Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 501–521 | Cite as

On emergence, agency, and organization

  • Stuart KauffmanEmail author
  • Philip Clayton


Ultimately we will only understand biological agency when we have developed a theory of the organization of biological processes, and science is still a long way from attaining that goal. It may be possible nonetheless to develop a list of necessary conditions for the emergence of minimal biological agency. The authors offer a model of molecular autonomous agents which meets the five minimal physical conditions that are necessary (and, we believe, conjointly sufficient) for applying agential language in biology: autocatalytic reproduction; work cycles; boundaries for reproducing individuals; self-propagating work and constraint construction; and choice and action that have evolved to respond to food or poison. When combined with the arguments from preadaptation and multiple realizability, the existence of these agents is sufficient to establish ontological emergence as against what one might call Weinbergian reductionism. Minimal biological agents are emphatically not conscious agents, and accepting their existence does not commit one to any robust theory of human agency. Nor is there anything mystical, dualistic, or non-empirical about the emergence of agency in the biosphere. Hence the emergence of molecular autonomous agents, and indeed ontological emergence in general, is not a negation of or limitation on careful biological study but simply one of its implications.


Autocatalysis Autonomous agents Emergence Preadaptation Reductionism Theory of organization Semiotics Teleology Underdetermination of biology by physics Work cycle 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Anderson Phil W. (1972) More is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Nature of the Hierarchical Structure of Science. Science 177:393–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Atkins Peter W. (1984) The Second Law. Scientific American Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Ashkenasy G., Jagasia R., Yadav M. and Ghadiri M.R. 2004. A self-organized synthetic chemical network, submittedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bishop John (1983) Agent-Causation. Mind N.S. 92:61–79Google Scholar
  5. Broad C.D. (1925) The Mind and Its Place in Nature. Routledge & Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  6. Chisholm Roderick M. (1976) The Agent as Cause. In: Myles Brand and Douglas Walton (eds) Action Theory. D. Reidel, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  7. Clayton Philip (2004) Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Daley A.J., Girvin A., Kauffman S.A., Wills P.R., Yamins D. (2002) Simulation of Chemical Autonomous Agents. Z. Phys. Chem. 216:41–49Google Scholar
  9. Emmeche Claus, Kull Kalevi, Stjernfelt Frederik (2002) Reading Hoffmeyer, Rethinking Biology. Tartu University Press, Tartu, EstoniaGoogle Scholar
  10. Heil John (2003) Multiply Realized Properties. In: Sven Walter, Heinz-Dieter Heckmann (eds) Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Imprint Academic, ExeterGoogle Scholar
  11. Hoffmeyer Jesper (1996) Signs of Meaning in the Universe, trans. Barbara J. Haveland, Indiana University Press, BloomingtonGoogle Scholar
  12. Kant Immanuel (1987) Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett, IndianapolisGoogle Scholar
  13. Kauffman Stuart (1993) Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. Kauffman Stuart (1996) At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Kauffman Stuart (2000) Investigations. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Lee D.H., Granja J.R., Martinez J.A., Severikn K., Ghadiri M.R. (1996) A Self-Replicating Peptide. Nature 382:525–528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Laughlin Robert (2005) A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. McLaughlin Brian (1992) The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism. In: Beckerman A., Hans Flohr, Jaegwon Kim (eds) Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism. Walter de Gruyter, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Monod Jacques (1971) Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse, Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. O’Connor Timothy (ed) (1995) Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Taborsky Edwina (ed) (1999) Semiosis, Evolution, Energy: Towards a Reconceptualization of the Sign. Shaker Verlag, Aachen, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  22. Weber Andreas (2003) Natur als Bedeutung: Versuch einer semiotischen Theorie des Lebendigen. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  23. Weinberg Steven (1992) Dreams of a Final Theory. Pantheon, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Wimsatt William C. (1994) The Ontology of Complex Systems: Levels of Organization, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary 20:207–74Google Scholar
  25. von Wright Georg Henrik (1971) Explanation and Understanding. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Institute for Biocomplexity and InformaticsThe University of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  2. 2.PhilosophyClaremont Graduate University and CSTClaremontUSA

Personalised recommendations