place over just a few generations we can now locate the history of humanity within scientifically verified cosmic, geological, biological, archaeological, historical, and linguistic timeframes. We can date with unprecedented precision the age of the universe, individual rocks and fossils, along with the divergence of biological lineages, human languages, and archaeological remains.

The origin of the universe dates back 13.7 billion years, our solar system 4.6 billion years, and life 3-4 billion years. In the last 50 years our understanding of human biological and cultural evolution has been vastly refined. The genus Homo evolved from former Australopithecines around 3 to 4.4 million years ago, anatomically modern humans appear around 315,000 BP, and our more complex cognitive capacities around 100,000 years ago or earlier (perhaps a consequence of language development and sociality as core group numbers increased from 15-20 individuals in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to about 150, then more). Permanent migration of modern humans out of Africa occurred about 80-90,000 BP, followed by dispersal across the world, the development of agriculture around 12,000 BP, and the first cities in about 5000 BP.

This recently acquired timeline has allowed us to frame human existence within the cosmic and scientific timeline of Big History.

Humans did not suddenly spring into nature as conscious, rational, and biologically supreme rulers of planet Earth. Darwin placed humanity at the tip of one twig – one lineage – of a vast Tree of Life, all the branches connected backwards in time to the first rudimentary ancestors of all life.

With this modern scientific worldview of evolutionary continuity and connection in mind, it is now time to examine whether organisms are best regarded scientifically as agents, or merely agent-like.

What is life?

In the 21st century the question What is life? remains unanswered.[36]

In the 1930s a resolution to this question seemed an attainable aspiration. Darwin had provided what was, in effect, a unified theory of biology, although his work had always lacked an adequate material account of heredity.

After Robert Brown’s discovery of the cell nucleus in 1831 cell theory rapidly progressed in the mid-19th century under the influence of German physiologists Matthias Schlieiden and Theodor Schwann when it was established that all living organisms are made up of cells that are produced from pre-existing cells – that cells are the basic units of both living structures, and of reproduction. Then, in the 1880s, chromosomes were experimentally established as the vectors of heredity. It was eagerly anticipated that by drilling ever deeper into the physicochemical constituents of matter, we might eventually find the biological holy grail, the physical secret of life and morphogenesis that was hidden in the ‘immortality’ of our genes.

In part, this is indeed what happened as, in the 1950s, the macromolecules of chromosomes were revealed as constituting a double helix of nucleotides that was, in effect, a genetic code passed from cell to cell under replication. Biochemists James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin then deciphered this code. Humanity had discovered how the historical blueprint for every organism, reaching back to its first ancient origins, existed in every one of its cells.

This was the material explanation for many of life’s mysteries that had been lacking in Darwin’s day. The discovery of the structure of DNA was a breakthrough that provided a compelling material answer to the question of what it was to be a living creature. Chromosomes were matter containing the information needed to create biological structure, function, and behaviour. This was the crucial material account of heredity that had been missing from Darwin’s theory.

From another perspective, physicists had noted that organisms were peculiar energy systems.  By a process of self-organization and self-regulation across its lifetime each organism built and maintained autonomous biological order against the pervasive external forces of disorder (entropy). This capacity of organisms to temporarily resist the entropy of the universe Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger referred to in his 1944 popular-science book What is Life? asnegative entropy’ (later contracted to negentropy).[19]

As biological molecules came into greater scientific focus, reductionism thrived through the new subjects of biochemistry and microbiology and their many applications in biotechnology.

In spite of these major breakthroughs, biologists are still unable to find a consensus on what we mean by ‘life’. The many universal characteristics of living organisms[12] currently defy crystallization into a neat summary package. Life is too complex, it is assumed. Key characteristics of life are presented to biologists as an ever-expanding shopping list of universal properties unearthed by proliferating fields of research.[13]  So, the search for a simple all-embracing definition of life continues as new disciplines and interests add their voices to our scientific understanding of what it is to be a living organism. Could information be the key that unlocks the door to life?[32]

This messiness of biological definition could be overcome if one perspective on life were acknowledged as in some way prior to or grounding the others. But finding such a perspective seems unlikely when multiple representations are divided up on pragmatic grounds, and disciplines hunker down within their academic silos.

From what perspective?

Finding consensus for a definition of life is difficult because biology is studied and explained using multiple systems of representation (perspectives, academic disciplines, frames of reference, levels of organization, points of view). This is a problem compounded by sophisticated technology that extends our knowledge of biology ever further beyond the scale of our human senses, into the micro- and macro-realms.

Part of the problem is a clash between old and new scientific paradigms.

There is increasing resistance to the once-favoured physical reductionism, popular after the 1930s, which gathered momentum with subsequent research into sub-atomic particles and the advances in molecular biology. This view is starkly expressed by Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg who claims that ‘physical facts fix all the facts’ and that physical facts reduce to fundamental material constituents . . .  ‘roughly speaking, fermions are what matter is composed of, while bosons are what fields of force are made of[25] and therefore ‘What ultimately exist are just fermions and bosons and the physical laws that describe the way these particles, and that of the larger objects made up of them, behave‘.

This reductive paradigm is associated with the idea of the unity of science founded on our analytic understanding of physics and its particulate constituents as comprising the ultimate constituents of reality. I call this perspective ‘smallism’ because it is motivated by the belief that the best scientific explanations must proceed by analysis. Only by looking at simple parts (regarded as foundational and fundamental) can we unleash the secrets of more complex wholes.

A contrary view expressed here (sometimes called aspect theory, perspectivism, or holism), acknowledges that everything biological must be physical, but denies that biological truths must reduce to physical truths . . .  there is no necessary physical reduction. From a holistic perspective, wholes have their own irreducible aggregate novel properties and relations that arise as part of the process of emergence – as rules that are not evident in the parts. This strong emergence maintains that parts may be constrained by the nature of the whole – sometimes referred to as top-down causation. 

On this view we investigate the world through multiple systems of representation of equal validity whose representational efficacy is pragmatically determined. There is no ultimate physical reality that we can articulate: ontology itself is perspectival. Nothing in the physical world is more ‘real’ (fundamental) than anything else: a boson or fermion is no more ‘real’ than an elephant or a daffodil . . . or – for that matter – energy, number, quantum fields, consciousness, or information. There are simply diverse (epistemological) ways of interpreting the world depending on our interests and goals. This is not a form of intellectual relativity but of interpretation. Each representational system has its own standards and measures of excellence and efficacy, often with its own domain-specific principles, procedures, terminologies, and explanatory goals that are integrated with other systems and capable of improvement.

So, in practice, we explain life in terms ranging in scale from global ecology to molecular biology, from physical structures to behaviours, activities, processes, and functions, from informational content to its means of communication . . . and much more.[13]  It is this multiplicity of representational systems that decreases the likelihood of academic agreement on a definitional cement that can bind all life together.


About 2,500 years ago the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (considered the founder of biological science) outlined four major ways that we use to explain the world, known as his four (be)’causes’. He noted that providing a satisfying explanation often (but not always) required consideration of all four factors, these being: what it is made of, how it originated, its unique features, and what it is for. 

A modern example of the application of Aristotle’s four causes might be the way that biologists have argued about the best way to define the gene: should it be structural (material cause), positional (formal cause), historical (efficient cause), or functional (final cause)?

This schema provides a surprisingly neat summary of different approaches to the biological definition of life today.

Aristotle’s biographer Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist working at Imperial College, London, presents Aristotle’s causes in a schema that represents today’s biology in a very general way by equating material cause to biochemistry and physiology, formal cause to genetics, efficient cause to developmental biology and neurophysiology, and final cause to evolutionary biology and the study of function and adaptation.[31] Leroi concludes that Aristotle totally transformed the transcendental world of Plato ‘ . . . by the time he was done, matter, form, purpose and change were no longer the playthings of speculative philosophy but a research program’.

But history has rejected Aristotle’s claim that, when considering life, it is the fourth ’cause’ that must take precedence.  He insisted that in living nature almost everything was directed towards goals – organisms, processes, structures, functions, behaviour and so on . . . all were invariably ‘for’ something in a way that was not so evident in the inanimate world. This goal-directed agency, he observed, arose from within organisms themselves: it was not imposed from outside by, say, a supernatural agency, or the human imagination. It was as though every organism contained an ‘inner craftsman’ designing all aspects of that organism’s life for a (mindless) reason or purpose. ‘Nature does nothing in vain’, he claimed.

Modern science has replied that without the conscious intention of man or God the goal-directedness of nature is not real but, at best, only agent-like – that adaptations only appear to be designed for a purpose.

The Scientific Revolution

Aristotle’s observations on purpose in nature, and his doctrine of final causes lost favour during the Scientific Revolution (c. 1550 to 1750) as a new breed of thinkers questioned ancient authorities – challenging the two sources of what was considered secure knowledge – the Bible and Aristotle’s philosophical ideas. Aristotle’s ideas, especially, were attacked as part of the process of scientific rejuvenation. Old ideas needed to be challenged if science was to move forward and, as scientific knowledge advanced, it was not difficult to demonstrate empirical errors in Aristotle’s thinking. A new emphasis on experiment and observation brought science down to Earth downplaying the relative obscurities of Aristotle’s deductive logic and metaphysics.

Intellectuals of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment (impressive authorities like Bacon (1561-1623), Descartes (1596-1650), Spinoza (1632-1677), Hume (1711-1776), and Kant (1724-1804)) all thought that the purpose Aristotle saw in nature, its teleology, was making the old mistake of imbuing unconscious nature with conscious intentions.

This dismissive view of telos was reinforced by the way that casual anthropomorphic personification and metaphor imbued non-conscious organisms with conscious intentions. Telos was too abstract: it had the ring of a mysterious and unnecessary internal supernatural and non-empirical vitalistic force that was contrary to the newly invigorated and empirically grounded mode of enquiry.

The question remains: is agency a part of the biological world, of life itself, or is it a projection of human minds? If it is real, then where does it come from – how do we explain it? Is this a philosophical problem of no practical biological consequence . . . or maybe only a question of semantics? And how can a phenomenon as abstract as agency provide a meaningful focus for all life when biology is a subject of proliferating perspectives and expanding scales?

The inherited certitude of thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment is now under question. It is possible that, in their enthusiasm to rid science of superstition and human subjectivity, they went too far.

Darwin’s theory of evolution achieved three outcomes whose consequences are yet to be absorbed into the body of biological thought – and all have a bearing on the question of biological agency:

First, in spite of the biological use of metaphorical and anthropomorphic language (referred to here as human-talk), Darwin nevertheless naturalized Aristotle’s telos by demonstrating how natural selection gives rise to functional adaptations (purposive attributes) in a scientifically accountable and mechanical way. He demonstrated that purpose in nature is ‘real’, it is not confined to human minds.

Second, a finding whose philosophical consequences have not yet been fully realized, he replaced the old idea of discretely created species with a new notion of organic connection and continuity.

Third, he replaced the old mental image of life as a ladder with humans enthroned on the top rung, with the new image of life as a tree and humans at the tip of just one of its many branches.

These three compelling findings are yet to take up residence in the philosophy of biology as part of our scientific metaphysics.

Agency & mind

The prevailing scientific and philosophical view is that, in the biological world, agency, purpose, and values are manifestations of human minds only. This is because only human minds have conscious intentions as expressed in both behaviour, and the language of intentional psychology.

How, then, do we account for intentional language used in relation to non-human organisms, as when we say that a spider weaves its web in order to catch flies, or that a plant wants water. We explain this use of intentional language (human-talk) as anthropomorphism or cognitive metaphor, dismissing agency, purpose, and values, as products of the human mind that cannot be regarded as real in other organisms: they are, at best, only agent-like, purpose-like etc. Cognitive metaphor, we say, has an educational or literary attraction and utility, but it credits organisms with qualities that, in reality, they do not, and cannot, possess.

There are many reasons why this interpretation of the relationship between human minds and nature is misleading. These reasons involve our interpretation of the evolution of the human mind, a resistance to the idea of biological agency, our explanation of intentional language using the literary device of metaphor, and our confusion (conflation) of biological and human agency. These matters are all discussed in detail in the article being like-minded, but the major conclusions are presented dogmatically here without further discussion.

The biological goals that express biological agency can only be understood (represented by) human minds, but that does not mean that they only exist in human minds – that they are a creation of human minds. All organisms (including humans) demonstrate biological agency through the universal, ultimate, and objective goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom), while only humans demonstrate this agency using minds that employ the language of intentional psychology.

As products of evolution, all species possess uniquely defining physical characteristics (or unique combinations of these) while, at the same time, sharing features that indicate common ancestry. That is, when locating structures, processes, behaviours – and even concepts – within an evolutionary context, we must consider not only the characters that make an item unique, but also those characteristics that are shared with evolutionary relatives.

For this reason, when we take an evolutionary view of human agency we must note that it is grounded in (shares characteristics with) its evolutionary ancestor, biological agency. Unsurprisingly then, uniquely minded human agential concepts (those of intentional psychology) share characteristics with mindless agential organisms (most obviously the defining characteristics of biological agency). This conclusion was essentially unavailable to philosophers who preceded Darwin and who were unaware of the continuity of organic matter in the universe.

In both our language and thinking, and for obvious reason (because human agency expresses both similarity and difference to biological agency), we frequently fail to distinguish between the universal ultimate goals of biological agency (biological axiom), and the uniquely minded goals of human agency. That is, we confuse the real-world distinction that exists between biological agency and human agency since much of the intentional language of human-talk applied to mindless organisms references biological, not human, agency.

This ambiguity is compounded by viewing the agential relata of humans and other organisms through the lens (logic) of a literary device, the metaphor, which forces one of the relata to take on figurative (unreal) status. It would be more apt (if a literary device must be chosen) to describe the real (evolutionarily based) likeness between the biological and human relata (describing the relationship between biological agency and human agency), as biological simile.

In sum, biological agency is not a fiction invented by the human agential mind and expressed in the language of cognitive metaphor. Rather, human agency is just one highly evolved example of the many and diverse kinds of biological agency demonstrated in the lives of myriad biological agents.

By treating the purpose, agency, and values we see in nature as cognitive metaphor or heuristic we deny the real agential and evolutionarily graded reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life; and when organisms are denied agency then they assume a (?lifeless) equivalence with the inanimate world.

Put simply, we frequently, and for good reason, fail to distinguish clearly between biological agency and human agency. This has resulted in millennia of philosophical and linguistic confusion.

This distinction can now be made clear by transferring biological agency from the realm of philosophy and claiming it for science.


What do we mean by agency . . .  where does it come from, what is to count as an agent and, more specifically, what (if any) is the role of agency in nature.

We must begin by acknowledging that ‘agency’ is a loosely defined concept with application in a wide range of disciplines: it has a broad semantic range.

Using the general dictionary definition of an agent as something that acts, an agent could be as general and abstract as a cause that brings about an effect – although we are more likely to think of agency in the familiar and narrowly defined sense of the intentional behaviour we associate with human activity.

In any discussion we need to be clear about the particular kind of agency we are addressing. Here we are concerned with biological agency and its relationship to human agency.

Philosopher of biology Samir Okasha recognizes two kinds of biological agency – that which we attribute to individual organisms (which he calls Type 1) and that which we associate with natural selection (Type 2). These he combines with agential concepts like intentional action, flexible goal-directed behaviour, and rational choice, and all applied in both literal and metaphorical forms.[39]

This article discusses only Type 1 agency as biological agency that is predicated on life’s predisposition to survive, reproduce and flourish. Human agency then becomes the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency that is described using the human agential language of intentional psychology.

But first a more contextual discussion of the general notion of agency in nature.

Natural agency

Throughout history there has been a general philosophical debate about the source of agency in the world – in its most general sense. What is it that generates activity in the universe, that initiates change, that has causal effect? Change can imply a mysterious, possibly supernatural, force of some kind and forces are difficult to explain because they cannot be seen, smelled, heard, or touched.

Science has always struggled with the intangibility of natural forces, even those of foundational physics. They may, for example, have an immaterial spooky capacity to act at a distance. Newton accounted for the effects of gravitation while refusing to speculate on what it was, and only relatively recently have we come to grips with strange invisible attractive phenomena associated with electro-magnetism while finding new puzzles like quantum entanglement.

When we look around us at the goal-directedness of nature – at biological agency – it does indeed seem to entail some kind of life force, a sort of living willpower, motivation, or animating principle. Logically there is no reason why plants, animals, and ourselves should breed, search out food, and feel the desire to simply continue living – but something seems to keep all organisms going regardless of whether they have minds. If we humans suddenly decide to stop our life-affirming activities, then this is considered unnatural: we need professional help. The biological agency that is an integral part of the autonomously directed activity of organisms, is indeed like a life ‘force’ that leaves bodies when they die.

However, we no longer feel the need to explain these phenomena in supernatural ways. We take it for granted, for example, that human attraction, motivations, and drives can be explained in a naturalistic way. There is nothing mysterious here – so why, by extrapolation, should the discussion of goal-directedness (the agency) of organisms be regarded as unreal, unscientific, or hinting at the supernatural? If humans are naturalistically ‘animated’ then why not organisms?

Nature, in a wider sense, is also full of powerful and terrifying more generalized non-biological forces (agencies) that can change the face of the Earth. Earthquakes, tsunamis, storms of thunder and lightning, fiery conflagrations, floods, plagues, famines, and disease.  Why do these dreadful catastrophes happen, and why must humans suffer their consequences? In such instances we quickly fall back on the personification of nature – the will of punishing and rewarding human-like Gods.

Agency, purpose, function, telos, and the supernatural are still culturally entangled concepts whose meanings are caught up in long traditions. Why do both scientists and philosophers still believe that the agency we see in plants and animals is not there in reality – that it is only as if organisms have purpose and agency?

The agential paradigm

We must begin by confronting the seemingly impregnable claim (which, for simplicity, I refer to here as the agential paradigm) that without minds there can be no intentions, and without intentions there can be no agency and no purpose. Without intentions, activities are, at best, only agent-like

This, I believe, is the deceptively straightforward logic that drives current thinking. It is an appealing logic that needs closer scrutiny.

Biological agency

By long accepted historical tradition we recognize two basic categories of matter that occur in the universe: on the one hand the living and, on the other, the inanimate (or dead). Within living organisms we make a further distinction between the minded and the mindless. But how well do these mental categories measure up in the world itself? How scientifically secure is this conventional biological distinction that we make between the minded and mindless?

As humans we naturally hold dear our own position within the scheme of things, especially our conscious capacity for self-reflection, reason, abstract thought, language, and sociality. But, in biological terms, this is just a form of anthropocentrism since mindedness, powerful as it is, is simply part of the unique human manifestation of agency.

Using the medium of human-talk we can assert that in all organisms the genome brings a physical ‘memory’ to the present. Natural selection then adds ‘reason’ as a process of ‘self-correction’ or ‘adaptation’ which is the ability to ‘learn’ from past mistakes in a mindless form of ‘anticipation’ . . . the capacity for ‘foresight’.  We intuitively recognize and acknowledge (by using human-talk) the seamless connection between all these mindless properties and their minded equivalents . . . that nature manifests real mindless purpose and agency.

Humans are perched at the tip of one branch of the evolutionary tree of life. Our physical and psychological characteristics merge into those of our evolutionary relatives.

We are more closely connected to nature than many of us care to admit. In the wonder we feel for the miracle of our conscious awareness and the rational faculty that has helped our species dominate planet Earth, we can underestimate the mindless ‘purposiveness, creative imagination, and rationality‘ that exists, by degree, in mindless nature. It was this mindless nature that gave us (that created) our brains, consciousness, and reason – the tools that allow us to make such judgements.

The facility with which we move from human intention to biological agency in our thinking patterns and language should signal to us the possibility of their close connection in reality. This is hardly surprising when we realize that the unique properties of minded human intentionality evolved out of the universally shared biological properties of mindless biological agency.

Human agency

Human agency is a specialized (minded) form of biological agency. Biological language that is frequently interpreted as inappropriate cognitive metaphor can now be understood as the communication of the characteristics of universal biological agency using intentional language (wants, prefers, chooses) and both our intuitive and rational evaluation. These are rightly regarded as uniquely human minded faculties, the product of conscious brains.

But brains were created by nature in a graduated evolutionary process and, just as we now know that consciousness exists in a graduated form, so it is possible to see in nature the antecedents of minded agential behaviour – to acknowledge that mindedness, for all its uniqueness, is an evolutionary elaboration of antecedent structures and properties. In their crudest form these properties emerged from the universe as the preconditions necessary for agential life: none was prior and all necessarily occurred together in a way that may be loosely compared to the undifferentiated plasma that marked the physical origin of the universe.

Our emphasis on human conscious deliberation, we are coming to realize is, in biological terms, an overemphasis. We have ignored the fact that organisms are ‘competent without comprehension‘ (Dan Dennett), ‘for without foresight‘ (Roger Spencer), and that they express ‘knowledge without knowing‘ (David Deutsch).[30] But insights like these apply across the board of intentional discourse.  There is also ‘memory without remembering‘, ‘normativity without morality‘, and so on. The likenesses being compared in these examples, the connections between relata, are not so much about a total separation of the minded and mindless, but a likeness founded on historical evolutionary connection.

Although outcomes were not pre-ordained, the seeds of conscious intentional faculties arose alongside the necessary and sufficient conditions for agential existence at the dawn of life. Human conscious experience is just one consequence of many evolutionary  paths exploring the diversification and complexification of primordial agential properties that first existed in a crude, mindless, and unconscious form. The semantic and material emphasis we give to the minded vs the mindless in nature is, in reality, not so pronounced as we assume.

Without a technical vocabulary to describe the evolutionary antecedents of cognitive faculties we resort to the language of human intentional psychology (we use the words ‘purpose’, ‘value’, and ‘reason’ to indicate conditions that we intuitively recognize as being ‘like’ or complementary to these notions . . . evolutionary precursors).

There was a time in the evolution of organisms when eyes, brains, and legs first evolved and a factual development of their structure, properties, and relations in time.

The properties of agency include knowledge, evaluation, and reason, locked into an organism that is driven to survive, reproduce and flourish. Once these agential properties were present then evolution would begin its exploration of their physical manifestation.

The evolutionary ‘direction’ was promoted by reasons in nature that had ‘beneficiaries’ (with circumstances that promoted the conditions of the biological axiom). The capacity of life to constrain its internal and external circumstances, to direct outcomes, constitutes pre-conscious evaluation. Then, pre-conscious reason in nature can be recognized as the inherent capacity for ‘self-correction’. This is most obvious in the logic of the process of adaptation under natural selection. These precursor purposes, values and reason that emerged at the dawn of life, existed unconsciously in nature long before humanity evolved, even though only humans (as highly evolved purpose-, value-, and reason-representers) are now aware of them.

Agential language

So, why do we resort to the minded language of human intention when describing mindless organisms? Why do we attribute human-like agency to non-human agents?

Intentional (rather than mindless) language is adopted for a range of reasons: literary flourish, our human cognitive bias, convenience, our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (biological) agency, and a lack of non-human agential vocabulary.

These points are outlined in more detail below and in the article on human-talk but, for now, we can assume that when we say that a plant ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ water – in spite of the literal meaning of the words – we are not attempting to communicate our conviction that plants experience intentional mental states but that they share with humans the universal biological agential disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

Principle – when describing organisms and their behaviour we use intentional (rather than a special goal-directed or mindless vocabulary) language for several reasons including: our human cognitive bias, convenience, our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (biological) agency, and a lack of non-human agential vocabulary.

If biological agency is genuine agency, then we can meaningfully claim, using human-talk, that every organism is ‘an agent on a mission‘. But this assertion also needs elaboration, beginning with a clarification of its three components: the agent, the mission, and the means of attaining the goals of the mission.

The Agent

Accepting ‘agent’ as a concept with a broad semantic range, the pressing question for us is what it means to be a biological agent.

Principle  – an agent has the capacity to act and react; it is the instrument or means by which a purpose is pursued

Principle – A purpose is the reason (end, aim, or goal) why something exists or is done, made, used etc. by reference to an agent

The claim made here is that all organisms are ‘actors’ in relation to the biological axiom (their mission) which is their inherent disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is an emergent property of living systems, and it is what ‘drives’ organic activity.

Principle – a biological agent is an organism whose biological purpose (goal, natural propensity) is to survive, reproduce, and flourish

The word ‘agency’ gathers emergent meanings and properties depending on the biological agent implied. In evolutionary terms there are as many physical manifestations of biological agency as there are biological species. Just as humans are one of many physical solutions to the biological problem of environmental adaptation, so human agency is just one evolutionary solution to the biological problem of agential adaptation.

Human agency is described biologically using the language of intentional psychology, but the agencies of other species do not have their own vocabularies, this being one reason why we resort to anthropomorphic language.

Principle – there are as many biological manifestations of biological agency as there are biological species


Organisms – unlike rocks, chairs, and dead bodies – are not indifferent or passive to circumstance: they act and react as autonomous and integrated wholes in relation to both inner and outer conditions, this being an inherent aspect of their biological agency.  It is their physical and behavioural variability and flexibility that facilitates both short-term orientation and long-term adaptation as behavioural ‘direction’. Though the kinds of (proximate) goals we observe being ‘pursued’ by organisms seem almost infinite, there is general agreement among biologists that these can be distilled into three (ultimate) ends that give a unity of purpose, a ‘for’, to all living things – the predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. 

Thus autonomous and goal-directed agency expresses a unity of purpose as an independence of activity that we intuitively refer to in human-talk as a ‘self’ . . . using expressions like ‘self-regulation’, ‘self-organization’, ‘self-replication’, ‘self-preservation’ etc. By this is meant, not the ‘self’ of independent human conscious intentions but the ‘self’ of the goal-directed (purposeful) autonomous activity shared by all biological agency.

The mindless goals of biological agency give all life an orientation, direction, propensity, or predisposition that we describe using the minded language of human intention. We say that life has ‘agency’ that is like a primordial human ‘point of view’ or ‘preference’. Organisms demonstrate ‘behavioural’ flexibility in the face of internal and external events that can impact the likelihood of their persistence or ‘survival’. Since they regularly behave in a way that promotes their survival they are said to adopt ‘strategies’ that reveal their ‘values’ as well as the ‘purpose’ of both their individual lives, and the strategies that they adopt. The language of human intention will be discussed later (see human-talk). Suffice it to say here that the language of intentional psychology simply expresses the biological agency inherent in all organisms but through the special language we reserve for humans.

Principle – Organisms are autonomous units of integrated living matter that act and react to their internal and external conditions according to the biological axiom – that is, in a way that resembles a human point of view


As open systems organisms are responsive and flexible, they act and react by integrating their external and internal conditions. Their structures and behaviour manifest functions, aims, or goals that operate over both the short and long term.

One aspect of organismal agency is the integration of development needed to produce a goal-directed and autonomous mature individual of a particular kind. This includes the self-regulation (homeostasis) needed to maintain a conducive internal environment in the face of varying external conditions.

Over the short-term organisms process, regulate, and integrate their flows of energy, information, and materials. Inputs from the environment include materials as a source of energy (food), and stimuli that are accessed by a sensory system. Internal processing includes the metabolism needed for the lifecycle of growth, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. It also includes the processing of both internal and external sensations. Outputs include material waste, energy, and behaviour that demonstrates both action and reaction to circumstance.

Over the long term, survival and perpetuation is achieved by descent with modification as a result of heritable variation and differential reproduction among replicating individuals (natural selection).

Principle  – the key characteristic of life lies not so much in the variety of its functions, processes, and material composition but that, collectively, these factors display a unity of purpose. Biologists, of necessity, investigate the parts of organisms in terms of their contribution to the integrity of the whole as a unified agent. In the absence of purpose and agency biology is just a collection of dissociated facts about the world with organisms treated in the same way that we treat inanimate matter.

Principle  – biological agents, organisms are self-replicating units that regulate the internal and external exchange of energy, materials, and information that is required for their autonomous pursuit of goals


Organismal reproduction is a cycle of birth, growth, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death which Aristotle referred to as partaking in the ‘eternal and divine’. He was referring to the way that species, like gods, are potentially eternal, passing on their unique characteristics from generation to generation. Biologist Richard Dawkins refers to this as the ‘immortality of our genes’.

The mechanism of heredity was unknown to Darwin. We now know that it occurs via hereditary material (genes est. late 19th century by Gregor Mendel) that are found in the chromosomes in the nucleus of every cell (Neo-Darwinism).

The structure of hereditary material of DNA as a double helix of nucleic acids was discovered in 1952, then the pathways of transcription of genetic information from DNA to RNA and protein and the enzyme formation needed for metabolism. All of this is carried out along a backbone of life-supporting carbon molecules.

Replication is accompanied by small heritable variations that result in differences of ‘fitness’ of offspring and this, over many generations of differential reproduction, results in evolutionary change.

Self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis.

The Mission

Biological agents, it has been claimed, are autonomously active operational units – initiating, influencing, and integrating the events that occur both inside and outside themselves. Life is matter, of course, but matter undergoing a specific kind of process, change, and behavioural orientation[24] as each organism pursues its own particular local goals as constrained by its unique material organization and circumstances.

It is the integrated unity of purpose of whole organisms that we are inclined to subsume under the categories of agent and agency. However, goal-directedness tends to be a more generalized concept encompassing the ‘fors’ associated with structures, processes, and behaviours. . . the eyes are for seeing, digestion for processing, foraging to obtain food and so on.

Both agency and goal-directedness vary, not only from organism to organism and species to species, but in their degree of flexibility. So, for example, some animal behaviour may be learned and possibly passed on to offspring, while other behaviour is under strict and inflexible genetic control.

We like to think of human cognition as opening up possibilities, providing choice, and therefore potentially increasing behavioural flexibility beyond that of any other organism. However, if we always think of goal-directedness (agency) in terms of the capacity for mental representation (inversion of reason), then the agency of non-human organisms rapidly falls away. A plant has no cognitive apparatus and therefore no agency at all. And yet we attribute goal-directedness to other organisms, even plants. So, how come?

One solution is to fall back on the idea of adaptation as the possession of evolved traits that confer a fitness (functional) advantage or purpose.

A simpler solution is to simply acknowledge the reality of graded biological agency across the biological spectrum of species, and to also acknowledge that cognitive locutions like ‘choosing’, ‘trying’, ‘hunting’, ‘fleeing’, ‘deterring’, even ‘believing’ and ‘desiring’, when applied to non-human organisms,  usually refer to the real biological likeness between their biological agency and human agency, not their metaphorical possession of cognitive faculties (agency error).

We communicate something meaningful when we say ‘the plant needs watering’. To dismiss this as metaphorical anthropomorphism will not do (metaphor fallacy). This is not semantically equivalent to a statement like ‘The moon needs a space ship’. Cactus spines do not consciously deter, but they certainly contribute to survival, reproduction, and flourishing.

‘Goals’, ‘missions’, ‘purposes’, even ‘reasons’, may be regarded as a form of human-talk. After all, how can a plant have a mission: that sounds ridiculous? Even the ‘reasons’ for its structures and behaviour seem qualitatively different from human ‘reasons’.  When we are intellectually off-guard we refer to biological agency using the word purpose but, by convention, we avoid the embarrassment of attributing conscious intention to mindless organisms by using  the word ‘function’. A prosthetic leg has a purpose because it was designed by conscious intention while an insect leg does not have a purpose; rather, it is a functional adaptation.

Biologist Richard Dawkins regards ‘functional complexity’ as diagnostic of life.[29]

When comparing the animate to the inanimate it is immediately apparent that organisms manifest a unified and purposeful autonomy that is not present in a rock or a dead body. Metabolic processes are themselves sufficient to distinguish a living organism from a rock.

But, more than this: life has a scientifically investigable order that is different from the scientific order we investigate in inanimate matter. This uniquely biological order is the emergent agency that connects to our own human agency.

Every natural agent pursues its goals through the activity of its body, so the material body can quickly become the focus of scientific attention rather than the more abstract property of agency and its goals. It is empirically simpler to describe what an organism is made of than what it does.

As Aristotle pointed out, the bodies of organisms, and the material out of which they are composed, are not the key features of agency. Bodies are the means by which agents pursue their goals or ends. The crucial defining property of an agent is not its matter but its mission (goal, purpose).

Principle – the material bodies of living organisms are subordinate, in explanation, to the goals that they pursue

Proximate & ultimate goals

Organisms, at any given moment, may be occupied with proximate goals that have no common direction. Though there is a universal (ultimate) biological goal to survive, reproduce, and flourish this is manifest in many (proximate) forms. There is a randomness about all organisms’ behaviour that does not lock strictly into the standard goals of survival and reproduction but which fit broadly into this mould. We humans express this idea as the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, and wellbeing. In the biological axiom this notion is conveyed through the broader concept of flourishing.

Humans manifest (ultimate) biological goals in elaborate cognitive (proximate) forms. Biologically (ultimately) we eat to survive, but proximately we eat for the biological rewards of smell and taste stimulation, and the satisfaction of hunger. Biologically we have sex for the (ultimate) purpose of reproduction, but our human (proximate) incentive is the pleasure of physical closeness and orgasm.

Reflecting on these examples gives us a new perspective on the place of humans in nature as we realize that the entire range of uniquely human cognitive psychology that underpins human agency is a proximate manifestation of ultimate biological agency.

Though the proximate ends of organisms are expressed in an infinity of ways that we could, in principle, discriminate in terms of individual species, ultimate ends crystallize into the unity of purpose expressed in the biological axiom.

Principle – the proximate goals of human agency are subject to the ultimate goals of biological agency

Unity of purpose

Biologists and philosophers have long denied that life has ‘purpose’ while, at the same time, proceeding in their research as though the goals of life are self-evident. Read any biological text and you will find the explicit or implicit assumption that life is founded on self-preservation and continuity – survival, reproduction, and flourishing – both within a single generation, and over many generations of self-replication. Without this ultimate unity of purpose an organism would cease being an agent.

Biological structures, processes, and behaviours may all be telic or ‘for’ something in a functional sense (a heart is for pumping blood etc.) but it is the whole organism that, in a more clearly circumscribed way, has ‘objectives’, ‘preferences’, and ‘interests’ (that can be helped or hindered). It is this condensed unity of purpose and individuality that makes an organism an autonomous agent in a way that a heart, which is clearly a part of a greater whole, is not. It is also why the biological axiom is most apt when applied to organisms, not genes, groups, collectives etc. It also creates a challenging distinction between, on the one hand, adaptive significance and function, and agency on the other.

The purpose of living organisms is not something that we make up, something that our minds impose on them. The purpose of organisms derives from their own origin and place in the scheme of things – from their inner nature interacting with their outer environment in an expression of agency. And agency is not just the mindful purpose and value inherent in human conscious intention, it is also the mindless purpose (the goal-directed activity) of all organisms, collectively united in the propensity (drive) to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

Survival and reproduction are the goals of all organisms although these ultimate ends are pursued indirectly through the proximate goal of flourishing (manifest as short-term behavioural responses, and long-term fitness maximization[37 or functional adaptation).

This unity of purpose, the shared agential characteristic of all organisms is, in effect, a biological axiom, a universal principle grounding all life.

Biological agency, the biological axiom, and life’s unity of purpose are one and the same.

Human intentional language ‘wants’, ‘needs’, ‘desires’ is used in relation to an entire and autonomous organism. The words ‘function’ and ‘purpose’ are often used interchangeably. However, following Okasha (2018, pp. 29-34) it is useful to make a distinction between a purpose (goal) as the objective of an agent (something with an independent unity of purpose) and a function as the sub-goal of a greater overarching agent. This produces, on the one hand, function-talk and, on the other, agent-talk. ‘Functions’ (as attributes or properties) best express what something does, or is used for, in the context of an overarching agency. So, for example, we speak of the function of the heart, or of mitochondria, or a gear stick. That is function-talk applies to sub-units and sub-goals, and agential talk applies to agents with a unity of purpose. Goals tend to express ‘interests’ and ‘preferences’, while functions tend to be are more or less efficient.

Biological Axiom – living organisms[12] are biological agents that share a unity of purpose: the predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish

The biological axiom may be expressed even more succinctly as an agent’s ‘pursuit’ of fitness maximization but this creates an abstract theoretical barrier between ourselves and the reality of biological existence.

The biological axiom

The biological axiom is the keystone of biological agency and requires further explanation.

We associate science with the establishment of secure principles and universal laws, most notably the universal laws of physics. Viewed in this way, biology is then the subset of complex (living) matter that exists within all-embracing physics. The universal law-like statements of physics are like the absolute certainties of mathematics . . .  the dictates of Gods.

Maths is built on axioms – statements that are taken as self-evident, foundational, and uncontroversial. A couple of examples from Euclid’s geometry would be that ‘Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another’ and that ‘All right angles are equal to one-another’. To deny an axiom is to undermine foundations. If we argue that Euclid’s axioms are mistaken then we are, in effect, challenging the entire enterprise of Euclidian geometry.

We respect the empirical generalizations of science (its principles and laws) because they have predictive power and therefore help us manage the world and our lives. Physical constants, the laws of physics, have the properties of axioms because they resist contrary evidence and cannot be altered without transforming our understanding of theoretical foundations.

Can there be axioms in biology?

Well, if there are axioms in biology then, as a biology student, I was certainly never taught them. Since biology is restricted to the study of life, then its axioms would, presumably, set out life’s universal conditions.

Aristotle, the founder of biology, was a specialist in first principles. He wrote the world’s first systematic treatise on logic, Organon, much of which still stands today as the basis for deductive logic. He fully understood the importance of axioms as points of stability and reference: that they are a backstop to the tendency for questioning to become diffuse, or circular, or to pass into an infinite regress.

Aristotle was also aware that we can view things from different perspectives and therefore describe and explain them in different ways. His four ’causes’ outlined major ways of providing a definition or explanation of something . . . by describing what it is made of (material cause), its major or defining features (formal cause), how it was made (efficient cause), and what it is for (final cause).

Aristotle noted that to continue existing (to perpetuate their kind) living beings must reproduce. He summarized this principle by saying that all living creatures ‘partake in the eternal and divine’. By this he meant that organisms can replicate their kind (species) indefinitely (eternally) provided they can survive to reproduce. Today, using different words, we might refer, like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, to the ‘immortality of our genes’.

For Aristotle, the intellectual search for the foundation of biology, what it means to be a living being, ended appropriately with its final cause, with what it is ‘for’. And this, Aristotle considered, was ‘survival and reproduction’.

Biologists today think little of Aristotle, or axioms, or final causes, but any cursory examination of biological texts reveals that his general assumption about the foundations of biology persists, though rarely expressed as a necessary first principle. Even so, it remains a universal truism about life that cannot be expressed in simpler terms; it is the impetus or drive behind life when viewed from the perspective of unified and agential (directed) process.

We cannot expect logical certainty in biology, but the biological axiom is a simple and easily comprehended necessary and sufficient agential condition for all biological existence. It observes that though organisms, as agents, differ greatly in kind, complexity, and means of attaining their goals, they share the characteristics expressed in the biological axiom as an ultimate ‘unity of purpose’.

We attribute purpose and agency to phenomena that act – that have goals. The biological axiom is a statement about life that encompasses the greatest possible meaningful semantic generality and range. It expresses, as succinctly as possible, the universal mindless and minded necessary and sufficient agential goals that ground all living organisms – from the simplest organism at the dawn of life to the present-day complex diversity that includes modern humans with their consciousness and intentional behaviour. It is a statement of the ultimate purposes of living organisms.

Logical & biological necessity

The biological axiom is, at present, our most succinct way of expressing an assumption that underpins the study of biology – a point of departure for biological thinking. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins expresses it: ‘We are survival machines‘.[4]

Aristotle noted that we do not ask ‘Why do organisms try to survive and reproduce?’ because we understand that to deny survival and reproduction is to cease to exist – and that does not make biological sense. Organisms that do not, or cannot, survive and reproduce die out – and in ceasing to exist they become biologically irrelevant.

Most importantly, life is a perspective on the universe. In a world of perspectiveless facts there can be no logical grounds for value. But life takes a position on existence. As Aristotle observed, there is a biologically necessary normative perspective on ‘life’. . . that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ and ‘it is better to live than not live’ (Aristotle, GAi23, 731 a24-b8; GAi4,717a21-22; GAii1,731 b20-21). Life, unlike the constants of physics, or the detachment of mathematics, takes a ‘point of view’.[34]

Today we could pass on to Aristotle some recently acquired additional information. Aristotle’s biographer, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, replies to the question ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ with the answer ‘Because natural selection made them so‘.

All life is predicated on the necessity of the ultimate values inherent in its agency. To deny these values is to deny life itself.

Denying the biological necessity of the biological axiom is logically possible, but it is biologically incoherent in the same way that our human desire for health and happiness is not logically necessary, but self-evident.

Principle – the biological axiom is not a logical necessity, but it is a necessary condition of life – a biological necessity

The power of the biological axiom is that it expresses in a succinct way, underlying principles that have been elaborated and explored in diverse ways by the organic complexity spawned by natural selection.

The biological axiom is an undifferentiated foundational statement of biological fact, purpose (reason, function), agency, and normativity. It is undifferentiated because it is a statement of generality that only acquires meaning when explained in differentiated intentional terms

As a statement of fact – it describes the way organisms are

As a statement of purpose – it explains what organisms are for 

As a declaration of agency – it tells us their mission or goals (both what they do and why they do it)

As statement of normativity – it tells us what organisms ‘prefer’, ‘choose’, or value – it is a declaration of biological ‘interests’ that may be enhanced or hindered. That is, in biological systems there are winners and losers, advantages and disadvantages, also structures and functions that are more or less efficient and effective

We tenaciously maintain that values are inextricably linked to conscious intention. How can organisms possibly have values? Surely it is nonsense to claim that an oak tree has interests?

The biological imperative

The biological axiom is not spoken or thought by organisms; it is demonstrated in their behaviour. In an inversion of reasoning we mistakenly assume that because only humans can represent biological values in their minds, then these values can only exist in human minds – that humans create biological values.

The biological imperative – it is better to live than not live. This is a fundamental value not spoken or thought by non-human organisms, but demonstrated in their behaviour. Only humans are aware of this value, but humans did not create it.

The Means

Using human-talk (because we do not have an effective vocabulary to express it in any other way) Biological agents ‘pursue’ their ‘goals’ by adopting ‘strategies’ as a means to ends. To put a strategy into effect requires the integration of internal and external resources which entails the behavioural management of physical resources.

Autonomous living matter expresses variability and flexibility in response to its inner and outer environments in a way that does not occur in the inanimate world. In the course of evolution life has ‘explored’ a wide range of bodily forms and behavioural means (‘strategies’) in pursuit of its goals.

The more ‘options’ (degrees of freedom, flexibility) that are available to an agent, the greater the likelihood of ‘finding solutions’.

Though all life has the same goals, its efficiency in achieving these goals has depended, in part, on ‘strategies’ that increase structural and behavioural flexibility. Most organisms are mindless but, just as they are ‘competent without comprehension‘ and ‘for without foresight’ ‘explore’ an infinity of mindless ‘strategies’, both short- and long-term.

Increased flexibility has often been ‘achieved’ by increasing physical and behavioural complexity. A sedentary plant does not have so many behavioural options as a motile animal, and a motile animal benefits from an increased capacity to integrate, as quickly and effectively as possible, information about its changing environments, and hence the development of ‘brains’. Brains that can ‘learn’ in the course of a single generation clearly have a greater capacity to respond to immediate circumstances than those that only change in evolutionary (genetic) time. The capacity for conscious deliberation (the mental representation of the consequences of behavioural possibilities) adds yet more degrees of freedom to behavioural flexibility.

It is tempting to assume that the tendency to increase organic complexity is the ‘best’ evolutionary ‘strategy’ and to regard humanity as the triumph of this evolutionary trend. But all we need to do is look around us at immobile plants (on which we depend for our food energy) to see which organisms are the most ‘successful’. The success of any organisms depends on its capacity to survive and reproduce in the particular environment in which it occurs: hence life’s diversity.

We humans achieve our goals by using conscious reasoning as part of our strategy to satisfy both conscious and unconscious (intuitive) wants, wishes, and desires. So, our human goals are decided by what we value at any given time, whether this be something small and individual, like the need to scratch, or something importantly collective, like the passing of legislation in parliament. Values are what motivates our behaviour.


The biological axiom is a statement of biological value because it gives all life an orientation, direction or, as expressed in human-talk, a ‘point of view’. Life is not passive. For organisms there will be circumstances that may help or hinder the attainment of goals. Functional adaptations may be more or less efficient or effective.

We associate a point of view with human conscious deliberation, freedom of choice, and the reasoned development of moralities as codes of behaviour.  But the mindful morality of human agency is driven by the intuitions, instincts, and passions derived from mindless biological agency – even though these may be constrained by reason.

When we say ‘The eye is for seeing’ we are acknowledging that the existence of the eye is a consequence of a selection process. Once we thought the selector was God, today we are more inclined to think it is nature itself – natural selection. Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’.  And, in nature, where there is an aim, a ‘for’, the for may be helped or hindered by circumstance and organismic flexibility. An amoeba, an oak tree, and a human can all be thwarted in attaining the goals of the biological axiom. All organisms therefore have ‘interests’.

Humans have drawn a line of moral demarcation (the formal recognition of philosophical and legal ‘interests’) between those organisms capable of conscious deliberation and those that are not – essentially between the minded and the mindless, although this has recently been extended to include sentient organisms that can experience pleasure and pain.

But, as we have seen, all organisms have interests and the moral demarcations become problematic when we acknowledge moral responsibility by degree as guided by evolutionary gradation (see environmental ethics).

Organisms do not value in the same way that humans value, but this does not mean that they do not value at all. Human minded values emerged out of the natural values of mindless organisms. Mindless values are different from the minded values of humans but they are not the unreal ‘as if’ values implied by cognitive metaphor – they are the graded values that have emerged out of the process of evolution.

The entire community of life is sustained by plant primary productivity. This time-lapse of annual global vegetation growth draws attention to the agency of plants as they provide sustenance to the community of life in much the same way as the heart provides sustaining blood to our bodies.

This cartogram animation uses satellite observations from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MOD17) that is able to detect the cumulative composite Gross Primary Production (GPP) of the biosphere on land. This productivity is nature’s ‘fuel for life‘ as it gives us an idea of how the biosphere is utilising the sun’s energy to support its organisms, turning plants into the biomass factories that support life higher up the foodchain.
When and where nature ecosystems are most productive depends a lot on the time of the year. The animation of productivity shows how the changing seasons determine the variability of energy production throughout the year. Distribution of landmasses lead to the tropics being over-proportionally present in this image, especially in the northern hemisphere’s winter.

Courtesy WorldMapper – Accessed 27 September 2021

Life is . . .

. . . not being dead
. . . greater than the sum of its parts
. . . complex chemical organization
. . . different things to different people
. . . a mystery
. . . a journey
. . . don’t know
. . . a mission to help other sufferers
. . . what you make it
. . . life begins after death

Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire

To which it may be added that death is no mystery because:

. . . life after death is the same as life before birth


In seeking to answer the question ‘What is life?’, why should agency be given precedence over the many other universal characteristics of life that can be found in today’s many academic systems of biological representation?

Science attempts to describe the world in a detached way that minimizes the impact of human subjectivity. The view expressed on this web site is that biological science does not get closer to biological ‘reality’ by drilling ever deeper into the physicochemical constituents of matter, because it is integrated and autonomous organisms that must eventually be the focus of biological explanation.

We understand the world using multiple systems of representation (perspectives, disciplines, frames of reference, levels of organization, points of view) all of which are equally valid. This does not relativize knowledge because each system has its own measures of effectiveness that are under constant reappraisal. However, it does mean that the particular system we emphasize depends on our special interests and the goals we currently pursue – which is a pragmatic choice.

This is why it is so difficult to define life. A fair approach would treat all representational systems equally – an impossible task.

There is a solution. The objects we perceive, the criteria and cognitive faculties we use to discriminate between them, the sense of time in which they are experienced, the scales and perspectives from which we view these objects . . . all are influenced by our humanity (our human cognition). This does not make the world a subjective human illusion, but it does provide a lens for interpretation.

We can therefore acknowledge our humanity and deliberately adopt a human perspective on ‘life’, a common-sense manifest image perspective that is readily understood and therefore meaningful, while at the same time acknowledging the more detached and scientific vision expressed through multiple systems of representation.

When viewed through this human lens, as Aristotle appreciated, it is teleology, the ‘for’ of organisms and their parts that defines what it is to be alive. ‘Agency’ is simply a more apt way of expressing what biologist Richard Dawkins has called ‘functional complexity’ – and it is agency that is expressed by the conditions of the biological axiom. This agency is present within all organisms, it is not our own agency inserted metaphorically into nature.

Our scientific preference for analysis rather than synthesis, for explaining wholes in terms of their parts, has led biology to microbiology, DNA, and a ‘bottom-up’ perspective on life. However, we still intuitively recognize the integrated agential autonomy (unity of purpose) of discrete organisms as a kind of organically concentrated individuality that is not found in the inanimate world, or even in biological entities like genes, tissues, populations, or cells.

Scientists are no longer encumbered by Aristotle and his causes. His formal and final causes were abandoned during the Scientific Revolution for their unscientific implications and philosophical obscurity. But the realization that agency in nature is real begs a reappraisal of teleology as outlined in his Physica Book 2.

Aristotle’s four ‘becauses’ are deceptively inclusive. They are both static and dynamic, incorporating both structure and function. By considering potentiality, actuality, and the temporal sequence of efficient cause, they allow for history and development, past and present, while final cause embraces all these factors within the notions of purpose and agency. They describe the way things are now, but also account for change (Aristotle’s primary objective) by explaining how they came to be. And their meaning allows some flexibility of interpretation (Aristotle pointed out that the Greek word aition as ’cause’ had various senses).

The four causes divide neatly into two pairs. The material and efficient causes (those adopted after the Scientific Revolution) capture an analytic ‘bottom-up’ physical and material perspective on the world and change. Formal and final causes offer a synthetic ‘top-down’, integrating, unifying, agential, and purposive perspective.

Scientists of the Scientific Revolution (mostly astronomer-physicist-mathematicians) abandoned Aristotle’s formal and final causes as too abstract, if not altogether mistaken, bequeathing us a mechanistic world of matter in motion.  In this way non-human living organisms were united with the material and efficient. By restricting purpose and agency to humans, and without the benefit of the theory of evolution, this was a distancing of humans from their continuity with the community of life, a distancing that persists today.

Aristotle wanted to know, not just about order in general and the project of science in its entirety. He also wanted to describe what was unique about the particular kind of order, change, and coming to be, that we see in biology.

‘It is not good enough to study the stars no matter how perfect they may be. Rather we must also study the humblest creatures even if they seem repugnant to us. And that is because all animals have something of the good, something of the divine, something of the beautiful’ . . . ‘inherent in each of them there is something natural and marvelous. Nothing is accidental in the works of nature: everything is, absolutely, for the sake of something else. The purpose for which each has come together, or come into being, deserves its place among what is natural and good’ . . . ‘The nature that crafted them likewise provides extraordinary pleasures to those who are able to know their causes and are by nature philosophers.’  

Aristotle – De Partibus Animalium (The Parts of Animals) 645a15


Aristotle’s sentiments are aptly referred to as ‘The Invitation to Biology’.

Aristotle’s central idea – the cement that binds all biology together – revolves around his final cause: it is this that gives life its ‘unity of purpose’. Only now, after over 400 years of rejection, this idea is gradually being restored to scientific respectability through a recognition of the limitations of a micro- perspective on life, and the resurgence of a philosophical position reinstating purpose in biology (outlined in the article bioteleological realism). This is a recognition that purpose in nature is real – organisms can be ‘for’ without foresight. Purpose was naturalized by Darwin who demonstrated that final cause does not require future causation. Final causes do not imply either God or the empirically impossible.

Smallism has now run its course as we have come to realize that biology comprises much more than just physical forces, molecules and fundamental particles, and energy flows. We also need to know the role of life (entire living organisms) in the broader contexts of surrounding systems . . . environments, ecosystems, and the biosphere, in its entirety.

An organism is as real as a molecule. We need a synthetic or holistic overview as well as an analytic and reductionist one. And, for convenience, we need an explanation that is neither anthropocentric nor anthropomorphic but human friendly.

Aristotle noticed that teleology has two faces, the ‘of which’, aim, or function (say, of an eye ‘to see‘, of a heart ‘to pump blood‘) and the ‘for which’ that ahs a beneficiary, the organism deriving the benefit. In modern terms he noticed that the ‘for’ or purpose that exists in nature is of two kinds: the goals of organisms, and the functions of their parts.

Biological mysteries, rightfully resisted by the Scientific Revolution, have now been resolved in naturalistic ways. The genetic code acts as life’s ‘inner nature’ or, to use Aristotle’s analogy, the ‘inner craftsman’ that provides the critical information whereby ‘like begets like’. Even Darwin was unaware of this genetic foundation. We now recognize ‘like’ organisms by their intergenerational similarity as the formal cause that gives them structure and meaning. This intergenerational reincarnation is not the consequence of a mysterious and supernatural entelechy, but the fully scientifically comprehended consequence of genetics.

From the Scientific Revolution to the time of Darwin and beyond, teleology was regarded as an Aristotelian solecism. How can nature display purpose when purpose is something that only exists in human minds? But teleological language (human talk) would not go away and a philosophical industry has been constructed around its clarification. Perhaps purpose-talk could be avoided altogether by ignoring what things are ‘for’ and, instead, simply stating what they ‘do’?

It is argued here and elsewhere on this site that purpose and agency in nature is real; it is not our purpose. We have failed to understand how deeply our resistance to this idea has become ingrained in our collective psyche and how liberating its negation will be.

Final causes explain the presence of features, but exert no “mysterious pull” from the future. They rather function quite literally as the direction-givers and the ends and limits of developments necessitated by formal-efficient or material-efficient causation. In this way, they provide both the first component of a teleological explanation and the heuristic starting point for investigations that will lead to a statement of the complete teleological explanation of the phenomenon in question. This does not mean, however, that final causes have only a heuristic value: since in demonstrations of the teleological type the final causes are part of the conclusion that is being demonstrated, the practice of Aristotle’s natural science demonstrates the very existence of natural teleology.

Mariska Leunissen. 2015.

Explanation & teleology in Aristotle’s science of nature. Cambridge University Press

The single most forceful argument against teleology is that nature cannot operate with foresight as the language of purpose implies.  Leunissen (above) is showing that this apparent foresight is explanatory primacy, not causal primacy.[21]

Humans view and interpret nature from a human perspective and human scale. Science tries to overcome this cognitive bias by increasing the perspectives from which we view ‘life’, most notably by using technology to narrow down and widen out.

But organisms are meaningful units regardless of scale and this human bias. Agency (purpose) is both real in nature, and an explanatory lens that is close to our human interest because it draws together in a simple and engaging way what it is that we humans recognize in ‘life’ as distinct from  ‘matter’: it makes intelligible phenomena that would otherwise be dissociated facts of our universe‘.[18]

Unfortunately, the analysis of his central  biological claim – that biological explanation must revolve around ‘ends’ (his final causes)  is now buried in decades of abstruse and mostly unsympathetic philosophical debate. His simple thesis was that biology, at its core, is a process of reverse engineering . . .  finding out what organisms, their parts, and their behaviour, are for.

In Aristotelian terms, humanity has now located the ‘inner craftsman’ that was scorned by the Scientific Revolution. This was an answer to Aristotle’s superficially simple and silly (but biologically crucial) question ‘Why do neither snakes nor stars have feet‘?[17]

The question remains. From what perspective are we to take a summary view of life?

We humans have cognitive limitations, and it seems we have reached an impasse. Science has extended our biological knowledge beyond anything Aristotle could have dreamed. We have plumbed life’s structure, function, microscopic material composition, behaviour, dynamic process, energy flows, the communication of information, genetic properties, genomics, informatics, proteomics . . . physics, biochemistry, ecology . . . ? The academic arena is now so vast that it seems impossible to explain life briefly and coherently from this multitude of aspects all at once; yet to omit one is do it a disservice.  The place of whole organisms within their wider environments, including the greater whole – as communities, populations, ecosystems etc. – is as important as the circumscription of their smallest components. Is there a priority of scale when we break down organisms into organs, tissues, cells, and macro-molecules?  We cannot explain an ecosystem in terms of the molecules that make it up, even if this is theoretically possible.

This is where we are at now. If we want to define life, then we must define it as viewed from many aspects. We try to overcome our human ‘subjectivity’, our human focus, by using technology that extends our biologically given senses into unfamiliar worlds, and that is how science has advanced.

But Aristotle gave us an option. If we view must view the world from a human perspective, then perhaps we can use that perspective to its greatest advantage. Central to our humanity is our purposiveness, agency, and intentionality.

In (over)simplified terms: scientists of the early modern period provided scientific explanations that were restricted, in Aristotelian terms, to material and efficient cause i.e. what something is made of (its material composition), and the trigger for it doing whatever it does (today’s understanding of ’cause’). This approach to scientific explanation gave rise to what is characterized in the history of science as a mechanistic world of matter in motion and this conception replaced Aristotle’s world view of a cosmos filled with life-like agency. Only with Darwin was a more organic perception of the world reinstated although the old preoccupation with the physicochemical as somehow prior has persisted.

Aristotle’s third and fourth explanatory (be)causes, which he believed were necessary for a complete scientific explanation, were his formal and final causes. These were considered problematic and therefore best discarded or ignored. Final cause (‘that for the sake of which’ or ‘for’) was problematic in several ways: it implied future causation along with the possibility of supernatural influence and the intrusion of anthropomorphism. Formal cause as ‘that which makes it what it is’ was also an ambiguous, abstract and spooky business, suggesting mysterious philosophical essences or some-such.

Aristotle argued that efficient cause without final cause was like a fire that spreads uncontrollably in all directions, while final cause is an outcome to an ordered (not random or accidental) and efficient process (De Anima II.4,416a15-18). He was also adamant that purpose arose in nature itself; it was not placed there by either God or the human imagination.

It is significant that Aristotle’s four causes divide neatly into two pairs. The material and efficient causes capture an analytic ‘bottom-up’ physical and material perspective on the world and change. Formal and final causes offer a ‘top-down’ synthetic, integrating, unifying, forward-looking, agential, and purposeful perspective on the universe. Aristotle’s telos implied the mesmerizing thought that, at its very simplest, every cause has an effect as a primordial ‘purpose’, however obscure or tiny that might be.

The influence of the Scientific Revolution on contemporary science can be exaggerated, but by emphasizing a mechanistic world of matter in motion, and abandoning Aristotle’s formal and final cause, ‘life’ and ‘agency’ were squeezed out of the scientific world, thus uniting non-human life with the material and efficient, essentially the inorganic. Humans were the only creatures with ‘real’ agency. By restricting purpose and agency to humans, and without the theory of evolution, a gulf was opened up between humanity and the rest of life – a gulf that is yet to be satisfactorily bridged.

The Scientific Revolution’s rejection of Aristotle’s formal and final causes was, in part, an attempt to remove the problematic ideas of purpose and agency from biology. These notions introduced a mysterious (?supernatural) life-force and obscure philosophical ideas that were not amenable to empirical investigation. Exorcising life-forces from non-human organisms was considered a scientific service. ( them greater resemblance to the inanimate world than the animate and conscious world of humans). But agency and purpose have remained a part of the language and academic culture of biology.

After 2500 years we are now inadvertently returning to Aristotle’s way of thinking by including formal and final causes in our consideration. True to the Scientific Revolution we acknowledge the importance of describing what something is ‘made of’ (its material cause), and ‘how it arose or was made’ (efficient cause). But we are only just beginning to acknowledge, philosophically, that much of our biology is reverse-engineering – not just the investigation of what living systems and structures ‘do’, but what they are ‘for’ – both individually, and collectively through the unity of purpose expressed in the biological axiom (final cause).

In the absence of this unified agential explanation of life, biology becomes a collection of dissociated facts of the kind we use to describe the inanimate world. It is the purposiveness of biological agency that gives life its meaning through the ultimate goals of survival and reproduction and the proximate goal of flourishing, all as a matter of biological necessity.

A satisfying scientific answer to the question ‘What is life?’ must be a full one. It must involve much more than a response detailing ‘what it is made of’ (material cause) and an assumption that something that is small is more ‘real’ than something that is big. We need more than Aristotle’s material and efficient cause as explanation. Life is more than subatomic particles, energy, or information: it is even more than the genetic code. Also, what an integrated and autonomous functional organism is ‘for’ brings with it a meaning that extends well beyond what it ‘does’.

A full explanation of a chair, we believe, must include a description of what it is ‘for’, its final cause or purpose. Sadly, for many scientists and philosophers, even today, organisms are no more ‘for’ anything than are planets or rocks. A chair has more purpose than an organism.

As complexity increased after the Big Bang, so life emerged as matter with distinctly novel properties and relations. It is argued in this article here, and the article on human-talk that our science would better reflect the world if it treated the categories employed by human-talk as existing in reality by degree, rather than as unreal metaphor.

Today, long after Darwin connected humans to the community of life, and naturalized teleology, we are still struggling to acknowledge the purpose that is inherent in all living organisms, the purpose that is associated with their biological agency.


‘No matter what your race, religion, or gender; when you first step outside your door in the morning and feel the fresh air in your lungs and the morning sun on your face, you close your eyes and smile. In that moment you are feeling life as it should be. No defining, no understanding, no thinking. Just that feeling of pure bliss. For that is what human life is.’

Courtney Walsh, Farnborough, Hampshire

Key points

Note: human-talk is indicated using quotes.

  • Darwin dramatically changed our understanding of organisms as they exist in space and time. He changed them from discrete kinds uniquely created in a single moment, to a community of life that is physically connected across time through the process of graduated organic emergence, divergence, and complexification that is descent from a common ancestor
  • Darwin’s On the origin . . . contained two profound insights that have not yet found their way into either biological science or the public imagination. First, he naturalized teleology by demonstrating that, in spite of the metaphorical language frequently applied to nature, goal-directedness (purpose) arises in a natural way, without the need to invoke either the supernatural, or the foresight of human intention. That is, he showed how purpose in nature is real. Second, he demonstrated the close physical connection that exists between the entire community of life through descent from a common ancestor and therefore, incidentally, that life concepts and processes show resemblance that is grounded in reality, in nature itself, not in metaphor.
  • Biological agency is manifest through three key elements which, expressed in human-talk, are the agent, its mission, and its means. The mission equates to purposes, goals, or interests, while the means entail strategies that are not mere mental ‘intentions’, but physical activities.
  • Organisms are agents that pursue biological interests through the ultimate (long term, multi-generational adaptations) as goals of survival and reproduction as expressed in the biological axiom, and the (short term, single generation phenotypic traits). Goals arise out of the very nature of living matter. In their advanced human form, ancestral goals arise out of their biological evolutionary foundation as the ‘will’, ‘passions’, ‘intuitions’, or ‘appetite’.
  • The grounding principles of biological agency are universal though biological agents and their strategies vary in degrees of physical and behavioural complexity
  • We acknowledge life through the agency of living organisms with a predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish, this being biologically necessary ultimate conditions for their existence (the biological axiom).
  • humans pursue the ultimate ends of biological axiom I through the proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing
  • We apply a normative idiom to organisms and their traits because organisms, in accordance with the biological axiom, can be beneficiaries of circumstance
  • The biological axiom is a statement of both fact and value since it provides the basis for biological activity: it is the grounding for all normativity, including human values.
  • Biological agency is expressed in terms of semi-autonomous structural, functional, and behavioural flexibility – the capacity to act and react, to adapt, both short- and long-term. Biological agents exhibit a unified short-term independence by regulating both inner processes, and the interaction with surroundings. Over the long-term self-replication with heritable variation and differential reproduction facilitates adaptation and evolution.
  • Living organisms differ from inanimate matter in their autonomy expressed through the capacity to replicate (recreate) themselves and to constrain the circumstances of their existence in a way that promotes their survival, reproduction, and flourishing
  • Evolution is a process of selection (natural selection). Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’. And, in nature, where there is an aim, a telos, or ‘for’, together with a beneficiary (under the value conditions of the biological axiom) then there is purpose, agency and a foundation for normativity that distinguishes the living from the non-living, and is independent of human cognition.
  • Today the notion of agency no longer brings with it the implication of mysterious supernatural forces or complex abstractions – it has been thoroughly naturalized. But a few philosophical difficulties remain. Among these is the conflation of nature with human experience, generally regarded as an extension of the old personification of nature and an anthropomorphic cognitive bias. Part of this is the use of anthropomorphic language (human-talk) to bridge the gap between human characteristics and their analogues or evolutionary antecedents as they exist in non-human organisms.
  • Biology has inherited two fallacies from the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution: the metaphor fallacy as the claim that all anthropomorphism is metaphor; and the purpose fallacy as a claim that the word ‘purpose’ can only be used meaningfully in the context of mindfulness


– summary of claims that are argued in more detail within the articles on purpose, life as agency, human-talk, being like-minded, and biological normativity.

This is a defense of agential, teleological, and normative realism


The goal-directed behaviour of living organisms is an objective fact,[40] and where objective goals exist, there too are objective agency, purpose, and value.

Goal-directedness in nature is real and, without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviours) are ‘for’ (their purpose), biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts. It is this agential unity of purpose that distinguishes organisms as autonomous agents as they pass through a lifecycle of fertilization, growth, development, reproductive maturation, senescence, and death.

The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms become unified (can be summarized) in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish – referred to here as the biological axiom. These are the defining characteristics of biological agency.

So, for example, biologically (ultimately) we humans eat to survive, but proximately we eat for the biological rewards of smell and taste stimulation, and the relief of hunger. Human agency can here be appreciated as an evolutionarily developed or minded form of biological agency: it is, as it were, superimposed on biological agency.

This example illustrates the source of major confusion. Biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive: human agency is simply one form of biological agency.

We often confuse (fail to distinguish between) the universal and objective ultimate goals of biological agency (biological axiom), and the uniquely minded goals of human agency. Through a lack of technical scientific vocabulary, and our human intuitive empathy with all life, it has become conventional to describe biological agency using the uniquely minded language of human intentional psychology.

Because the goals of biological agency (which includes their ‘purposes’ or ‘values’) can only be understood (represented by) human minds, it is mistakenly assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are a creation of human minds.

Importantly, the goals of the biological axiom give life a direction, or orientation that is akin to a perspective on the universe.

In a world of perspectiveless facts there can be no logical grounds for value. But life takes on a biologically necessary normative perspective by demonstrating, through its goals, a fundamental principle of life, that, as Aristotle declared – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ or ‘it is better to live than not live’ – a precept that I call Aristotle’s biological imperative. To deny survival, reproduction, and flourishing is to cease to exist – and that does not make biological sense.

Life, unlike the constants of physics, or the detachment of mathematics, has a ‘point of view’. ‘Why do organisms need to survive, reproduce, and flourish?‘ . . .  ‘Because natural selection made them so‘  (Armand Leroi).

Aristotle’s imperative – the propensity of life to resist death – is an objective fact about the behaviour of living organisms; it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make a contestable value judgement, that ‘it is good to live’, but  organisms consequent on the nature of their agency, of necessity, mindlessly value life. This results in one of the many consequences of the unique and shared characters of biological and human agency. An agentially objective ‘point of view’. A fact and a value.

Human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values. We can therefore make a distinction between, on the one hand, mindless biological agency, purpose, and value and, on the other hand, minded human agency, purpose, and value bearing in mind that human agency includes both forms of agency.


This interpretation of agency, purpose, and value constitutes a radical philosophical realism that implausibly contradicts the mainstream philosophical and scientific view that values, agency, and purpose are creations of human minds and therefore exist only in human minds – a view leading to the conclusion that the language of human intentional psychology (which includes the language of agency, purpose, and normativity), when applied to non-human organisms, cannot be scientifically justified, and must therefore be treated as cognitive metaphor.

It is argued on this web site that, from a scientific perspective, human agency is a form of biological agency and that resort to its description by using the uniquely minded language of human intentional psychology is a form of anthropocentrism that has devalued and denied its evolutionary grounding in biological agency.

While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values. Subjectivity can consciously explore the infinity of paths that lead to the satisfaction of ultimate biological goals.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on at least five confusions and errors concerning the distinction between organisms with minds and those without minds.

First, an inversion of reasoning that incorrectly assumes that since biological goals (values, purposes etc.) can only be understood (represented) by human minds, then they only exist in human minds, and are therefore a creation of human minds . . . that biological agency is not real.

Second, converse reasoning that treats biological purpose, agency, and value as an unreal fiction (cognitive metaphor) invented by the human mind, rather than the converse – that human agency evolved out of real biological agency.

Third, the treatment of anthropomorphic (humanizing) language through a metaphor fallacy that 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 likenesses we recognize between minded and mindless aspects of life (those based on biological agency) into an as if (unreal) likeness rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection (which, in literary terms, would be more like a biological 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 (see examples below).

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, an inherent cognitive bias, or for its convenience, but more because of our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (objective biological) agency, and the lack of non-human agential scientific vocabulary.

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.

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

We use minded language not because we believe non-human organisms have cognitive faculties (cognitive metaphor), but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile) and because we do not have the technical scientific vocabulary needed to describe the agency of each individual species.

The evidence for this agential, teleological, and normative realism is cashed out when we examine specific cases.

We say that a plant wants 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, 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, that they 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).

When we treat human-talk as anthropomorphism, cognitive metaphor, or heuristic we not only devalue, but deny, the real evolutionarily graded agency of organisms.

This philosophical confusion is a perpetuation of pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism. 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. And it is with this realization that biological agency must now pass out of the realm of metaphysics and into the realm of science.


In sum, we use minded language not because we believe non-human organisms have cognitive faculties (cognitive metaphor), but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile) and we do not have the scientific technical vocabulary needed to describe the agency of each individual species.

Anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution, not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device). If we regard anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor or heuristic, then we not only devalue, but deny, the real evolutionarily graded agential reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life.

This philosophical confusion has been perpetuated by pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism. 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.

It is with this realization that biological agency, teleology, and normativity must now pass out of the realm of metaphysics and into the realm of science.


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) – unity of purpose, goal-directedness. Comprising agents (organisms) their goals or purposes (ultimate goals (biological axiom) of survival and reproduction, proximate goal of flourishing) and their means (including the mindless use of physical and behavioural resources needed to pursue goals, as well as conscious strategies)
Agent – something that acts or brings things about. Mindless inorganic agents include objects like missiles, cities, and computers. In biology – typically an organism as an agent with unity of purpose (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 surroundings. An organism directed 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
Bioteleological realismthe claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
Behavioural ecology – the study of the evolution of animal behavior in response to environmental pressures
Biological agency – life agency as described by the biological axiom
Biological axiom – survival, reproduction, and flourishing as the universal necessary and sufficient agential characteristics of all life. The ancestral agential characteristics that define all life. Biology only makes sense when explained in agential terms which, in humans, are those of intentional psychology
Biological simile – a comparison (likeness) of biological phenomena that is based on real evolutionary connection
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
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
Genotype – the genetic constitution of an individual organism, encoded in the nucleus of every cell
Function – also referred to as adaptive significance or purpose. In agential terms it is the characters of organisms that have functions or purposes while organisms have goals
Grounding concept – the general ideas that underpin more specific (derived) concepts
Heuristic – stimulating interest and investigation
Human agency – behaviour motivated by conscious intention; human agency is the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency
Human-talk – the application to non-human organisms of language usually restricted to humans and human intentional (agential) psychology
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
Personification – the representation of something in the form of a person
Phenotype – the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment
Physical reductionism – the view that biological phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of physico-chemical entities
Purpose – Aristotle’s final cause or telos; the reason why anything is done, or made, or for which it exists; an end, aim, or intention; what something is ‘for’; the goal of an agent
Proximate explanation – an explanation dealing with immediate circumstances
Relata – the objects of a comparison
Semantic range – the range of objects and ideas encompassed by the meaning of a word
Synapomorphy – a characteristic present in an ancestral species and shared exclusively (in more or less modified form) by its evolutionary descendants
Trait – a unit of the phenotype (physical or behavioural)
Ultimate explanation – a long-term explanation (e.g. in biology as a measure of the fitness of a particular trait)

Media Gallery

What is Life? – with Paul Nurse

The Royal Institute – 2019 – 59:51

Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent Are Other Animals?

World Science Festival – 2020 – 1:33:46

First published on the internet – 13 Sept 2021
. . . 22 March 2022 – added inversion of reasoning and metaphor fallacy as support for teleology
. . . 8 April 2022 – condensed the paragraph on teleology and added the agency error
. . . 10 May 2022 – added the agential paradigm and refined the 5-point defense of teleology
. . . 9 June 2022 – substantial revision of Epilogue



X-Ray image of stingray
Courtesy loctrizzle – – Accessed 25 May 2017

Tesla MRI of the ex vivo human brain at 100 micron resolution (100 micron MRI acquired FA25 sagittal) (downsized, original speed).gif
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 20 September 2021

X-Ray of stingray
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