Symbolic and Cognitive Theory in Biology


  • Sean O Nuallain stanford


Biosemiotics, Keyword Analysis, Syntax, Genome, SIRI, GUT, Reductionism


In previous work, I have looked in detail at the capacity and the limits of the linguistics model as applied to gene expression. The recent use of a primitive applied linguistic model in Apple's SIRI system allows further analysis. In particular, the failings of this system resemble those of the HGP; the model used also helps point out the shortcomings of the concept of the "gene". This is particularly urgent as we are entering an era of applied biology in the absence of theory, and indeed an era with a near-epidemic of retracted papers.

There are a few workarounds proposed. One is to add to the nascent field of biosemiotics a more explicit concern with syntax. At the time of writing, Apple is being sued for false advertising of its iphone 4s, with the associated claim that apple had solved many of the problems of natural language processing by computer (nlpbc). The system was bought by Apple from a company called SIRI, and in turn was based on the notion, trumpeted by the prior art in a company called Dejima, that nlpbc could be done by keywords alone.

Yet the hype resembles nothing so much as the misrepresentation of the Human Genome Project (HGP) fed to the media in the glory days at the beginning of this millennium, and it says a lot for the status of scientists in society that they have avoided Apple's fate. In this paper, a short review of several current themes in theoretical and applied biology is first proposed. Then the tensions implicit in the notion that the "gene" is simultaneously to be identified as a unit of inheritance and spatially located over spatially well-defined nucleotides is explored and the notion is found to be incoherent. An expanded notion of inheritance is proposed in the context of a focus on inheritance as necessarily involving species, population and organism over time.

While it is premature to talk about a paradigm shift, it is certainly arguable that biology urgently needs a sophisticated theory of how symbols work substantially more sophisticated than that implicit in the HGP; Biosemiotics affords a framework in which this might be tried. Indeed, as this paper concludes, there may yet be room for a "Bionoetics", a perspective in which biological explanation can be extended to include cognition in all its forms. Finally, a working sketch of a modeling environment written in LISP, one that shows promise in reflecting the complexities discussed in the paper, is included.




How to Cite

O Nuallain, S. (2014). Symbolic and Cognitive Theory in Biology. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 10(1), 183–210. Retrieved from