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


What is life?


‘We understand and explain life as viewed from many perspectives and on many scales. From our human perspective the most familiar scale is that of autonomous organisms acting on, and responding to, their internal and external environments. It is this goal-directed (and therefore purposive and agential) process that most obviously unites life in all its diversity. As open and dynamic systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information.


The many proximate goals of biological activity that express biological agency are unified in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom).


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

– For a 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, agency & evolution, and morality see the Epilogue


Science has failed to produce a definition of life that has found general acceptance within the scientific community.

About 2500 years ago ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted a unique feature of living systems: they were goal-directed in a way that inanimate and dead things were not.

The orientation of behaviour towards ends or goals Aristotle referred to as telos.[33] He also noted that biological explanations were constrained by this life-defining characteristic. That is, to be meaningful, biological descriptions of organisms – including their structures, processes, and behaviour – must address the question, What is it for – what is its purpose? [38] We understand intuitively that asking, What are hands and eyes for? is a meaningful question that can receive a sensible scientific answer, while asking, What are mountains and the moon for? does not make sense.

The goal-directedness of all organisms, not just humans, is an objective fact.[41] This means that biologists have no option but to adopt this purposive perspective on their subject – treating all organisms as agents.

Without understanding what organisms, their structures, processes, and behaviours are ‘for’, biology becomes a list of dissociated facts. Thus, much of biology is about reverse engineering as we describe organisms, not just passively in terms of their material composition (as we would describe a rock or the moon), but in terms ends – as functions and purposes.

Since the Scientific Revolution, up to the present day, mainstream science has regarded the purpose that we see in nature as a projection of our own human purpose onto nature. Purpose, it is claimed, is a ‘minded’ concept that has no connection with mindless organisms . . . to say that mindless organisms have purposes is a contradiction in terms. Aristotelian teleology and the notion of biological agency are unfortunate relics of antiquity.

Our understanding of biological agency has gathered significance with the emergence of a completely new scientific worldview during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This article revisits the question ‘What is life?’ It then makes a critical investigation of the view, still widely held, that the only genuine agency in nature is human agency – that the agency we attribute to nature is not real agency, but the metaphorical as if projection of human agency and purpose onto mostly mindless, purposeless, and merely agent-like organisms. It is argued that this is an unscientific and anthropocentric elevation of minded conscious intention, and a dismissive downgrading of mindless biological agency. By treating the purpose and agency we see in nature as cognitive metaphor or heuristic we deny the real agential and evolutionarily graded reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life.

By denying organisms agency they assume an equivalence with the inanimate world of the dead.

Having established the most obvious human perception of life, a follow-up article on biological agency describes how a simple biological axiom provides a practical and universal definition of what it is to be a living being. This facilitates a more enlightened and objective scientific evolutionary approach to human agency as being just one manifestation of biological agency (albeit one that is minded, highly evolved, and of great human interest).

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

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

Contemporary cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this modern scientific worldview of evolutionary continuity and connection in mind, it is now time to examine more closely what it is that makes life unique.

What is life?

In the 21st century the question What is life? remains unanswered.[36] Each of the numerous biological disciplines has its own perspective on life with its own favoured definition. Overviews of these different approaches, problems with marginal cases, the philosophical difficulties associated with definition etc. are described in Encyclopaedia Britannica and The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, while Wikipedia offers the definition of life that is favoured by NASA:a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution‘ or ‘matter that can reproduce itself and evolve as survival dictates‘.

More than matter

The temptation to find some material ingredient as the key to life was scotched by Aristotle who pointed out that to be a living human being must entail more than the matter out of which we are constructed. We cannot be just the matter out of which we are constructed because that matter changes frequently over a lifetime. Even an artefact like a ship has parts that can, in principle, all be replaced while the ship retains its identity. So, both an organism and a ship have something in addition to their matter that makes them what they are. And this ‘something’ is more than a particular order, structure, or form – as a shape or configuration.

Every living organism is goal-directed; it has a unity of purpose – to survive, reproduce, and flourish – and its parts function in support of the organism attaining these goals. It is a functionally organized agent with a unity of purpose.[4] Organisms express purpose, their parts express functions.[5]

When we consider a species, its individuals also consist of many different shapes, sizes and material constituents, so what we mean by ‘species’ cannot refer to material composition alone.[5] Finally, if matter is just ‘stuff’, then we clearly need to say something about its structure or organization if we are to proceed with further explanation, or make additional inferences.

Certainly, in the case of living organisms, identity lies not so much in material constituents, more in the continuity of functional structure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In spite of these major breakthroughs, biologists are still unable to find a consensus on what we mean by ‘life’. The many universal characteristics of living organisms[12] currently defy crystallization into a neat summary package. Life is too complex, it is assumed.

Key characteristics of life are presented to budding biologists as an ever-expanding shopping list of universal properties unearthed by a proliferation of new fields of research.[13]  So, the search for a simple all-embracing definition of life continues as new disciplines and interests add their voices to our scientific understanding of what it is to be a living organism.

There is a strong sense in which organisms are chemical hardware that embodies a complex digital and analogue information management system . . .  software whose instructions began at the dawn of life and which can be modified, replicated, and passed on to new generations, potentially ad infinitum.  Could information and the language of codes, signals, and transformations be the key that unlocks the door to life?[32]

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

From what perspective?

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

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

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

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

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

On this view we investigate the world through multiple systems of representation – each system of equal validity – and whose representational efficacy is pragmatically determined. There is no ultimate physical reality that we can articulate: ontology itself is perspectival. Nothing in the physical world is more ‘real’ (fundamental) than anything else: a boson or fermion is no more ‘real’ than an elephant or a daffodil . . . or – for that matter – energy, number, quantum fields, consciousness, or information. There are simply diverse (epistemological) ways of interpreting the world depending on our interests and goals.

This is not a form of intellectual relativity but of interpretation. Each representational system has its own standards and measures of excellence and efficacy, often with its own domain-specific principles, procedures, terminologies, and explanatory goals that are integrated with other systems and capable of endless refinement.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scientific Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article on biological agency provides a simple, practical, and common-sense outline of: what it is to be a living being; how human agency is a minded evolutionary extension of biological agency; and why we frequently resort to human-talk (anthropomorphism) when describing non-human organisms.

A human perspective

In science there can be no privileged perspective on the world. Each biological discipline makes its own particular contribution to our understanding of life, and it does this in its own way. And in all scientific study we try to minimize the influence of our human presence.

Does this mean that we can say nothing definitive about the essential characteristics of life?

Once again, Aristotle comes to the rescue. He, as much as anyone in recorded history, struggled for ‘best explanation’ aided by his toolbox of four ‘(be)causes’:

Material cause  –   what is it made of?
Efficient cause  –   what produced it, how did it come to be?
Formal cause    –   what is its essential defining feature?
Final cause        –   what is its goal; what is it for?

Aristotle’s four causes remain a powerful combination today. They are both static and dynamic, including both past and present, while at the same time incorporating both structure and function.  By considering potentiality, actuality, and the temporal sequence of efficient cause they allow for history, development, purpose, and agency. They explain the way things are now, but also account for change by explaining how they came to be. There is ample consideration of organisms as process. And the meaning of each ‘because’ allows some flexibility of interpretation (Aristotle pointed out that the Greek word aition as ’cause’ had various senses).

Of special significance is the fact that the 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, while formal and final causes offer a synthetic, integrating, unifying, agential and purposeful perspective.

The Scientific Revolution was dominated by men who were mathematicians and astronomers describing a mechanistic world of matter in motion. They abandoned formal and final cause, and in so doing they reduced life to the material and efficient causes that explained the inanimate world so well. By restricting purpose and agency to humans, and without the benefit of the theory of evolution, humans had minimal continuity with the community of life. Humans with conscious deliberating minds were set over, above, and apart from all else, bar God.

So, what do these ‘becauses’ look like today, 2500 years after the foundation of biology by Aristotle?

As already pointed out – there is wiggle-room for interpretation here – but the following is an attempt to explain life on Aristotle’s terms:

What is the matter that life is made of? Living matter consists of functionally organized (purposeful and agential) individuals (organisms) described by science at many structural and functional scales

What produced life, how did it come to be? Life originated as matter that is goal-directed – that expresses agency – the entire community of life arising by descent with modification from common ancestry

What is the essential defining feature of life? Life’s shared defining features are communicated between generations as information contained within a genetic code

What is life’s goal – what is it for? The goal of life is to survive, reproduce, and flourish

These ideas are loosely adapted into the opening paragraph at the head of this article.

Aristotle summarized his work in biology by using an uncharacteristically mystical and poetic phrase. From more than 2000 years ago he passed to us the message that all living things ‘partake in the eternal and divine‘. Darwin would never have made such a statement. We are tempted to smile and allow Aristotle a momentary and moving literary flourish, but this would be a mistake. His scientific investigations began with the examination of change and the paradox of permanence in change. One pillar of his teleology was the observation that though individuals perish, their form persists from generation to generation . . . what today we might call the immortality of our genes. To the Greek mind, and ours, immortality was equated with the divine. The most natural function of living things is to produce others like themselves – and in so doing they are immortal, participating in the eternal and divine. Nothing that is perishable is able to ‘remain the same and one in number’ but through reproduction it ‘remains not the same, but like the same, not one in number but one in form.’ (Anima II, 415a23-b7).

What is still not scientifically acknowledged is that Darwin did not explain Aristotle’s teleology away. He gave nature’s purpose, agency, and design scientific credibility. He re-connected humans to their biologically graded origins.

The agency and purpose that exists in nature, the goal-directed behaviour of all organisms, was present in nature before the advent of human minds. Its intricate design greatly surpasses any human attempts at design.[39] Nature created human bodies and human brains – and human agency (not vice-versa).

So, if the purpose, agency, and design that is present in nature is not imposed from outside by some intelligent or vital force – and not mapped onto the world in some way by the human mind, then it must have arisen from within nature itself. Species-specific designs are repeated from generation to generation, again and again in a path-dependent way. Design in nature produces functional adaptations that are ‘for the good’ or ‘for the better’ and goals or ends with beneficiaries are acceptably referred to as purposes. None of this entails the supernatural or mind-dependent metaphor. All of this was well known and clearly stated by Aristotle who called it telos . . . but 2000 years would pass before Darwin eventually provided a scientific account of the origin of this intrinsic goal-directedness.

Our confusion arises from what philosopher Dan Dennett has called Darwin’s ‘strange inversion of reasoning‘, our refusal to accept that natural selection is ‘for without foresight‘ producing organic wholes that are ‘competent without comprehension‘ (Dennett) . . . that purpose ‘bubbles up from the bottom, not trickles down from the top‘ (Dennett). Nature created human bodies and human brains – and human agency (not vice-versa). Human arrogance refuses to admit our humble origins.

When Richard Dawkins states that biology is ‘The study of complicated things that give the appearance of being designed for a purpose’[56] he is making a statement that uncompromisingly links ‘purpose’ to ‘conscious intention’. In doing this he ignores the way teleology is firmly embedded in both biological discourse and nature itself, and he joins those who consider the investigation of purpose and function in biology as a matter of heuristic convenience. In so doing he restricts the word ‘purpose’ to human intention, downplaying the miraculous purposive achievements of natural selection (including ourselves). In a bid to exorcise from biology any hint of the Argument from Design he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.[57]

Because we usually encounter design and purpose as a consequence of human planning (which includes hindsight and foresight) this does not mean that purpose in nature cannot be real. Limiting purpose-talk to situations involving human subjectivity renders natural teleology, by definition, a human construct. This article and others on this web site have argued that teleology did not arrive on earth abruptly with the human intellect and that purpose and design in nature are real; they are part of the fabric of the natural world, not a creation of our minds, and that is why attempts to purge biology of purpose-talk have failed. Though consciousness-talk is, on occasion, used as metaphor in biology this does not mean that there is only apparent purpose and design in nature. Design and purpose in nature are not metaphorical but literal.

To remove teleology from biology is not just the harmless elimination of metaphor, it is a reduction that diminishes our biological understanding of what exists in the texture of the world. It places living matter on a similar footing to inanimate matter in the realm of purpose, design, function, and value (making the distinction between human values on the one hand, and facts of science on the other, appear clear-cut), and diminishes the wonder of what natural selection has created.

This is not just a semantic debate about what we mean by the word ‘purpose’; it is a metaphysical argument about what exists in ‘reality’ as our best possible scientific explanation.

It is OK to ascribe purpose and design to nature, to use the word ‘for’ in explaining the purposes of organisms as whole individuals, and the functions of their parts, and to treat organisms as real, not metaphorical, agents.


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

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

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

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

Organisms are autonomous biological agents with a unity of purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the sentence -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Adaptation (biological) – the evolution of traits with functions that enhance fitness; the capacity for self-correction - in the short-term through behavioural flexibility, and over the long term by genetic change
Agency - (biological agency) the mostly mindless autonomous capacity to act on, and react to, inner and outer environments with a goal-directed unity of purpose as stated by the biological axiom. (Human agency) biological agency as directed y all the resources of the human mind, including reason
Agent - something that acts or brings things about. Mindless inorganic agents include objects like missiles, cities, and computers. In biology - an organism as autonomous matter with the capacity to behave in a unified goal-directed way as stated by the biological axiom (sometimes extended to include genes, groups, or other entities, even natural selection itself) as a (semi)autonomous individual with inputs as flows of energy, materials, and information, internal processing, and outputs as energy, waste, action and reaction in relation to inner and outer environments. An organism motivated by real goals (these may be mindless, that is, without conscious intention)
Agential realism - the claim that non-human organisms exhibit agency in a mindless way, and that humans combine both mindless and minded agency: the grounding of cognitive biological metaphors in non-cognitive biological facts
Anthropocentric - to view and interpret circumstances in terms of human experience and values
Anthropomorphism - the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities
Apomorphy - a specialized trait or character that is unique to a group or species: a character state (such as the presence of feathers) that is not present in an ancestral form
Autopoiesis - self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis
Behaviour (biology) - actions performed by a biological agent (or, rarely, its parts)
Behavioural ecology – the study of the evolution of animal behavior in response to environmental pressures
Biological agency - 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
Bioteleological realism - the claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
Cognitive ethology – the study of the influence of conscious awareness and intention on the behaviour of an animal
Cognitive metaphor - a metaphor used in the context of human intentional psychology
Complementary properties – the properties instantiated by the relata of a biological simile
Derived concept – a concept with a narrow semantic range
Emergence - as used here - the origin of novel objects, properties, or relations in the universe that warrant human categorization
Evolutionary biology – the study of evolutionary processes (notably natural selection, common descent, speciation) that created the community of life
Fitness - a measure of reproductive success (survival) in relation to both the genotype and phenotype in a given environment
Function - also referred to as adaptive significance or purpose. In agential terms it helps to regard the characters of organisms as having functions while organisms themselves, as independent agents, have purposes and goals
Genotype - the genetic constitution of an individual organism, encoded in the nucleus of every cell
Goal - the object towards which behaviour is orientated (goals may be mindless, minded but unconscious, or conscious)
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
Organism - autonomous agential matter with a behavioual orientation towards survival, reproduction, and 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)
Values – (biological agency) the motivation for the behaviour of all living organisms grounded in the ultimate, universal and objective goals of the biological axiom. (Human agency) – the attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations that guide human behaviour

Media Gallery

Your Genome

From DNA to protein – 3D
7 Jan 2015 – 2:41

– – –

First published on the internet under heading Life as agency – 1 March 2019
. . . 24 August 2022 – substantial revision into the form What is life?
. . . 12 December 2022 – revision and addition of concluding paragraphs


Purposeful (functional) structure demonstrating biological agency

Shared X-Ray image of stingray by loctrizzle

X-Ray of stingray
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