Select Page


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.


Biological agency


‘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.’


‘To the extent that an evolved organism is well-adapted to its environment and thus equipped with phenotypic traits that enhance its survival and reproduction it can be validly treated as agent-like as long as a certain empirical precondition is met, at least approximately. This is the unity-of-purpose condition: the organism’s traits must have evolved because of their contribution to a single overall goal, so have complementary rather than antagonistic functions. To the extent that this is not so, it ceases to be possible to think of the organism as agent-like’

Samir Okasha – 2020, p. 230

– for a summary integration of the claims that are argued in the articles What is life?purpose, biological agency, human-talk, being like-minded, biological values, agency & evolution, and morality, see the Epilogue


The goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms is an objective fact[40] and it is this goal-directed behaviour, as an emergent property of living organisms, that is the source of the objective biological agency that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and the dead.

This mind-independent biological agency is a property of matter that emerged with the first life, several billion years before its evolutionary development, the minded human agency that communicates its species-specific form of biological agency using the language of intentional psychology.

Biological agency is expressed most obviously in the universal, ultimate, and objective goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom) that are demonstrated in each organism as a distinct autonomy and unity of purpose. The long-term manifestation of these goals is sometimes referred to as fitness maximization.

But 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 – that only human agency is real agency?

The prevailing academic view is that when, in biological science, we talk of agency, purpose, and values we are talking about concepts that are mind dependent. Only human minds have conscious intentions. Without minded intentions, activities are, at best, only agent-like, purpose-like, and value-like. This, I believe, is the deceptively straightforward logic that drives current thinking. It is an appealing logic that has been part of mainstream Western scientific and philosophical thinking for millennia but it, and the language of human intentional psychology that we use to describe non-human organisms, needs closer scrutiny.

If biological agency is real, then why is it never spoken of in biological text books? There is no entry ‘biological agency’ in Wikipedia that addresses the matters that are discussed in this article.

So, how do we manage to deny the existence of biological agency?

If we assume, without question, that agency, purposes, and values are mind-dependent, then clearly the minded language of human intentional psychology (human-talk) is inappropriate for organisms that do not have minds. When we say that a spider weaves its web in order to catch flies, or that a plant needs water, we say that these are instances of anthropomorphism or cognitive metaphor with the unreality of metaphor signaling the unreality of agency, purpose, and value in the mindless organisms to which it refers. Cognitive metaphor, it seems, might have an educational or literary attraction and utility, it offers brevity and demonstrates our anthropocentric cognitive bias but, more importantly, 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 living organisms 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 the notions of biological and human agency.

These matters are all discussed in detail in the article being like-minded. But, in sum, biological agency is not a metaphorical (unreal) creation of the human mind. Rather, human agency is an evolutionary development of biological agency.

Different faces of this claim are listed below in a dogmatic summary of arguments that are discussed in more detail in related articles and summarized in the Epilogue at the end of this article:

An inversion of reasoning – there is a mistaken assumption that since biological goals 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

Converse reasoning – the presumption of the unreality of biological agency means that, when it is encountered, it is described as the unreal minded human creation of cognitive metaphor.  Conversely, human agency evolved out of real and mindless biological agency.

A metaphor fallacy – this fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the items being compared is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an ‘as if’ (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device an adequate way to make the comparison between biological agency and human agency then the likenesses being compared would be more like a (real) biological simile than a (unreal) metaphor.

An agency error – human-talk (treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally, as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under close scrutiny it becomes evident that, in general, this language is not referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry.

The mind/not mind mistake – products of evolution possess, at the same time, both uniquely defining characteristics and characteristics that are shared with other organisms – the characteristics that indicate common ancestry. So, when locating objects (structures, processes, behaviours – and even concepts) within an evolutionary context, we must consider not only unique characters but also those that are share with evolutionary relatives. Human agency is grounded in (shares characteristics with) its evolutionary ancestor, biological agency, most notably the shared goals of the biological axiom. Thus, uniquely minded human agential concepts (those of intentional psychology), though most readily recognized by their uniquely mindedness, also share other features.

In other words, and crucially, universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the way that organisms with minds are distinct from those without minds . . . human agency is just one of many evolutionary expressions of biological agency (albeit a complex and minded one) and therefore shares agential features with other organisms (features that are expressed in nature by degree). 

Conflation of human agency & biological agency – since human agency and biological agency have agential features in common (the agential characteristics of the biological axiom) this means that concepts we usually associate with minded agency (e.g. reason, knowledge, value, purpose) can resonate with evolutionarily antecedent mindless agency. That is, we can fail to recognize that much of the intentional language of human-talk applied to mindless organisms is referencing mindless biological agency, not minded human agency.

Anthropocentrism – consider the sentence, The design we see in nature is only ‘apparent’ design. We say that design in nature is ‘apparent’ (not real) because it is not human design, it is not created by human minds. But nature and organisms are replete with (real) designed structures that are more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the universe’s most miraculous and intricately integrated structure, the human brain.
The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘want’ or ‘need’: these words cannot be used meaningfully outside the context of the human mind.
Thus arises the metaphor fallacy. The word ‘design’ cannot be used to describe nature because it implies that nature is minded (which is clearly an error). But because nature’s mindedness is unreal does not mean that the design is unreal. Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett’s mode of expression . . . ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, ‘design’ and many other concepts attributed to human intention ‘bubble up from the bottom, not trickle down from the top’.
The usual scientific solution to such a problem is to devise a technical vocabulary that discriminates between nature’s real and mindless design and the minded artefacts of human creation. But this has never been adequately achieved. The threat to human dignity would be too embarrassing.

Absence of technical terminology – human-talk is used for many reasons including: literary flourish, the convenience of brevity, our inherent cognitive bias (facilitated by our intuitive recognition of our likeness to, and evolutionary connection with, the biological agency expressed in other organisms), but mostly because lack of clarity about biological agency (confusions about teleology) have resulted in the unsatisfactory language of function and adaptive significance.  It is reasonably assumed that the minded language of human agency should apply strictly to humans. But in the absence of appropriate non-minded agential terms we fall back on the familiar language of human intentional psychology – the human-talk that is accused of being cognitive metaphor. 

Anthropomorphic analogical language attempts to convey likeness. Clearly when we say that a plant needs watering we are attributing mental faculties to plants that they do not possess. But, in general, our human empathy for plants expressed in this way is not conveying the as if sentiment of cognitive metaphor, but the real likeness of biological simile (the result of evolutionary connection). The connection, and our empathy, rests on our shared and real mutual biological agency, not an imaginary meeting of minds.

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

Historically, this philosophical confusion was encouraged by a pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism that understood organisms as being individual products of Special Creation, rather than products of evolution by descent with modification from a common ancestor.

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

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 real biological agency demonstrated in the lives of myriad biological agents.

The failure to distinguish clearly between biological agency and human agency has resulted in millennia of philosophical and linguistic confusion. Once biological agency is acknowledged as real, its investigation can be transferred from the realm of philosophical speculation into the domain of empirical science.

Principle  – biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is an evolutionary development of real biological agency


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 compass.

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 therefore need to be clear about the particular kind of agency we are addressing. This article is discusses 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 as products of evolution (which he calls Type 1 as a ‘powerful tool for [sic] understand adaptation‘ p. 10), and that which we associate with natural selection (Type 2, as the process of evolution), both ‘. . .  applied in both literal and metaphorical forms‘.[39]

However, the processes of selection and adaptation do not occur independently of organisms so, while it is true that intentional language may be applied to the process of selection itself, this is a confusion with, and only intelligible in relation to, the prior concept of an organism.[12] This article therefore only discusses biological agency that is predicated on the predisposition of all organisms, as autonomous agents, to survive, reproduce and flourish. Human agency then becomes the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency that is grounded in real evolutionary connection but misleadingly described using the human agential language of intentional psychology and cognitive metaphor.

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.

Nature, in a broader sense, is full of powerful and terrifying 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.

Science has always struggled with the intangibility of natural forces, even those of foundational physics. Some of these forces, 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 organisms – at biological agency – it does indeed seem to entail some kind of life force, a sort of living willpower, motivation, or animating principle. We think we are being detached and scientific when we describe this property in neutral language by saying that life has a disposition or propensity to act in a goal-directed way. But this does not do justice to the agential property of life that seems special in some way . . . much more than a mere propensity. Our human needs, wants, desires, and aspirations have extraordinary motivational power over our behaviour.

Logically there is no reason why plants, animals, and humans should breed, search out food, and feel the desire to simply continue living – but something like a ‘will-to-life’, as a unity of purpose, seems to provide the driving energy, power, or force that keeps us all going, even those of us that do not 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.

In any event, we no longer feel the need to explain these phenomena in supernatural ways. We take it for granted, for example, that human motivation can be explained in naturalistic ways. There is no need to invoke the supernatural or anything that is unscientifically mysterious. 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?

Agency, purpose, function, telos, and the supernatural are concepts whose meanings have long been culturally entangled in traditions and suspicions.

Function & adaptive significance

In the perceived need to naturalize the purpose, agency, and design that we see in nature, it is tempting to reduce these ideas to less controversial concepts by using the more detached language of ‘function’ and ‘adaptive significance’ . . . that organisms can be ‘validly treated as agent-like[45] when we think less about biological agency and more about adaptation.

However, it will not do to say that Darwin naturalized teleology by showing that the teleological ‘for’ or ‘in order to’ so often applied to organisms (including their structures, and behaviours) are ‘really[44] the way we link a trait’s function to its adaptive significance, and that this is why ‘talk of function, design, and purpose is legitimate’.[44] In a not-so-subtle way, this simply says, again, that it is humans who insert purpose and agency into nature.

The point is that purpose and agency are not human creations, they are real emergent properties that arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way. The ‘for’ of purpose does not necessarily imply backward causation or the intentions of man or God. The reduction of purpose to adaptive significance is a half-truth, a circumlocution, or euphemism.

To say, for example, that blind variation and environmental filtering, as natural selection, produces adaptations as biological structures with functions, and that teleology can therefore be naturalized as adaptive significance, is a cop-out. With such obfuscations intentional language applied to organisms can be excused while, at the same time, face is saved by returning genuine teleology to its presumed rightful owners . . . intentional agents like humans and God.

But explaining how purpose arises in nature does not remove it – it does not explain it away. When we recognize that the intricate design of a leaf does not presuppose God, we can, if we are brave enough, also acknowledge that, likewise, it does not presuppose the human mind. Saying that spines evolved as functional adaptations on desert cacti provides a naturalistic explanation, but it does not magically erase the real emergent purpose that they serve.

The embarrassment of the word ‘purpose’ has resulted in its replacement with the impotent and detached word ‘function’. But philosophers have floundered as they grapple with the reality of the biological agency that has no descriptive language apart from human-talk, adaptationism, and the magic word ‘function’. Philosophy, believing it is providing a service to biology by purging purpose from biological language, has generated a vast philosophical industry that explores Selected Effects Theory, Generalized Selected Effects Theory, Etiological Theories, Causal Role Theory, Neo-Teleology, teleosemantics, and more.[48] 

Functional statements are critical to evolutionary biology, anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, physiology, and much more because they are grounded in the objective reality of agency and purpose. If, as is claimed here, purpose in biology is real, then trying to exorcise teleological language is a vain enterprise.

Philosopher Samir Okasha makes the interesting observation that functional talk is most at home when applied to traits (subunits of a greater whole i.e. the organism). Though there are clear exceptions, we usually treat the organism, not its structures etc. as the agent with goals that may be helped or hindered. It is the integrity, autonomy, individuality, and independence of a living organism – its ‘unity of purpose’ (Okasha) that gives an organism something more than just ‘function’.  

Design and purpose actually exist in nature: it is not ‘as if’ a leaf is designed – it is not ‘designoid’ – and therefore incomplete in some way. Amazingly, the miraculous design of leaves appeared in nature independently of human minds. And the leaf is designed to a level of sophistication that humans cannot achieve. The claim that ‘true’ design must be design by an intelligent designer (which, in the absence of God must be the human mind as metaphor) is just human arrogance. Humans themselves, I would claim, were not designed by God, or minds, but by the mindless agency imminent in nature itself.

Certainly, natural selection itself is mindless, unintelligent, and without foresight . . . it cannot possibly have purposes and goals. And yet the products of natural selection, organisms, clearly do exhibit purpose. Only humans (not the organisms themselves) are aware of these purposes and goals, but the words ‘function’ and ‘adaptation’ do not capture their reality in the way that the words ‘purpose’ and ‘agency’ do.

The shocking realization, so difficult for people (including scientists) to accept, is that the entire designed and purposive community of life was ‘created’ by a non-intelligent process. That, in what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a curious ‘inversion of reasoning’, purpose, agency, and design ‘bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top‘ – they exist in nature independently of minds. They created minds: minds did not create them.

Kinds of biological agency

Biological agency emerged out of inanimate matter as a propensity for units of certain kinds of matter to behave in a unified goal-directed way. Humans appreciate thid uniquely agential nature of living organisms by observing their behaviour. This agency exists within organisms themselves, even though it can only be appreciated by human minds.

Organisms exist as part of a spatiotemporal continuum and we therefore interpret their behaviour these terms.

Spatial interpretation of agency

Organisms are integrators and regulators of behaviour that is a complex process of many feedback loops. However, it can be useful to recognize behaviour as primarily a response to stimuli that come from inside (intrinsic) or outside (extrinsic) the organism.

Temporal interpretation of agency

We interpret behaviour within time frames.

Behaviour that is a generated by immediate circumstance we tend to speak of in terms of stimulus and response that generally has little to do with structural and physical change, even though this is a form of short-term adaptation and will, over time, influence reproductive outcomes.

Phenotypic plasticity seems to describe longer-term morphological, physiological, behavioural, and phenological changes (including acclimatization and learning) that occur in response to environments. These are changes that are sometimes permanent over an individual’s lifespan. One genotype can produce more than one phenotype when exposed to different environments. Phenotypic plasticity ‘aids’ immobile organisms like plants that cannot escape unfavourable surroundings.

But over longer periods we are inclined to use the language of evolution and functional adaptation which describes permanent physical alteration as genetic and structural change.

Agency & mind

When we try to describe biological agency as we would physical structures then four kinds can be usefully distinguished: the mindless agency that proceeds without mental influence (which occurs in both minded and mindless organisms); unconscious minded agency as mind-generated but intuitive or unconscious behaviour; conscious minded agency as behaviour that is a consequence of conscious deliberation; collective or cultural agency that is made possible by symbolic communication and expressed through socio-cultural norms such as political, economic, legal, and religious ideologies and conventions.

The evolution of these different forms of agency can be discussed from two perspectives. First, that of the community of life as a whole, as each form of agency gradually emerged from nature. But it is also possible to investigate the ways that each contributes to the collective unity of purpose that is human agency – not just the agency that is understood and explained simply in terms of cognitive faculties. This is discussed in the article on agency and evolution.

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.

It is important to distinguish between the faculty of reason and reasons themselves while also recognizing that reasons can exist independently of human minds. There are reasons why the moon circles the Earth (physical reasons), there are reasons why spiders build webs (mindless biological reasons related to biological agency) while the reasons of human agency derive from both conscious deliberation and unconscious response. That is, there is a substantial difference between the reasons why I go shopping, and the reasons why I jump away from snakes although both demonstrate the behaviour of an agent. Unconscious human agency links to not only the instinctive behaviour of sentient creatures but also the mindless behaviour of plants since both share underlying biological agency.

A distinction must be made between biological agency in general and human agency in particular. Human agency evolved out of biological agency and shares its ultimate goals; it is a minded form of biological agency with many shared characteristics.

Two major kinds of agency, and their variants, have can now be usefully distinguished: first, the biological agency that unites all life. This includes both mindless and minded organisms that are grounded in the biological axiom; second, minded human agency that is of two kinds, unconscious (intuitive or instinctive) under the strong control of the biological axiom, and the conscious thought and related behaviour, still grounded in the biological axiom, but as modified by reason.

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, the convenience of brevity, bur especially our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (biological) agency, and our 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; rather, we are aware that they share with humans the universal biological agential disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish – goals (values) that may be hindered or helped.

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


Organisms are one partner in a relationship between themselves and their environments – the organism-environment continuum. We speak of organisms as individuals, but it does not make sense to consider an organism in isolation. Even so, individuality and independence, in this context, is a matter of degree.

The increase in complexity that we see in the organic world (especially that resulting from improved mobility and the advent of minds) is associated with an increase in the behavioural flexibility that marks individuality and independence.

The agential matter of living organisms expresses behavioural flexibility that is not present in the behaviourally constricted world of inorganic physics (see the biological axiom). And minded organisms demonstrate increasing degrees of behavioural freedom via an increasing capacity to learn, and which culminates in the flood of behavioural opportunities (degrees of behavioural freedom) made possible by human reason.

This may be seen as a process of increasing autonomy as, during evolution, individual organic agents became increasingly differentiated from their environments. Simple life which, in the early stages of evolution, was highly vulnerable to environmental influences, in the later stages gathered the organic complexity that allowed it to overcome, and even dominate, their environments.

This increase in behavioural freedom is amply demonstrated by humans as evolution’s greatest expression of individuality, acting collectively to disperse and dominate planet Earth in the Anthropocene.

Principle  – evolutionary increase in organic complexity is, in part, associated with an increase in degree of individual behavioural freedom and independence. The behavioural flexibility of life over non-life is stated in the biological axiom, but further flexibility was added with the possibilities and opportunities opened up by the advent of mobility, the mind, learning, reason, language, and cooperation between individuals

In general, the increasing autonomy of an organism (as it exists within the relationship of the organism-environment continuum) depends on its capacity to adapt – expressed as increasing behavioural flexibility.

Expressed in human-talk this relates to the organism’s accumulated ‘knowledge’, capacity to ‘learn’, and ‘innovate’ when confronted with novel circumstances. This is not, however, a recipe for evolutionary success since evolutionary diversification is subject to the path-dependent constraints of existing physical forms and environments. The apparent evolutionary success of highly autonomous and complex humans must be considered alongside the evolutionary success of insects, microbes, and plants.


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 express a unity of purpose and value: the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish

The goals of the biological axiom are universal and therefore biologically necessary because they are expressed by all living organisms, they are ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals, and they are objective because they are open to empirical investigation and verification.

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 in the articles What is life?purpose, biological agency, human-talk, being like-minded, biological values, and morality.

In biology we treat organisms as autonomous agents, even though we know that they could not exist without their environments - that they are part of a physical continuum. What makes the matter of a living organism a special kind of matter - very different from the inanimate matter of, say, a rock - is its capacity to respond to circumstance in an integrated and unified (goal directed, purposeful, agential) way. This biological agency is grounded in the universal, objective, and ultimate biological values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (biological axiom).

Biological agency
The goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms is an objective fact.[41]  It is this behaviour that is the source of the objective (mind-independent), universal and ultimate goals (see biological axiom below) referred to here as biological agency. These emergent properties of living organisms arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way that did not imply either forward causation or the intentions of humans or gods. They are the properties that distinguish the living from the inanimate and dead. Since the mind-independent properties we call 'goals', 'agency' and 'purpose' preceded people in evolutionary time, they therefore existed in nature in mindless form.

Many philosophers and scientists regard 'purpose' and 'agency' as mind-dependent words such that non-human organisms can only display, at best, purpose-like and agent-like behaviour.

The brief points below (discussed in detail in other articles) outline: first, how mindless purpose and agency are possible; second, how to discriminate between the minded and mindless in both language and the world; third, why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as genuine agents rather than being agent-like; fourth, the reduced need for the euphemistic, obfuscating, and semantically vexed language of function and adaptive significance.

The biological axiom
The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms are 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 - sometimes expressed in more abstract terms as 'fitness maximization'.

The biological values (generalized goals) of the biological axiom are universal because they are expressed by all living organisms. They are ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals. They are objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact.

It is typically organisms[43] that express the autonomous agential unity of purpose needed to express biological agency and values.

As open and dynamic agential systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. In the short-term (one generation) this behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) 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.

It is the short- and long-term autonomous agency of individual organisms that we intuitively recognize as uniquely identifying life in all its diversity.

Forms of biological agency
The forms in which biological agency is expressed are as many as the species that have evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor and are therefore related to one-another by degree.

In considering the complications of agency related to minds there are five modes of being:

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

mindless biological agency - behaviour not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms)

unconscious minded agency - as mind-generated but intuitive or unconscious behaviour

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

collective or cultural agency - that is behaviour motivated by socio-cultural norms.

Biological & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the way that organisms with minds are distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency.

The reality of biological agency, goals, purpose, and values
Because the goals of biological agency can only be understood by (represented in) human minds, it is often assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are therefore a creation of human minds - that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like. In fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviors) are ‘for’ (their goals, values, and purposes), biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts.

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

The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘want’ or ‘need’: these words cannot be used meaningfully outside the context of the human mind.

Thus arises the metaphor fallacy. The word ‘design’ cannot be used to describe nature because it implies that nature is minded (which is clearly an error), but because nature's mindedness is unreal does not mean that the design is unreal.  Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' and many other concepts attributed to human intention 'bubble up from the bottom, not trickle down from the top'.

The usual scientific solution to such a problem would be to devise a technical vocabulary that discriminates between nature's real and mindless design and the minded artefacts of human creation.  Such a threat to human dignity, it appears, just cannot be countenanced.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how is it possible to proceed scientifically as though it does not exist?

Biological agency is currently described using the minded intentional vocabulary of human agency. Since most organisms do not have minds this is then correctly treated as either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or simply a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). However, the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is then mistakenly conflated with the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency?

The reality of biological agency can be recognized by either: developing a new vocabulary of technical agential terms that account for biological agency, or, by acknowledging that human minded agency is evolutionarily grounded in (shares mindless characteristics with) mindless biological agency. That is, the meanings of the concepts of minded agency (like 'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', 'value' and so on) are taken to include mindless properties.

Proximate & ultimate goals
So, for example, since human agency is a minded evolutionary extension of mindless biological agency, human minded goals are only proximate goals that serve the ultimate and mindless goals of biological agency.

So, for example, we humans eat for minded proximate ends (taste and smell stimulation and the satiation of hunger), that have the mindless ultimate biological end of survival. We have sex for minded proximate ends (orgasm, physical and emotional warmth and gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We desire the overall minded proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing, which serve the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

Human & biological values
Human values express a perspective, intention, or point of view. In a world of perspectiveless facts, like the world of physics and inanimate matter, there can be no logical grounds for value. However, the goal-directed characteristics of biological agency (as expressed in the biological axiom), give life a direction, behavioural orientation, and flexibility that is not available to inanimate substance but which cannot be ignored. This warrants scientific recognition.

Scientifically this behavioural orientation also resembles a form of value like a confusingly mindless and objective 'point of view'.

This form of mindless agency could be given its own terminology but since no such terminology exists, and since mindless value is the evolutionary precursor to minded value, it is referred to here as biological value whose characteristics of biological agency called the three ultimate biological values.

If this characterization of life has merit, then it expresses a (mostly) mindless and objective biological normativity (as goal directed behaviour) that is grounded in the ultimate, universal, and objective values of biological agency.

Biological values that are represented in behaviour. Human values are also represented in behaviour but this begaviour may be unrelated to the mind, unconscious (instinctive), or a cosequence of conscious deliberation (reason).

It has been customary to deny or ignore biological agency, or to downgrade its reality by referring to it as being agent-like. The outcome has been that life, in effect, has been accorded the agential status of inanimate matter. Evidence now indicates that this is no longer scientifically acceptable.

Aristotle's normative imperative
To deny biological agency and its values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing, is to deny nature's intrinsic (biologically necessary) behaviourally objective resistance to death, and this is not acceptable to biological science.

Aristotle maintained that the ultimate goals of biological agency drive us to the conclusion that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘, and ‘it is better to live than not live’ – referred to here as Aristotle’s biological normative imperative.

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

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make a minded and contestable value judgement, that 'it is good to live', but mindless organisms do not make value judgments, their biological 'normativity' is expressed in the way that they are. Similarly my preference for white wine over red wine is not a moral injunction - something I 'ought' to do - it is simply the way I am.

This characterization of life draws attention to problems that have plagued biology from its earliest days - the confusing relationship that exists between human minds and biological agency.

Minded & mindless agency
By anthropocentric intellectual tradition we refuse to accept that agency (including its purposes, values, reason, knowledge etc.) is present in nature by degree. Instead, we are convinced that these characteristics are mind dependent. How could an oak tree possibly express value?

But biological agency is like sexuality. We accept that sexuality exists throughout the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Because human sexuality is expressed in a uniquely human way does not mean that only human sexuality is real, and that the sexuality of other organisms is only sexual-like. An oak tree expresses value through the physical and behavioural means of its own unique agency. This is nothing like human value, but it is connected to human value through the shared characteristics of biological agency.

We both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being the same) the universal and objective ultimate values of biological agency, and the uniquely minded values and goals of human agency.

Since there is no technical terminology to describe the expression of biological values we fall back on the human vocabulary of intentional psychology.  And, since many organisms do not have minds, this human-talk (anthropomorphic language) is understandably dismissed as cognitive metaphor - which ignores its evolutionary grounding in biological agency.

In other words, we mistakenly presume that biological agency must be minded agency, like human agency – that mindedness is a precondition for agency in living organisms. It is probably for this reason that we mistakenly infer that the unreality associated with the application of minded language to mindless organisms (cognitive metaphor) translates comfortably into the unreality of biological agency. That is, we conflate the simple distinction between the minded and the mindless with the complex distinction between biological agency and human agency. It is not that biological agency is a subjective creation of the human mind (cognitive metaphor or heuristic), rather that the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency.

Purpose created minds: minds did not create purpose.


The goals of agents establish not only their individual purposes but the purposes of their structures and behaviours.  Agency and purpose preceded people, so it is more likely that agency and purpose created people, rather than people creating purpose and agency.

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
The use of anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor in biology arises for many reasons including: the convenience of brevity, our cognitive bias, and the attraction of literary flourish. However, it is more likely a consequence of a lack of technical vocabulary to describe biological agency, and our empathy for other living creatures (our recognition of biological agency) that is mostly at play here. Anthropomorphism is an intuitive acknowledgement of our evolutionary connection to nature.

We humans have given precedence to human agency by developing a uniquely minded 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 (cognitive metaphor) in relation to non-minded organisms not because we believe they have cognitive faculties , 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.

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).

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

Human minded valuation brings with it the subjective 'ought' of ethical universality. The following cases illustrate the objectivity of biological values . . . the 'ought' of human valuation is replaced by the 'is' of biological 'value'.

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, eyes have obvious and objective agential significance.

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

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, minded human agency, purpose, and value bearing in mind that human agency is a specialized form of biological 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

Biological values, human values, & ethics
The words 'ethics', 'morals', and 'values' are often used in a loose and interchangeable way. However, a useful distinction can be made between three key elements: values (as abstract, universal, general, or aspirational objectives – the importance, worth, or usefulness of something - including behaviour - preferences, attitudes, or feelings); goals (as specific objectives of individual organisms); and moral or ethical judgments (as human judgments of right and wrong often made universal by reason and thus countering egoism).

The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.

For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form - its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.

Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. 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.

It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature - that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.

But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the 'ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its 'ought' statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics - the point of view of the universe - but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

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

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on at least five related confusions and errors concerning the distinction between and confusion related to, on the one hand, organisms with minds and those without minds and, on the other, biological agency and human agency.

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

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor or, more specifically, cognitive metaphor.[42] This fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an 'as if' (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device the appropriate mechanism for making this comparisonIn then in strict literary terms this would be more like a biological simile than a metaphor.

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.

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 to describe this agency.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 motivated by real goals (these may be mindless, that is, without conscious intention)
Agential realism - the claim that non-human organisms exhibit agency in a mindless way, and that humans combine both mindless and minded agency: the grounding of cognitive biological metaphors in non-cognitive biological facts
Anthropocentric - to view and interpret circumstances in terms of human experience and values
Anthropomorphism - the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities
Apomorphy - a specialized trait or character that is unique to a group or species: a character state (such as the presence of feathers) that is not present in an ancestral form
Autopoiesis - self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis
Bioteleological realism - the 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 organisms. The qualities that give organisms autonomy and unity of purpose. 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
Emergence - as used here - the origin of of novel objects, properties, or relations in the universe considered worthy of human categorization
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
Goal - the object towards which behaviour is orientated (goals may be minded or mindless)
Grounding concept – the general ideas that underpin more specific (derived) concepts
Heuristic – stimulating interest and investigation
Human agency - behaviour motivated by conscious intention; the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency that is described using the human agential language of intentional psychology; the capacity to act on the basis of reasons as cognitive and motivational states (beliefs, desires, attitudes) (philosopher Kim)
Human-talk - the application to non-human organisms of language usually restricted to humans and human intentional (agential) psychology
Intention - a minded goal
Intentional idiom - the use of intentional language in a wide range of contexts including those relating to non-human organisms
Metaphor - figurative language as ‘nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain’. An 'as if' direct (not a 'like') comparison that is not grounded in reality e.g. 'You are a rat'.
Natural agency - any agency in the natural world
Normative realism - the view that normativity has its origin in biology through the mindless and mindful ultimate goals of survival and reproduction, and proximate goal of flourishing
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

Paul Davies – Gap Between Non-Life and Life

Closer to truth – Jun 2022 – 10:48

Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent Are Other Animals?

World Science Festival – 2020 – 1:33:46

Can Life Really Be Explained By Physics? (featuring Prof. Brian Cox)

Be Smart – Apr 2022 – 24:30

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
. . . 2 August 2022 – further revision of Epilogue
. . . 4 August 2022 – added discussion of autonomy as increasing individual behavioural flexibility and freedom
. . . 12 September 2022 – minor edits


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
Print Friendly, PDF & Email