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The Biotic Aspect

Briefly ...

We experience the organic or biotic aspect intuitively in living as organisms in an environment. In the organic aspect many concepts are meaningful, such as: cell, tissue, organ, organism; nutrients, excreta; activities like digestion, respiration, excretion, reproduction; birth, growth, maturity, death; properties like healthy, old, female; relationships like symbiosis, parasite, ecosystem; concepts like species, genus and taxonomy, and so on. Dooyeweerd's discussion of the biotic aspect is relatively short [1955,II, 107-111], and not very clear.

But what is life? How do we distinguish it from non-life? Traditionally, biologists defined life in terms of the ability to reproduce. Then systems thinkers like Maturana and Varela suggested that is not good enough, and suggested that life be defined in terms of self-maintenance (autopoiesis) - the organism maintains itself within but distinct from its physical environment. Recently (2 September 2020) Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute has suggested that life is defined by three things: chemical and informational processes, heredity based on genes, evolution by natural selection leading to purposeful behaviour. Some might cynically suggested "He would, wouldn't he!" given his role (but at least he some expertise about life that the cynics lack). Less cynically but properly critically, Arthur Jones suggests, in his discussion of What Is Life?, that we need input from a wider set of disciplines than is currently the case:

... scientists hardly look at animal and plant forms at all and morphology, as a scientific discipline, is almost extinct. The majority of today's biologists are really chemists (biochemists and molecular biologists of various specialised kinds). Since the world of biology reflects the dominant ideologies it is vitally important that we develop a thorough critique.

He emphasises that life is a function of the organism and not imposed by the environment, echoing the aotopoietic view, but he goes further. That overview suggests to me that the following are fundamental in the biotic aspect: organism and distinctness, types of organism, maintenance of organism as its type, reproduction according to type, and forms in the organism.

Might it be better to ask "Why is life good?" -- what good possibility does the biotic aspect introduce to temporal reality that earlier aspects know nothing of? A good possibility the organic aspect introduces, which earlier aspects know little of, might be that of separateness, which Dooyeweerd [1955,II, 110] calls "vital unity". Sustainably distinct entities control their inner equilibrium state autopoietically and have a boundary (skin) that separates it spatially and physically from their environment while allowing exchange of materials with the environment. By contrast, the inner state (form) of physical things is entirely under the control of the surroundings. Organisms reproduce after their own kind, while physical things do not. Laws of the organic aspect are related to organisms.

One suggestion for re-evaluating the kernel meaning of the biotic aspect has been made because of difficulties in 'filling that slot' as currently understood (a difficulty Dooyeweerd himself discussed in [Dooyeweerd, 1955,III, 112ff.] but did not adequately resolve. For more, see Basden [2008, 184]. Whether or not this is accepted, attempts to work this out in discussing the nature of computers might provide a model of how an aspect's kernel meaning could be modified.

From the biotic aspect onwards it is meaningful to talk of negative as well as positive: death, disease, poison, starvation, and so on. Death removes the organic nature of the entity, so it rots down and its materials become absorbed into the surrounding physical milieu.

Defining the Aspect x

An excellent overview and discussion of this aspect can be found in the 'ideas' drawer. It probably gives a better overview of this aspect than what is written below. Much recommended. Also it discusses enkapsis usefully.

Kernel: x

rather than:

Some central themes x

Common Misconceptions x

The Aspect Itself

Stafleu [2000] has some discussion of the biotic aspect, but it focuses on the question 'what is a species?'.

Shalom x

This aspect contributes:

Also, systems theory is very much based on a biotic world view.


Competition is good in this aspect; in Dooyeweerdian terminology, competition is a norm of the biotic aspect. It is what enables vitality to proceed without overloading the planet with biomass. Competition is a means of limiting vitality that is pre-economic. However and unfortunately, competition is commonly seen as a fundamental in economics and in aesthetic; from a Dooyeweerdian view, both economic competition and competition in aesthetica are most likely to be harmful (though many Dooyeweerdian thinkers would disagree with that).

Harm x

Evils that are given their meaning by the biotic aspect

Non-Absoluteness x

Special Science x

Life sciences: botany and some of zoology and physiology. Note that it is not what is usually taught as 'biology', which covers some of the sensitive aspect and ecology. However, some ecology is included - that which deals specifically with how life happens among mixes of species.

Institutions x

Contributions from the Field x

The Aspect Among Others

Law-dependencies x

Obviously, the laws of life require those of physics-chemistry.

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x


It is common in some circles to try to explain all phenomena as results of the inexorable processes of evolution of species by survival of the fittest. This is a form of reductionism to the biotic aspect - treating all of reality as subject to the laws of life-survival.

Sex and Gender

Some people seem to reduce all human traits to gender - and explain them in those terms. e.g. Intuition, feeling, sensitivity are 'female' while hardness, power, rationality are 'male'. Also, part of the reason sexual orientation has been such a media issue in recent years is the overriding importance we place of sexuality.

Notes x

See an excellent comment by Magnus Verbrugge.

On the Kernel of the Biotic Aspect

Dooyeweerd suggested the kernel of the biotic aspect is life functions. Though intuitively we know what this means, when we examine it, 'life functions' is not much help because it begs the question "What is life?" and "What functions do we include as serving life?" Just as Stafleu was dissatisfied with 'energy' as the kernel of the physical aspect, and proposed 'interaction' instead, so Arthur Jones tried to follow Stafleu's method of reasoning for the biotic aspect, and came up with 'generation'. Here we look at two alternative views: first 'organism' then 'generation'.

Organism as the Kernel Meaning

During 2000 or 2001, on thinknet, a number of thinkers who have some expertise in things biotic suggested that the kernel meaning of the biotic aspect is not life functions but discrimination or distinction. Presumably they do not mean the type of distinction that is kernel of the analytic aspect. What they might mean is that a biotically qualified entity is distinct from its environment and viably so, and viably so over its meaningful lifetime. (By contrast, a mountain or sea, qualified by the pre-biotic physical aspect, cannot be distinct from the planet; see discussion of lack of 'thingness' in the physical aspect.)

To be viably distinct requires most of the life functions mentioned above, especially repair, and the life functions only make sense for distinct organisms.

This leads us to the possibility that Systems Thinking (e.g. Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory, Beer's Viable System Model, Checkland's Soft Systems Thinking, etc.) is heavily relevant to the biotic aspect, and vice versa. But Systems Thinking also has close links with the formative aspect of shaping, creating, assembly, etc.

Also, if Newell's computer systems levels correspond with some of the aspects:

then the component level should correspond with the biotic aspect. This cannot be so if the biotic aspect is confined to life functions because hardware components are not alive. However, a computer system hardware does, metaphorically at least, require life functions: it consumes our data, breathes electricity, excretes garbage on screen (:-!), and repairs itself. But if the kernel of the biotic aspect were organism, then this makes much more sense.

The possibility that the kernel is organism rather than life functions must be explored.

Generation as the Kernel Meaning

Arthur Jones, with long expertise in the biotic disciplines, believes the kernel to be best thought of as 'generation'. He wrote:

"I am unconvinced about the kernel as 'organism'. I gave much thought to this in the early 1980s after reading and rereading Stafleu's 'Time and Again' - his book on physics really opened my eyes to the rich potential of Dooyeweerdian analysis in science. After months and years of considering the interplay of analogies and universality, I came to the conclusion in the mid-80s that the biotic kernel should be stated as 'generation' or 'generative activity' (in a life-cycle of development). This is a way of summing up not just reproduction, but all the numerous generative processes that characterise organisms - differentiation, acclimation, regeneration, repair and healing, cell and tissue adjustments, ecological balance and successsion, environmental regeneration, homeostasis etc. I put this forward in the first draft of my 'Science in Faith' in 1986 which I used with science teachers in Nepal. Here is the section from the final published book (CST 1998 pp 40-42)."


Stafleu MD (2000) The idionomy of natural kinds and the biological concept of species. Phil. Ref. 65(2), 154-69.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: by16 March 1997. Last updated: 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 30 July 2000 link to comment by Magnus Verbrugge. 7 February 2001 copyright and email. 5 March 2001 shalom started; moved. 17 May 2001 anticipation of distincion. 20 May 2001 subdir 'comments' renamed 'ideas.' 4 January 2002 Added 'organism' as part of kernel, and the wee discussion about it; added more institutions. 13 January 2002 added comments from Arthur Jones. 9 July 2002 more notes on the kernel. 12 March 2004 competition. 5 February 2005 tidied up the intro and competition, .nav. 24 August 2005 nav to aspects; rewrote organism a bit. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's rendering. 4 February 2011 Stafleu ref. 10 October 2013 Berson, Kaufman. 21 September 2016 briefly. 2 September 2020 Sir Paul Nurse, Arthur Jones and definitions of What is Life. 7 October 2022 Some evils meaningful in biotic aspect; moved survival of fittest to analogies.