case western reserve university



Department Colloquium: Osamu Fujimura

  • Osamu Fujimura. Wednesday, 17 January 2007. 4-5pm. 618 Crawford Hall. Title: "Symbolic representation in language and biology." Dr. Fujimura is Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University. He established and directed the Research Institute of Logopedics and Phoniatrics at the University of Tokyo. In 1965, he led the speech section of the Acoustical Society of Japan, receiving its Award for Distinguished Service in 1999. He collaborated for four years with the research laboratory in electronics at MIT and for two years with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. For was a director at Bell Laboratories (AT&T) for fifteen years, serving in the Departments of of Linguistics and Speech Analysis and Artificial Intelligence Research. He was professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, The Ohio State University for fifteen years. He is currently preparing a new introductory book on speech science.


  • The emergence of intelligence, specifically in the case of homo sapiens in relation to the development of language, may be assumed to be inherently related to the innate metagrammatical system of human infants as a special biological framework. This initial condition of human cognitive faculty was suggested originally by Noam Chomsky to explain the specially efficient development of the linguistic competence in human children. On the other hand, the evolution of biological species is traditionally ascribed to formation of successful genes as particular linear strings of molecular elements along with other accidentally produced variants in competition, combined with a subsequent selection process accepting more suitable forms and eliminating less suitable forms for survival within the environment that can provide limited resources. Can the speed of evolution, particularly in the recent phase from higher primates to homo sapiens, be explained by randomly produced variants combined with this binary choice between survival or extinction of the embodiments of the genes through generations? Should the concept of evolution be limited to the change from generation to generation via reproduction? Should the process of selection and survival be limited to competition for life of individuals eliminating existing copies that are already embodied?

  • Can there be a principle that evaluates the merit of a promising gene among variants and facilitates its embodiment before they are materialized? Is there a principle that filters or restricts the generation of genes, or their specifications encoded as genomes, in terms of some level of abstract representation that serves as genomic codes and for their possible changes? Can there be some criteria for selecting good qualifications (in terms of features, as in linguistic theory) of variants in terms of their representations (particular organizations of elements), in such a way that once such selections of features are made, their combinations may develop effective changes explosively rapidly, as we observe in the development of human knowledge? Provided appropriate basic hardware design that leads to such selective combinations by proper choices in the form of organization of features as software, we may expect, as in the case of human-made computation machines, extremely rapid “progress” toward a direction that seems to be “purposeful” through merely random processes. For such changes to take place, and for effective criteria to be applied for “useful” selections, physical (chemical) processes that are based on interactions between contiguous elements in the genome may not be expected to be sufficient. Global principles of interaction, based on feature matching, may be more effectively applicable. We remind ourselves that such global feature interactions are characteristic of syntactic and phonological organization principles in theoretical linguistics. If such principles operate based on innate biological properties of humans, where do they come from? Are there basic principles that govern, perhaps just as a matter of accidental selection or according to some deeply seated principle of our universe, the organization of biological systems and emergence of life, as well as the linguistic systems, in relation to the development of the nerves and their physiological network organization?

  • The physical structures of genes are being identified using advanced technology, and new insights are being obtained discovering some parts and properties within the genome to have specific functions for its embodiment as proteins. We wonder if the organization principle of genomes may be described by an abstract representation of some structure, perhaps in some sense similar to the phrase structure of sentences in syntax, that underlie particular linear strings of base elements but contains more crucial information. The organizations of biological organs may be associated with a hierarchical structure of proteins, building the more complex out of the more simple, propagating crucial features. Such an abstract structure may be effective in producing possible (i. e., grammatically acceptable and biologically survivable) preselected variants produced by random perturbation. The structure may automatically prevent, under normal circumstances, changes that cannot (or should not, in some sense) occur, and such constraints may not be apparent in the local properties of the genomic codes; for example, most random changes deviating from the legitimate patterns may result in blocking its implementation, except in pathological developments that are likely to be removed by Darwinian selection. In this connection also, we should be able to understand why the actual lives are mostly normal.

  • According to the current (Chomskyan) syntactic theory, there are simple principles underlying the design of human language in general, and the diversity of natural languages as we observe are the results of selecting one of a few discrete values of each of a small number of parameters for particular languages. Human language acquisition, according to the surrounding spoken language for the newborn baby, works as a process of setting such parameter values of the innate system of language based on the grammatical principles by the use of available very limited empirical data. The representation of the grammatical structure, however, uses a complex hierarchical organization of each sentence rather than a linear string of constituent elements directly observable in speech signals of the sentences that are heard.

  • This abstractness of representation with the underlying hierarchical organization of functional units characterizes human language. Do we have corresponding principles and selection of parameter values within any abstract framework for specifying genes in the process of genetic evolution? It would not be particularly surprising if nature employs common principles or elemental operations for the design of genetic codes on the one hand and the linguistic cognitive system on the other. For example, does recursion as a general computational principle characterize the structural representation of genomes or their manifestations such as proteins and chromosomes, like in syntactic specifications of sentences? Does the endocentricity (self embedding based on designated critical features) in the process of syntactic projection play a central role also in genomic code formation processes? There must be a way to represent genomic structures by a general biological principle, with parameters to be set for individual species.