Natural agents

Within the class of the natural agents, we find ourselves: humans. And you might intuitively say “Of course!” We usually consider ourselves the prototype of an agent, given our track record of turning our environments upside down for them to suit our purposes and serve our needs. However, it is exactly our species’ tremendous global impact that makes us ill-suited for a general example: it does not take our transformative powers to be a natural agent; it does not require consciousness or higher brain functions; it does not need a brain at all, nor any nervous system.

In fact, any biological organism belongs to the natural agents: animals, plants, fungi, and all unicellular life forms. Such broad inclusivity can seem counterintuitive, hence it deserves a proper explanation. There is broad agreement on the agency of animals; and there is a growing consensus that plants are far more influential than first meets the eye. However, taking the idea to extremes and claiming that organisms such as sponges, fungi, algae, amoebae, and even bacteria share this capacity might raise some eyebrows.

The case I am making takes considerable inspiration from neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, who describe the evolutionary development of minds throughout the history of life, from early beginnings to the complexity of the human mind. In ‘The Journey of the Mind, How Thinking Emerged from Chaos‘ [W.W. Norton & Company, 2022], they use present-day species to illustrate the evolutionary breakthroughs that ultimately gave rise to the complex mental life of Homo Sapiens. While their journey leads them along the animal branch of the tree of life, what matters for my case here is the starting point of their journey: archaea. These unicellular organisms are amongst the oldest known living beings (hence their name), older than animals, plants, even fungi: roaming around on this planet for about 3.5 billion years. No matter how ‘basic’ these organisms appear in our highbrow anthropocentric view, they already are equipped with the means —very rudimentary, but still— to sense their environment, to make a decision, and to take action accordingly. As we will see later, these three abilities —to sense, to decide, to act— together build the core of agency. Therefore, we must recognise agency as a key feature of all living organisms.

However, not all natural entities qualify as natural agents. Think about fluids: water and air come to mind easily, glaciers and lava fall into this category as well. They are sometimes cited as examples for agency, given their potentially dramatic impact. Yet, these effects are the direct result of physical forces alone; fluids are action only, without any sensory or decision-making capacity. For the same reason, fire does not qualify either.

This is the second in a series of posts on the agency and how it matters to innovation.

2 thoughts on “Natural agents

    1. Many thanks for the feedback.
      There’s definitely more to come once it comes to a more formal definition of agency. That’s only a few posts away ..

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