The line between science and semantics is often difficult to discern. Our species’ ultimate question of self-definition—what it means to be human—is one that requires an answer rooted in science, as linguistic definitions are inherently imprecise.
The most accurate method available for defining an abstract concept is to build the definition up from a series of more precise terms, using conditional “if-then” statements. For example, one might say “if something is a two-dimensional shape that has a circumference equal to pi times its radius, then it is a circle.”
An obvious problem with this method of description is that certain words in the definition, such as “circumference,” cannot be defined without referencing “circle,” which creates an awful paradox—but only if the words are treated as identical to (and inseparable from) the objects they represent. In fact, this is not at all the case—the existence of a circle (as an object or concept) is not dependent in the slightest on the presence of a formal definition.
But I digress.
Using a conditional approach to definition, it is entirely possible to construct a series of these statements that provides a fairly accurate description of the word “human.” The problem is that any such attempt would become a jumbled mess long before it developed any serious accuracy, simply because the English language is (dare I say it?) inefficient. Being a human is, if nothing else, complicated.
Here’s where science steps in to help.
Now the human genome has been sequenced, an effort could be made to construct a (very long) definition of “human” using conditional statements and genetic code. (If this gene occurs in such a fashion, and this gene occurs in another fashion, etc, then it is human.) Of course, this would be expensive, and it’s doubtful that there would ever be agreement—there are too many prejudices surrounding our existence to believe otherwise.
I’m confident, though, that if a perfectly accurate definition of what it means to be human is ever conceived, it will be done in the science laboratory, not in the English classroom.