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


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

– 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


W e still have no agreed definition of what life is, but we can certainly say what it is for when we examine it from a biological point of view.

All organisms display goal-directed behaviour, and where there is goal-directed behaviour there is agency and purpose. It is this biological agency that most obviously distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead.

About 2500 years ago ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this end-directedness we find in the natural world telos.[33] He also noted that biological explanations were constrained by this life-defining characteristic. That is, to be meaningful, biological explanations of organisms – including their structures, processes, and behaviour – must address the question, what is it for – what is its purpose? [38]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary cosmology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is life?

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

The temptation to find some material constituent that does this job was effectively demolished by Aristotle who pointed out that to be a living human being must entail more than the matter out of which we are constructed – it must entail something in addition, some kind of order, structure, or form – not just as shape or configuration, but as a functional whole.

We cannot be just the matter out of which we are constructed because that matter changes often over a lifetime, and even in the case of an artefact like a ship its parts can, in principle, all be replaced while the ship retains its identity. 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. Finally, matter is just ‘stuff’: we need to say something about its structure or organization before we can 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 biologists as an ever-expanding shopping list of universal properties unearthed by proliferating fields of research.[13]  So, the search for a simple all-embracing definition of life continues as new disciplines and interests add their voices to our scientific understanding of what it is to be a living organism.

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 a clash between old and new scientific paradigms.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The biological axiom
The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms are unified (can be summarized) in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish - referred to here as the biological axiom - sometimes expressed in more abstract terms as 'fitness maximization'.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purpose created minds: minds did not create purpose.


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

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

We humans have given precedence to human agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (that of intentional psychology) to describe the uniquely human expression of biological agency. An objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task. We use minded language (cognitive metaphor) in relation to non-minded organisms not because we believe they have cognitive faculties , but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile) and because we do not have the technical scientific vocabulary needed to describe the agency of each individual species.

Anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution, not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth, and related to the third, we make an agency error – whereby anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it is evident that, in general, such language is not, in fact, referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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First published on the internet under heading Life as agency – 1 March 2019
. . . 24 August 2022 – substantial revision into the form What is life?


Purposeful (functional) structure demonstrating biological agency

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