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Life as agency


‘Life may be described from many perspectives (scales or aspects). It is most familiar to us as carbon-based organisms (and cells) that are semi-autonomous and purposive (agential and information-processing) systems. As products of natural selection, organisms show an independence of adaptive design that is predisposed (hard-wired) to survive, reproduce, and flourish. Organisms demonstrate a unity of agency in the structures, functions, energy management, and metabolism necessary for development, growth, and reproduction.  They also maintain constant internal conditions (homeostasis) and respond to their environments (reaction and adaptation). Over one generation organisms die: over many generations of sexual replication, they demonstrate identity through the transmission of genetic information in DNA, while having the potential to evolve new forms.

More or less


‘A major characteristic distinguishing an organism from a rock or a chair is its unified, semi-independent, and purposeful (goal-directed) activity in relation to its surroundings . . .  its 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

Life may be defined as it is understood and explained from various perspectives and scales . . . from the ecological to the molecular, its structures and functions, from its material composition to its general behaviour, from the information it contains to its means of communicating that information . . . the list is a long one.

On what grounds could we select ‘key criteria’ that distinguish the living from the inanimate and dead?

We intuitively recognize life from its major manifestation as discrete organisms that have some autonomy or individuality in relation to their environments – we can tell that they have both short-term and long-term ‘goals’. On close inspection it turns out that one major and universal indications of the autonomy of organisms is their capacity to self-replicate and persist. A useful way of expressing the unified and directed independence of organisms is to say that they demonstrate ‘agency’.

Our anthropomorphic bias means that we strongly associate the idea of agency with human intention, but this is clearly our anthropocentrism. Every form of life is an agent on a mission.

This article examines Aristotle‘s convictions by viewing all life through the prism of purposive and dynamic agential process.

Agency in nature

In prehistory humans imbued all of nature with supernatural agency. Forests, streams, mountains, trees, and landscapes were populated by spirits, demons, and supernatural animistic forces of many kinds. Gradually, over time, the numbers of these supernatural beings diminished, and supernatural belief focused more on Gods. At first there were many (polytheism) but, eventually, and over much of the world, just one God (monotheism). Gradually Gods became more distant. In ancient Greece they inhabited the mountain top of Olympus. But in later civilizations they passed out of this world altogether, ascending into the sky, eventually becoming eternal, ineffable, and dissociated from space and time.

Perhaps there were always a few people with a scientific cast of mind who doubted that they ever existed.


We see the world in relation to ourselves (the anthropomorphic cognitive bias) and so it is hardly surprising that Gods and spirits often took on human forms and behaviours. The personification and anthropomorphization of nature . . .  the river flowing down a mountain ‘wishing for the sea’, thunder as the voices of angry Gods . . .  all this was a reading of human traits into non-human nature. In this straightforward form anthropomorphism was simply one of our many human cognitive biases.[8]

Aristotle had seemingly perpetuated this bias by using the word telos to indicate the ‘purposes’ or goals that are sought out by organisms and natural processes.

The new thinkers of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment (impressive names like Bacon, Spinoza, and Hume) thought that the purpose Aristotle saw in nature, its teleology, was making the old mistake of imbuing unconscious nature with conscious intentions. This time it was not the intentions of spirits and Gods but of humans. Purpose was metaphor or just a useful human way of thinking about nature . . . a convenient shorthand, façon de parler . . . or, maybe, a cover for modern-style religious belief and arguments about intelligent design.

We have inherited much of the language and attitude of these founders of modern science, including the assumption that nature has no ‘real’ agency, purpose, or design.

The rebellious certitude of thinkers of the Scientific Revolution is now under question. It is possible that, in their enthusiasm to rid science of superstition and human subjectivity, they went too far. The theory of evolution replaced the old idea of discretely created species with a new notion of an organic continuum. It transformed our understanding of biology, naturalizing Aristotle’s ‘purpose’ and raising new and interesting questions in the philosophy of biology.

Agency is at the centre of our understanding of what it means to be a living organism, but if we are to make headway in its study then we must come to terms with this age-old philosophical problem. Biologists constantly resort to ‘human-talk’ – the language of human agency, when talking about non-human nature. Darwin immortalized natural ‘selection’, and Richard Dawkins christened ‘selfish’ genes. We just cannot help ourselves.

Why does human-talk persist . . . is it impossible to overcome our anthropomorphic bias?

Agency in biology

Biology, as a scientific study, began with the ancient Greek polymath philosopher Aristotle, who made foundational contributions to many subjects in today’s academic curriculum. He is regarded by some as the founder of empiricism and modern science itself. Though most of his works are lost, the depth and insight of his thought could not be ignored by those that followed.

Aristotle was not a religious man, but in the monastic academia and cathedral schools of the European Middle Ages he was widely respected and known as ‘the philosopher’. His works and those of other classical authorities were studied, together with the Bible, as statements of absolute authority.

Aristotle, considered agency a very special characteristic of life because in nature so much was directed towards certain goals; they were always ‘for’ something or other. He called this goal-driven aspect of life its telos its purpose, goal or ‘final cause’.

The idea of purpose and final causes in nature all changed with the Scientific Revolution when a new breed of thinkers began questioning the ancient authorities. Aristotle’s ideas, especially, were attacked as part of a process of scientific rejuvenation. It was necessary to dismantle some of the past in order to build anew. And, as scientific knowledge advanced, it was not difficult to find errors in Aristotle’s thinking.

Aristotle was especially interested in what it was that made life different from other forms of existence. His key idea, downplayed during the Scientific Revolution and after, even today, was that of telos. Aristotle claimed that the structures, processes, and behaviour we observe in nature are almost all directed towards ends, they are ‘for’ something or other. ‘Nature does nothing in vain’, he declared.

Much has been learned since Aristotle’s day. Biology has been transformed by the theory of evolution. At one extreme science has drilled ever deeper into the material structure of organic matter, mining for life’s material foundation and the treasure of its molecules that make up the genetic code. At the other extreme there has been the relatively recent birth of ecology as the study of organisms on a grand scale within local and global ecosystems.

In defiance of supernatural explanations of life, many scientists have claimed that the agency, purpose, and design that we see in nature (often attributed to God) is, in reality, human agency superimposed onto nature. In other words, the purpose we see in nature is not nature’s purpose (nature cannot have purposes) but our own purpose. The agency and design we see in nature, which we often describe using the language of human intentional psychology, is best regarded as metaphor.

Principle 1 – Organisms, unlike rocks, chairs, dead bodies – even mountains and rivers – are not passive in relation to their environments. The single characteristic that stands out above all others is the way that organisms are not passive, they respond to. All structure, function, material composition and behaviour, both internal and external, is unified and directed towards the goals of the preservation and reproduction of that unity over both one, and many, generations of self-replication. This is the way we understand and explain biological order – the special kind of order that we observe in living creatures. We investigate the parts of organisms in terms of their contribution to the whole organism process.

Principle 2 – text Only humans are aware of the goals of biological agency, not the organisms and processes themselves, the majority of which are mindless. But mindless goals are not non-existent goals: they are not goals that only exist in human minds – they are real in nature.

We need to look much more closely at what we mean by ‘agency’ in nature: and could Aristotle have been right?

Biological science

Biology began with the simple description of the outer features of organisms (morphology) and an assumption that each organism was discrete and unique (a creation of God).

Today, biological description and knowledge has advanced to a point where we can no longer provide such a seamless account of biological systems as they exist in space and time.

Today organisms are described as agentially unified systems that may be explained at various scales of graded structure and function. We understand life both in terms of its molecular and sub-molecular composition, through to whole organism integration with environments and other organisms.

After Darwin it became necessary to include consideration of the temporal changes and increasing elaborations in structure and function that have occurred in the course of evolutionary history.

Multiple scales of reference – with their domain-specific principles, procedures, and vocabularies – are now used to explain divergent structures and functions that are all derived from a common evolutionary origin. This has created clashes, confusions, and ambiguities in the technical and conceptual vocabulary that we use to explain organismal similarity and difference. How do we describe ecosystems in terms of molecules?

The temporal problem concerns our way of explaining and understanding the graduated and physically connected temporal organic change bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin.


The problem of describing organic matter distributed in space has arisen because we have used ever more sophisticated technology to extend our knowledge of biological systems beyond the scale of our human senses. We have resorted to microscopes, telescopes and their elaborations.

At one (micro) extreme, life is now studied in terms of the molecules out of which it is composed. At the other (macro) extreme it is studied as whole organisms interacting with their environments and other organisms. Attempting to explain one domain of biological knowledge in terms of the other has created philosophical and methodological difficulties. Put simply, we cannot explain ecosystems in terms of molecules. This appears to be a limitation of human cognition.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, with the proliferation of biological disciplines, each with its own perspective (its own scale or domain of research, knowledge, principles and terminology. ‘Life’ has so many scientific stakeholders (botanists and zoologists have morphed into a proliferation of subject matter that includes physiologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, microbiologists, ecologists, biometricians etc. etc.). Finding common ground becomes increasingly difficult. This dilemma is addressed elsewhere as aspect theory.

A flower is a complex biological object but, among botanists, its definition is uncontroversial.[2] Widen the range of stakeholder perspectives and difficulties would soon arise. The definition at the top of this page is, for example, my feeble attempt to be all things to all scientists. You try!

Grades of existence

We have inherited from antiquity a loose and rarely articulated (because tacitly and intuitively accepted) view of the nature of matter and reality. We categorize matter into two kinds – the living and the dead. Among the living there are plants and animals and, among animals, there are three kinds, the non-conscious (mindless), those that are conscious (sentient).  Among the sentient are those that can feel pleasure or pain and those that, in addition, are rational with other faculties that are uniquely human.

Sometimes this is organized in a boxes-within-boxes arrangement that inadvertently implies descent with modification approximately as follows: 

1. the set of all matter ordered by necessity (‘necessity’ = the laws of physics)

2. the subset of all matter that is living, which consists of semi-autonomous units that are the products of natural selection (genetic information accumulated under the influence of the sorting algorithm of natural selection).

3. the subset of living matter that is conscious (sentient) with the capacity to experience comfort and pain

4. the further subset of conscious living matter that has the capacity for foresight and hindsight, abstract reasoning, self-awareness, creation of complex technology, sociality, and language i.e. human beings.

Aristotle propounded a view now known as hylomorphism whereby everything in the material universe has both matter and form, the form being its soul (Greek psyche, Latin anima). By ‘soul’ Aristotle was referring to the factor that animates, or gives agency and vitality to organisms. He distinguished three kinds of souls: the vegetative soul of plants (growth, maturation, nutrition) animal soul of motion and sensation; and the rational soul which was the source of consciousness and reasoning and found only in man. Each ‘higher’ soul had all of the attributes of the ‘lower’ ones. Aristotle also believed that while matter can exist without form, form cannot exist without matter, and that therefore the soul cannot exist without the body.

Aristotle’s account of hylomorphism and the configuration of the biological world acknowledged the accretion of properties.  This was not only a crude acknowledgement of descent with modification, but also a recognition of the way that new structures, functions, and properties arise out of foundational (ancestral) states.





Aristotle considered existence or being (ousia) as a mixture of matter (that out of which it is made) and form (essential properties). Organisms demonstrate progressively more complex and inclusive properties. Plants demonstrate growth and reproduction, to which animals add mobility and sensation, and humans then further add thought and reflection
The word ‘hylomorphism’ coined in the 19th-century from the Greek words ὕλη – hyle – matter and μορφή – morphē – form.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons –

Physical & conceptual continuity in time

Modern science has fleshed out our perception of the nature of things. Most significantly, in a chronometric revolution that only occurred in the last 100 or so years, we have now mapped out the place of things as they changed over time.

During the cosmic evolution that followed the origin of the universe at the Big Bang, physical structures – including their properties, and relations – increased in number and complexity in a process of emergence as everything evolved from a point source.

Our human acknowledgement of this universal physical continuity and connection is very recent. The theory of organic descent with modification from a common ancestor was introduced by Darwin in 1859 who showed the connection that exists between all organisms in the community of life: we are all biologically related. The physical continuity of the universe was only confirmed much later, in the 1930s, when the Big Bang theory replaced the Steady State theory of the universe: and we are all made of stardust.

Cosmic evolution explains how complexity has arisen out of simpler antecedents with many characteristics persisting in later modified and elaborated forms. In biology diverse structures (homologies) have shared underlying features (synapomorphies) resulting from their common descent. For example, the four major flower parts (carpels, stamens, petals, and sepals) are homologous with, and evolutionarily derived from, leaves. And the superficially completely different forelimbs of humans, bats, and deer are foundationally identical modifications of a common ground-plan based on descent with modification.

Though not strictly transposable to conceptual categories, this is a useful heuristic device for investigating human-talk (the language of human intentional psychology applied to non-human nature).

This is an important idea that needs unpacking.

Organic continuity

The ‘grades of existence’ described above are a loose prism of categories through which to view the matter of the universe in general, and life in particular. With Darwin, the categories of biological existence became more numerous, complex, interconnected and fluid, while the old grades remained embedded in the traditions of our language.

We now know that nature exists in graded complexity – a staged continuum – though we might regard life as a collection of discrete individuals and species we now know they share a common descent. Only recently have humans been accepted under the category ‘animal’.
We like our ideas to be clear and distinct. It is simpler when properties are either present or absent, true or false, rather than being present by degree, and more or less true.

An example of this would be our attitude to consciousness.

We now recognize that, in nature (in ‘reality’) consciousness exists by degree. Domestic animals have consciousness, even if it is different from ours. It seems that consciousness exists by degree in nature. What about a fish? Surely fishes are conscious in some way, and maybe even worms? It could even be that we humans have degrees of consciousness through our lives, and even across a single day.

Now if we regard consciousness as a strictly human property, then it cannot be present in other organisms. Whatever other organisms have, it is not ‘consciousness’, it is something different. Now, what scientific word are we to use to designate ‘fish-consciousness’, ‘dog-consciousness’, ‘worm-consciousness’, and other gradations of consciousness? We do not have the ready scientific vocabulary.

In practice, we extend the semantic breadth of ‘consciousness’ to include other organisms by adopting human-talk, as I did here. We have little option considering their obvious (and real) evolutionarily based connection and similarities. But how are we to account for this consciousness-talk?

We do so by saying that it is ‘metaphor’, that we are using ‘as if’ language. What we are wanting to say is that the consciousness of non-human creatures is different from human consciousness. By a quirk of language, the ‘as if’ we attach to metaphor implies that they have no consciousness at all.

The point here is that, in nature (but not in language), non-human organisms don’t lack consciousness, they have consciousnesses that differ from ours to various degrees.
This has profound implications. Associated with consciousness are other cognitive faculties that we also usually regard as uniquely human – intention, purpose, reason, knowing, remembering, intelligence, having moral interests, strategies, morality and values. These are just a few of the properties we associate with human agency. By linguistic convention (embedded in their semantics) we have restricted the properties of the faculties of human intentional psychology to human cognition when, in nature (in ‘reality’), like consciousness, they are present in a graduated way.
But how can this claim be defended – it is simply nonsensical to regard an amoeba or a tree as conscious?

It is a matter of coming to terms with the notion of biological degree. One way of thinking about this is to consider our construction of categories as based on similarities or differences. In evolutionary terms, the wings of butterflies and birds are very different: they have similar functions but no common descent (they are analogies not homologies). We can emphasize (or at least be aware of) the underlying similarity that grounds superficial difference. Do we ground our classification categories on foundational similarity or superficial difference?

This idea expanded further in the section on ‘human-talk’.

Principle 2 – there are many insights to be gained when we acknowledge the biological grounding states that make ‘real’ the language of human intentional psychology applied to nature.


A respectable commentary on life must begin with an attempt at describing what it is we are investigating. Here is the first hurdle. There is no universally accepted definition of life.[1][3][4][5]

The problem is that biology is now studied by multiple disciplines, each with its own perspective on life. Here is a signal of the problem of scale, perspective, or aspect – the many domains, each with their own technical language, that was mentioned above.  Life’ has so many scientific stakeholders (physiologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, microbiologists, ecologists, virologists etc.) that finding common ground becomes extremely difficult, and we all like to think of our own discipline as critical.

The definition at the top of this page is, for example, my feeble attempt to be all things to all scientists. Defining life on these terms can quickly become a lengthening shopping list of our favourite features.

At present the best we can claim is a list of characteristics that cover most instances, most of the time when we try to discriminate the animate (living) from the inanimate (the inorganic or dead).

The other difficulty, also mentioned above, is that the universe is, in many ways, a continuum. Life, it seems, presents many borderline cases and counterexamples. There are extremophiles, viruses (a piece of RNA, packaged inside a molecular envelope), phages, prions (deformed proteins that can force other proteins to take their shape), ‘life’ in test-tubes (with skills in genetics, biochemistry, DNA and RNA manipulation, and lipid membrane formation we humans will soon create ‘life’ and tissues at will). We are unsure of the status of objects like mitochondria, consciousness-approximating computers, robots, and all the shadowy possibilities of Artificial Intelligence . . . and so on. All of this is complicated by our present-day uncertainty about the origin of life (one of the great unsolved biological mysteries) and the significance of the role played by RNA, membranes, vacuoles and other structures.

There is a further consideration . . . the question of what life could be from the extra-terrestrial perspective of astrobiology, which draws our attention to the limitations of our Earth-centric ideas and definitions.

Today we assume that life has a last universal common ancestor (LUCA), which means that life on Earth may be a single, and unrepresentative, example of life considered more generally.[1]

Though ‘the ability to undergo Darwinian evolution’ (used by NASA) has appeal, it omits many of the features we now associate closely with living organisms.
At a NASA meeting in 1992 scientists tried to capture this big picture with the definition: ‘Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution’, similar to Carl Sagan’s 1970 definition as ‘a system capable of evolution by natural selection’ and Russian‐born geneticist Edward Trifonov’s ‘Self‐reproduction with variations’.

A longer and more philosophico-scientific suggestion is that ‘Living organisms are autopoietic systems: self-constructing, self-maintaining, energy-transducing autocatalytic entities’ while at the same time being ‘systems capable of evolving by variation and natural selection: self-reproducing entities, whose forms and functions are adapted to their environment and reflect the composition and history of an ecosystem’.[5]

The objective of the article you are reading is not scientific precision but acceptability for both science and the general public: a broadening out rather than a narrowing down of understanding.

We intuitively recognize life by its unified, independent, and purposeful activity in relation to its environment . . . its agency.

It is now time to look more closely at what is meant by ‘agency’.

The biological axiom

We associate science with the establishment of principles and universal laws – notably, the universal laws of physics. 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). Scientists of the Scientific Revolution, mostly physicists, abandoned Aristotle’s formal and final causes as too abstract, if not altogether mistaken. A full explanation of a chair must include a description of what it is, ‘for’ the final cause, but organisms are no more ‘for’ anything than are planets or rocks.

Today we are coming back to Aristotle’s way of thinking. We acknowledge the importance of describing what something is ‘made of’, and ‘how it was made’ – but we are much more aware of that aspect of life we call directed or agential process and the passing on of information from one generation to another. Indeed, it is this sense of agency in nature that is coming to the fore as a much-neglected aspect of our biological understanding.

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 the nearest we get to a necessary and sufficient condition for biological existence.

Biological Axiom 1 – living organisms[12] are agential units of matter that is predisposed to survive, reproduce, and flourish

The power of the biological axiom is that it is a succinct statement of biological fact, purpose, agency, and normativity.

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

As a statement of function and purpose – it explains what they are for.

As a declaration of agency – it tells us what they do.

As an attestation of normativity – it explains why they do what they do, that is, what they value

Logical & biological necessity

The biological axiom is not a matter of philosophical or scientific speculation or contention – it is our most succinct way of expressing a basic assumption that underpins the study of biology – a point of departure for biological thinking. As Richard Dawkins expresses it: ‘We are survival machines‘.[4]

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.

In a world of cold and detached facts there can be no logical grounds for value. We must simply agree with Aristotle that we can only obtain values by assuming a perspective. The perspective we assume is that of ‘life’. As living organisms we have only one conclusion – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ – that ‘it is better to live than not live’.

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

Denying 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 1– the biological axiom is not a logical necessity, but it is a necessary condition of biological existence.


The biological axiom is a statement of fact – it describes the way organisms are. But it is also a statement of their function and purpose – it explains what they are ‘for’. It is also a statement of agency – it tells us what they ‘do’. Even more than this, it explains in general terms ‘how’ and ‘why’ they do what they do, what they ‘value’.

These are some universal properties of  organisms that account for unconscious (mindless) and conscious (mindful) goals as organisms respond to circumstance (exist). It also explains how there can be mindless ‘beneficiaries’ of circumstance (according to the axiom), and how there can be mindless ‘preferences’, ‘interests’, and ‘values’.

Biological Axiom 2 – axiom 1 is a combined statement of fact, value, and purpose: it explains how all biological agents can also become beneficiaries by changing their circumstances

Humans, though subject to the biological axiom, are not consciously motivated by its (ultimate) precepts, instead they pursue the more immediate (proximate) goals of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing.

Biological Axiom 3 – humans pursue the ultimate ends of biological axiom 1 through the proximate ends of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing


Minimally, agency is the demonstration of some independence of action. However, we tend to associate agency with the human paradigm of the individual (or social) power to act and make intentional choices that can influence our own and other peoples’ lives and circumstances. Put simply, we like to think of ourselves as rational agents whose choices conform to our beliefs and desires. Most obvious here are conscious human mental faculties like foresight (anticipation) and hindsight (memory); the accumulation of knowledge; the ability to reason and make choices; the expression of value (individual and collective preferences); and of intention.

Human agency

We are inclined to treat agency in terms of human conscious intention. However, nature is graded from the mindless to the mindful, and much of the behaviour we associate with human agency has unconscious evolutionary origins, including human moral behaviour.

It is easiest for us to understand the diversification and complexification of concepts by moving from familiar (human) concepts to their simpler and ancestral origins. The concepts covered here are self; purpose; intention; reason; and value.

But first we must come to terms with the way we frame our ideas using human-talk, not as metaphor but, even so, from a human perspective.

Biological agency

When comparing the animate to the inanimate it is immediately evident that life manifests a unified and purposeful autonomy that is not present in a rock or a dead body. Life is also more about process and change than it is about substance. But, more than this: life has a scientifically investigable order that is different from the scientific order we investigate in inanimate matter. The kind of order we find in organisms signals the agency that is evolutionarily connected to our own human agency.

However, human agency is by no means always conscious agency; it is informed by unconscious reasons, desires, and inclinations. This is a connection we have to our mindless biological ancestors.

Biological agency[11] – when viewed through the prism of agency, living organisms (and to a lesser extent cells) are usefully characterized as semi-autonomous, unified, and goal-directed open systems within a life-environment continuum. Their agency is manifest in a propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom) over one generation (short-term) and many generations (long-term).

As short-term systems organisms process and regulate a flow 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 of materials and sensation-processing. Outputs include material waste, energy, and behaviour that is both internally (action), and externally (reaction, response) initiated.

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).

Living organisms express agency by influencing or initiating the events occurring both within themselves and in interaction with their surroundings. This semi-autonomous activity is best understood as promoting survival, reproduction, and flourishing as expressed in the biological axiom. In human-talk, the behaviour of non-conscious organisms favours their own existence and perpetuation by mindlessly increasing the probabilities of some outcomes over others; essentially those outcomes that are ‘beneficial’ to the organism, that is, promoting the conditions of the biological axiom.

This filtration, selection, or ‘favouring’ of some outcomes rather than others, and the way organisms in their activity display ‘choices’ or ‘preferences’ for one situation over another are what give life its ‘agency’ or ‘direction’ and a major characteristic that distinguishes the animate from the inanimate.

In the continuum of organic life, the emergence of complexity is one outcome on the evolutionary path from a common ancestor and agency seems to gather with the emergence and elaboration of the nervous system.

There is ample opportunity within this schema for intentional and agential language, especially when the words have generally acceptable abstraction and generality – such as interests goals, and strategies.

Organisms absorb information about their environments via the ‘sensations’ received by their particular sensory system. This is then incorporated in the inner processing that precedes outward action and reaction as ‘behaviour’ or ‘response’. The physical structures associated with each phase (input, process, output) are more or less complex, depending on the organism, and more or less similar to human systems.

Human agents receive food energy and the sensory information associated with (mostly) sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste which is then processed metabolically and both unconsciously and consciously in the brain by conscious deliberation, with action and reaction output as behaviour including exhalation and excretion.

The ‘human’ words we use for human-talk vary in the strength of human association. For example, the words ‘self’ and ‘behaviour’ are uncontroversial while consciousness words like ‘want’ and ‘know’ are unacceptable applied to non-humans. ‘Preference’ seems slightly less ‘human’ than ‘choice’, ‘need’ or ‘want’, and so on.

Organisms approximate the human condition to a greater or lesser degree. Though much of human activity is based on unconscious biological activity, it is the conscious decision-making that provides the philosophical challenge.


How can we say that a cuckoo ‘deceives’ its host; that a swallow ‘realizes’ it is time for its spring migration; that natural selection ‘chooses’ or ‘favours’ one outcome over another; that the snail ‘wants’ to escape the sunlight; and that the spider ‘knows’ how to weave its web? These are all anthropomorphisms – the reading of human intentional psychology into nature. They are cognitive metaphor. It is only ‘as if’ non-human organisms have the intentional properties of human minds.

And yet . . . if we regard the purpose- and function-talk of non-human agency as a cognitive metaphor or heuristic, then we deny the graded physical reality, the evolutionarily based similarity of organic structures and functions. The ‘as if’ of metaphor is a binary present/absent (not a more-or-less) conditional.

This is a strange inversion of reasoning – an anthropocentric mental leger-de-main that has caused untold biological damage as we conflate non-human with non-existence. By dismissing biological similarities in this way, we are not only diminishing their significance, we are also denying their reality.

There are several reasons why we use human-talk:

. anthropocentric cognitive bias (anthropomorphism)
. genuine metaphor
. lack of appropriate vocabulary e.g. not having technical terms to differentiate the consciousnesses of a worm, a fish, a dog, and a human
. our intuitive acknowledgement of inherent (real) similarity and connection

This mix of motives behind human-talk has generated long-standing semantic and conceptual confusion, scientific imprecision, and a 2000-year-old metaphysical debate about teleology.

Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (much of the time) it attempts to represent similarities that exist (are real) in nature; they are not just in human minds.

In science we (mostly) use the language of intentional psychology not as metaphor, or because of our anthropomorphic bias, but because of similarities in nature that have real, if distant, evolutionary connection. Human-talk in relation to organisms is, in most cases, very different from a sentence like ‘the river ‘wants‘ to reach the sea’ and for reasons that should now be clear.

In the absence of adequate vocabulary to distinguish between the many gradations of biological agency I will, from now on, like all biologists, resort to human-talk while recognizing that this vocabulary has been extended beyond its usual semantic range.


The word ‘self’ is uncontroversial in biology. We intuitively recognize the independent agency of organisms that is not present in inanimate objects. This unitary agency we naturally refer to as a ‘self’ using expressions like ‘self-replication’ and ‘self-regulation’. But an amoeba is hardly a ‘self’ in the same way that you and I are selves: it does not have conscious intentions. What we are recognizing, and acknowledging in language, is not the conscious intentionality, but the evolutionarily ancestral commonality of individual (unified) agency.


Intentionality is usually regarded as a strictly human property of mind. As such, any talk of intentionality in non-human or non-sentient organisms must be dismissed: it becomes part of what we mean by ‘intentionality’.  But its use in biology cannot be ignored and so it is assumed that we are resorting to cognitive metaphor as a heuristic device – a way of helping us understand nature by making it sound like ourselves? To view the situation otherwise is to break the rules of semantics.

But if, like consciousness, we consider intentionality as existing in nature ‘by degree’, then we see its presence within non-conscious organisms (albeit mindlessly, unconsciously, and in crude form) in truly astonishing and real, not metaphorical, ways. When we acknowledge the reality of nature’s continuum then we naturalize both human-talk and the idea of agency in nature.

We can now study in nature many of the mental faculties that we assumed were strictly human including: reasoning, foresight, memory and hindsight, foresight, valuation, purpose, and sensation all demonstrated in nature’s purposive (functional) design.

When we use agential language like this in relation to non-human organisms, we say that we are being anthropomorphic. By using words that usually describe our own conscious and intentional behaviour,


Philosopher Dan Dennett has tackled this problem by assuming what he calls the intentional stance. He says:

‘Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.’

Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 17.

Dennett points out that, regardless of the language being used, if this method ‘works’ as a form of intentional system analysis then it is not ‘as if’ the system is intentional, it actually ‘is’ intentional. We should not be sidetracked by the language.

But most of nature is mindless. Is unconscious intent possible, or is that a contradiction in terms? (However, it does not assume conscious intent, rather it investigates the historical reasons why natural selection prioritized or ‘favoured’ particular structures, processes, and behaviours. Non-human organisms do not have conscious intentions but they are, nevertheless, mindless agents with real purposes. That is how we explain functional and adaptive behaviour: not as a heuristic device but as a way of explaining nature.

The question posed by anthropomorphism concerns the distinction between what is in the world, and what is in our minds. When, or to what extent, are we reading our own subjectivity into the world?

Sometimes anthropomorphism is blatant. Clearly a river does not ‘want’ to flow to the sea: certainly not in the same way that I ‘want’ to swim in the sea on a hot day. The river ‘wanting’ is added by my mind.

Sometimes anthropomorphism depends more subtly on our intuitions, so it is not so simple – more fuzzy, and nuanced – perhaps a matter of degree. Does a tree ‘want’ light and water? Does a worm ‘want’ damp earth? Does a dog ‘want’ its owner to come home from work when it looks out of the window at the time when the owner usually comes home? Perhaps ‘wanting’ is most closely associated with intentional human-consciousness-talk. But there is, nevertheless, a strange sense in which we understand that trees ‘need’, ‘require’, ‘depend on’ or ‘want’ light and water in a different way from rivers needing the sea. And pet lovers will certainly recognize a dog wanting, longing, or pining, so perhaps ‘wanting’ could be regarded as not just human-consciousness-talk but sentience-talk as well?

Then there is misattributed anthropomorphism – the self-evident, albeit unconscious and mindless, goals and purposes we see in nature, like the highly organized and purposive behaviour of ants and bees (but, in fact, almost every aspect of nature). There are obvious reasons, purposes, and goals for insect activity that existed in nature long before human minds came on the scene. If we insist that ‘purpose’ is consciousness-talk, then is the activity of an ant colony purposeless in the same way that the flowing of a river is purposeless? As reason-representers we know otherwise.

Part of the difficulty is that we lack the language to express functional gradation in the same way that we use the language of analogy or homology to express structural differences – so we fall back on the language of human cognition.

We can detect in all organisms, for example, the functional homologues of intention, value, sensation, memory and hindsight, learning, foresight, and reason. Clearly the language of cognition is (mostly) scientifically inappropriate. But we use putatively anthropomorphic words like ‘interests’, and ‘preferences’ – not just because we are innately anthropomorphic, but because we do not have the words that we need to express functional equivalence. Where is the anthropomorphic line to be drawn as biologists speak endlessly of ‘organization’, ‘regulation’, ‘communication’ etc. It makes nonsense of biology to regard this as unadulterated cognitive metaphor.

Being evolving creatures, organisms have the potential for ‘self-correction’, part of which is the ability to respond in different ways, to be flexible and adapt, both short- and long-term.

These elements of mindless agency warrant closer inspection.

When we say ‘The eye is for seeing’ we are acknowledging that the existence of the eye is a consequence of a selection process. Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’.  And, in nature, where there is an aim, a ‘for’, and also a beneficiary,[58] then there is purpose that is independent of human intention – purpose that is in nature, not just in human minds as ‘as if’ metaphor.

Mindless intentionality!

We think of agents as having interests, goals, and strategies.[9] This idea can be translated into the non-human world of biology by regarding organisms as having the goal of survival and reproduction and evolved traits as strategies for achieving this goal.[10]


Darwin described the way characteristics like eyes and legs, leaves and spines, arose in nature and had adaptive significance: they were ‘for’ walking, seeing, food production and deterrence. In this way he naturalized purpose and function in nature, and in so doing provided an explanation for teleology (purpose) that was embedded in nature itself, not imposed from outside by, say, humans or God. Darwin did not explain purpose away by connecting it inseparably with human intention. The purpose of a prosthetic leg is established by the intentions of its inventor. Legs that occur in nature also have purposes, even though they were created by nature itself, not by human conscious ingenuity. Moreover, the purposes in nature arise through the adaptive feedback of natural selection; they do not require the foresight we associate with consciousness.

In sum: teleology is OK. Biologists need not feel guilty when using the language of agency in biology.

‘Direction’ is instilled in matter through the iterative process of natural selection. An organism contains within its genome both its evolutionary history and present-day potential. It is equipped with the means of reacting to present conditions in ways that enhance survival. The genome brings a physical ‘memory’ to the present-day world. Natural selection then adds ‘reason’ as a process of ‘self-correction’ – the ability to ‘learn’ from past mistakes – the mindless capacity for ‘foresight’. In combination, these physical factors give nature mindless purpose and agency.

The propensity to promote some outcomes over others, to restrict the range of possible outcomes, creates a ‘direction’ or ‘path’. Aristotle recognized the way that the structures, behaviour, and processes of all organisms, operate in a manner that tends to preserve and further their own existence (in accordance with the biological axiom). This pervasive goal-directedness of all aspects of nature he referred to as telos, which we refer to as ‘purpose’. The fact that it occurs in a mindless and unconscious way that is only evident to humans, does not negate its existence in nature. Certainly, only humans (as conscious and rational purpose-representers) can represent and appreciate purpose in nature. But that does not mean that humans create nature’s agency.


The power of the biological axiom is that it is, in part, an account of the origin of value. Survival, reproduction, and flourishing are what organisms are ‘for’; they are what grounds their existence. This includes humans.

The grounding of human morality in biological facts is called moral naturalism and it contrasts with the view that ethics is a strictly human affair. The prevailing view is that the entire domain of ethics be confined to creatures with ‘interests’. In other words, conscious and rational decision-makers viz. humans. Although in recent times the ethical domain has been extended to include sentient creatures that can feel pleasure and pain. 

The thesis of moral naturalism developed here embraces a moral realm that includes all living creatures, taking account of their graded complexity. Perhaps anthropocentric ethics and its grades of reason and sentience go part way to an appreciation of the ethical  significance of all nature. 

Biological Axiom 5 – the predisposition of organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish grounds all biological normativity, including that of humans

Anthropocentric ethics insists that there is no logical necessity in the transition from statements of fact to statements of value. Because I feel ill, there is no logical necessity to visit a doctor. There may be no logical necessity for values to flow from biological facts but organisms, of their very nature, have no choice: for an organism to exist without value is to deny life. Values flow from biological facts as a matter of biological necessity. And when our very existence is at stake, biological necessity trumps logical necessity.

If you accept the reasoning above, then you have accepted a substantive case for biological normativity. The significance of this is that once the biological axiom is accepted as a normative statement, then we have an answer to the question ‘What are organisms for?’ and much follows.

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 as an expression of agency. Agency is not just the mindful purpose and value of human conscious intention, it is also the mindless purpose (as the goal-directed activity of all other organisms), all united under the purpose of survival and reproduction.

If value derives from within organisms according to the biological axiom, then we know what organisms are ‘for’, ‘why they exist‘. We can then identify ‘goods‘ (values) that are independent of human minds.

Living organisms would still strive to survive and reproduce (albeit unconsciously) in the absence of humans. And the ways (means) of achieving this goal are (unconsciously) valued (selectively filtered) to reach ends. This selective filtering (as a process that increases the probabilities of particular outcomes) is a capacity that arises within organisms and finds its extreme expression in the choices that express human values. Organisms (agents) exist (fact), and they exist to survive, reproduce, and flourish (fact, value, function (purpose)).

But isn’t this a metaphorical reading of human values into a value-neutral nature? Isn’t it imputing human values to creatures that cannot possibly express value? How can we possibly claim that an oak tree has values!

The drive for life to survive and reproduce is so pervasive in nature that trying to remove value and value-talk from biology is as difficult as trying to remove purpose-talk. We are not being intellectually slovenly when we treat organisms are ‘agents’ with ‘interests’, albeit unconscious ones. Whether we give them ‘rights’ in return is another matter. All values are ultimately derived from the purposive drive of biological agents to survive and reproduce.


Like Aristotle, we are inclined to regard reason as a supremely human faculty. How could nature possibly reason?

Well, Aristotle also pointed out that ‘nature does nothing in vain’ . . . by which he meant that nature is drenched in reasons – reasons for lives, processes, behaviours, and outcomes.

The modern idea being targeted by Aristotle is that of adaptation, which brings with it the idea of value. Adaptation is anything that enhances an organism’s fitness – that improves its likelihood of survival – that ‘benefits’ or ‘promotes’ the organism vis-a-vis the biological axiom. To understand and explain nature and organisms we must reverse-engineer these reasons.

But what kinds of reasons are mindless reasons? Here we must remember that in asking why an organism is as it is, we are not inferring mental motivation (a cognitive attribute of intentional psychology), but why particular traits were prioritized or ‘favoured’ by natural ‘selection’. We must try to understand the adaptive significance of every aspect of life – the reasons why structures and processes have functional and instrumental value – without inferring the metaphor of human conscious states.

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

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

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

This begins with the laws of physics which limit possible outcomes, and the paths that must be followed as they bring about ‘filtered’ outcomes.

Natural ‘selection’ then, in turn, constrains further, the possible organic outcomes in a manner more akin to human reason. With increase in physical complexity comes increase in conceptual complexity. Behavioural plasticity is then precursor of cognition (Okasha).

Bacteria to Bach
Philosopher Dan Dennett examines the steps that occurred on the path from mindless reasons to conscious deliberation.[6]

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

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

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

Information & communication

Though yet to be philosophically developed, since the 1950s and the DNA revolution, biology has accepted the language of information, communication, and their processing (editing, coding, translation, transmission, transcription, messages, messengers, signals, sending, receiving – and feedback).

Just as words are not just ink on a page or pixels on a screen, so genes are not just DNA. We must wrestle with the idea that DNA is information that re-creates itself, and that humans are ‘just DNA’s way of making more DNA’!

Heredity, especially, seems to bring with it the incorporation of historical information into present structures and processes: genes are not just physical molecules but coded information communicated across time.

Though difficult to pinpoint, it does appear that organisms ‘benefit’ from the historical information contained in their genes as a kind of ‘memory’ in a way that has no correlates in the inanimate world. But this needs careful philosophical unpacking. Certainly we must accept that, during development, especially, there is an extraordinarily complex system of chemical and other ‘signalling’ going on both internally, and in relation to environments at various scales.

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 may be added:

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


Adaptation – the evolution of traits with functions that enhance fitness
Agent – something that acts, or brings things about. In biology – an organism as the products of evolution and adaptation. A (semi)autonomous individual (organism) as an open system with flows of inputs, internal processing, and outputs as action and reaction in relation to surroundings.
(sometimes extended to include genes and groups or natural selection itself). Other potentially mindless agents include cities and computers
Agential realism – the claim that organisms exhibit agency as goal-directedness as short-term flexibility in response to environment, and long-term adaptation (as fitness enhancement): most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
Autopoiesis – self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis
Human-talk – the application of language usually restricted to humans and human intentional psychology to non-human organisms
Normative realism – the view that all normativity has its ancestral origin in biology and the biological axiom
Purpose – the object for which anything is done, or made, or for which it exists; an end or aim; what something is ‘for’
Teleological realismthe claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts

Key points


  • We acknowledge life through the agency of living organisms with a predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish, this being a biologically necessary condition for their existence (the biological axiom).
  • humans pursue the ultimate ends of biological axiom I through the proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing
  • 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.
  • 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.

Media Gallery

What is Life? – with Paul Nurse

The Royal Institute – 2019 – 59:51

Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent Are Other Animals?

World Science Festival – 2020 – 1:33:46


First published on the internet – 13 Sept 2021



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

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

X-Ray of stingray
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