Defining “Human”

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.



~ by cskene on February 2, 2008.

10 Responses to “Defining “Human””

  1. Well, the only problem I see with that is that genes don’t just come in one variety, so you’d have to incorporate all of the different possible alleles into the definition. And what about disease state alleles? Should they also be included in the definition of what is human? Or are we assuming that by then we would have eradicated disease genes altogether through genetic engineering?
    Also, what about genes for traits like eye color and height that occur on a continuum? Will we be able to specify a specific set of colors and heights that constitute being human?
    What if we come to the point where we decide to genetically engineer enhancements? Will those enhancements also be factored into what makes us human? I think that the definition of being human is not a permanent, unchanging one, but rather a fluid one that is constantly being refined. Being human can also mean different things to different people. It would be nice if we could scientifically come up with a set definition on what a human is, but it’s one of those things that when you talk about it, everyone knows what you’re referring to – but ask someone to define it, and you’ll find that it’s really hard to put into words. It’s like consciousness. We all know what consciousness is at some intuitive level, but there’s no good definition that anyone can come up with. Not to mention that most people don’t even really understand consciousness in the first place, but that’s a completely different story…

    ~ B2

  2. I should have been more clear. My idea was not that we we identify and map every single gene for the definition, but that we locate a certain number of “crucial” genes that have to be expressed in a certain way for a human to form. For example, “if it has (the genetic makeup that causes) gills, then it is not human.” This sort of thing would leave wiggle room for diseases and other individual traits.

    Another idea that strikes me as interesting is mapping the DNA of a large, diverse segment of the population, somehow averaging it, and setting limits on how far an organism can differ from that average and still be considered human.

  3. I think this is would be a problematic way to define humanness. What about individuals with genomes significantly different from the average person? For example, an individual with Down’s Syndrome has a whole extra copy of the genes on chromosome 21; those with Cri du chat Syndrome are missing up to 60% of the genes on one arm of their chromosomes.

    Of course, it ultimately is our genome that defines us as human, but coming up with the list of the “crucial genes” you reference would be a tricky feat.

  4. I agree that this would be an extremely difficult way to define personhood or humanness. In addition to the problems with Down’s Syndrome listed above, the human genome is still evolving so the “average” would have to be adjusted accordingly.

  5. And if an individual were to fall outside of the accepted limits of humanity? We’ve all seen what happens to people (subjective though I’m sure that term is) who are considered subhuman. Biological superiority were used as an excuse to colonize vast swaths of the world, wipe out a huge portion of the First Nations populations, and enslave African peoples. And since he’s only 3/5 of a person, I’m sure he won’t miss his liver, right?

    I don’t mean to dismiss your argument with an emotional backlash. It’s simply inadequate to define a human being by it’s bits and pieces. There is something more to humanity. I don’t suppose that you have seen the first episode of an anime called Fullmetal Alchemist? In it, two brothers assemble all of the ingredients of a human being in an attempt to revive their mother–but the ingredients simply aren’t sufficient to create something which is human. To define a human by its parts list is to reduce us to machines–regardless of where your opinion lies on the subject, one must admit to its controversial nature. Personally, I find it overly positivist and reductionist.


  6. “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.”


  7. Chris, you bring up some interesting ideas about science, definitions, language, and what it means to be human. I am currently taking a Spanish class on Literary Translation and Theory, and your comments immediately evoked a lot of the discussion and ideas I have recently had about definition, language, and humanity. You certainly seem to have a scientific approach to the problems of definition, so I would like to respond to your provocative post, approaching the subject from a literary and linguistic mindset.

    The first point you raise is the “question of self-definition”. It is from this initial point that language, too, can be considered in its role in defining humanity. In linguistic theory, the question often surfaces: is language a product of humanity or is humanity a product of language? Indeed, the two are so closely related that at times they seem inextricable. Language constructions reflect a great deal about the nature of humans and how we perceive our world and our selves. Language, to a large extent, shapes our humanity (at the very least, our perception of our own humanity). Now, this is not to say that a person who cannot hear or speak is not human. There are many forms of language through which man organizes his world. So ‘language’ is not strictly speech, and every human experiences language in some capacity.

    Many diverse theories of language have been proposed but none has been quite complex enough to explain language or quite simple enough to make generalizations about language. Your assertion that a definition for humanity “requires an answer rooted in science” reminded me of a theory based on a mathematical equivalent of language which is very literal and has concrete correspondences, thus removing language from the realm of ambiguity. However, this linguistic theory ultimately fails, as well, precisely because it is rooted in math and not in language- which depends on the very ambiguity that math and science eliminate. It appears that language is complex in the same ways in which humanity is complex.

    Thus, it follows that “linguistic definitions are inherently imprecise” precisely because humanity cannot be exactly defined- either by language or by science. Just take the example of stem cell research: scientists cannot even define life (does a virus have life?) let alone humanity. Interestingly enough, most scientists call for increased dialogue and debate in issues such as stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering. Here, they invoke language in order to explore the issues of science that affect, define, and change humanity. It seems to me that scientists are the first to admit that the role of science is not to make judgments or to establish truths; this is the role of humans themselves, through the mediums of thought, language, and dialogue.

    At another point in your post, you speak of defining an abstract concept using conditional statements. The conditional grammatical construction is, in and of itself, a proof of the connection between language and humanity. The conditional is an argument which constructs a reality assuming that a first reality must be true. This ability of humans to assume, and then to shape and construct possible realities is certainly a testament to the creative power of language and humanity. The “awful paradox” of a literal construction of language in which words are not symbols but rather ARE the things they represent is certainly evident. Indeed, language is a “jumbled mess”” (as is humanity), but isn’t it this confusion and ambiguity that which gives language and humanity their creative power and their very life? If language (and humanity) were reduced to mere conditional statements (assuming one could prove anything was absolutely true or real in the first place), then humanity WOULD be definable: it would be reduced to a mere machine.

    This cannot be, however. Language is fluid, and, as B2 points out, so is humanity! As such, the conditional construction fails because one reality, or, set of requirements for being human, would be in constant flux.

    While science illuminates new aspects of humanity with every discovery and constitutes one key force in our search to define life and humanity, I find that science’s role is to reveal, to question, and to provoke, but never to answer or define. Although I believe that arriving at “a perfectly accurate definition of what it means to be human” is impossible, there is no better place to approach that definition than an English classroom and there is no more appropriate means than through language.

  8. OK, I admit to playing the devil’s advocate here. I’m not entirely convinced that humanity can be defined in a satisfactory way. As a side note, readers may be interested in the following NYT article that describes an attempt to use a purely genetic argument to defend a pro-life abortion/stem cell policy.

    I think a more interesting question is that — if we could define the concept of humanness — would we want to?

    Now, let me respond to Kelly’s post. This is going to be a bit disjointed.

    I do think that some of the primary goals of science are to “establish truths” and “to answer or define.” Newton’s laws of motion, one of humanity’s most celebrated scientific achievements, established truths about nature, answered questions, and defined the universe in greater detail.

    I also agree completely that “there is no more appropriate means [to approach that definition] than through language.” If we want to get really screwy, we can start asking whether there might be some other way to define (which is, in itself, a linguistic concept) without language. But I don’t suggest we attempt a language-less definition. I simply questioned whether English is the most appropriate language to use, and suggested that the language of genetic code might be more appropriate.

    Just because something (such as humanity, or language itself) is in flux, or tends to change over time, doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to define it.

    Another thought — “humanity” and “human” are very different words, and relate to very different concepts. Our use of language might be instrumental in defining humanity (and humanity might be instrumental in defining “human,” and on it goes).

    –Chris Skene

  9. We cannot look at any singular behavior in and of itself and consider any of them as identifiably human. Let us consider some fundamental “human” behaviors: mourning, creativity, self-sacrifice, love, rebellion, sociality, construction of buildings, and use of tools. Other animals exhibit all these types of behaviors. When the matriarch of a elephant herd dies, they mourn her death for several days in a somewhat ritualistic fashion. Elephants can also create art (hyper-relativistically speaking, let’s not go too deep into semantics on this one) . Many animals even practice self-sacrifice, known as altruism, by engaging in dangerous behavior to warn of or fight off predators (Belding’s ground squirrels, meerkats, et al.).
    For the purpose of love I will use monogamy as a proxy. There are many other species that practice monogamous relationships (most all birds, cleaner wrasses, et al.). Additionally, we don’t have to look too far to find examples of rebellion. Any time an animal attacks, stands up to a human, or escapes a zoo we can observe this. Furthermore, many species also live in social structures with power/resource hierarchies. Beavers, termites, and bees all build structures in which to live. Finally, our closest cousins the apes use sticks as tools to acquire termites, and bonobos can be trained to use lighters and start fires.
    So if these seemingly “human” behaviors are not exclusively human, we ought to define what it means to be human by means of quantifiable, scientific data. Hopefully in my first post I somewhat convincingly made an argument that a completed human genome is not “the moral equivalent of a human being” as the president’s council for bioethics so judiciously purports. So if not behavior, and not DNA, to what must we turn to define our cherished humanity?
    As unromantic as it sounds, the only defining qualities we have left to identify us as human are the products of functioning DNA, i.e. our unique physiology and reproductive isolation. If we degenerate into classifying things as human based on behavior or perceived emotions, than many things that are not homo sapien, such as animals and even computer programs, can be called “human”.
    Archaeologists commonly rely on skeletal analysis to determine speciation. Let’s just say that future archaeologists will arise in a similar fashion as we know them today. To them, out of all that we consider to be ourselves, our intellects, our emotional experiences, the only thing that will identify our species is the slope of our brow and the tilt of our pelvic bone.
    Ben Hefner

  10. I agree with you that a lot of behaviors that we think define us as human are actually present in many other animal species. Also, we do scientifically classify species by the ability to interbreed and anatomy/physiology. However, there is one trait that a lot of people consider distinguish us as human – our sense of morality. We are believed to have the ability to make moral judgments regarding our behavior and the behavior of others at a level that exceeds the capabilities presumed to be present in other animals. When a lion is about to hunt down and eat a gazelle, we don’t think he says to himself, “Hmm, is it right for me to kill this gazelle? Am I really that hungry?” On the other hand, we humans are always considering the ethicalness of things like stem cell research, animal experimentation, etc. Take the H-NHP article as an example. Here we are having a discussion about how we shouldn’t do H-NHP grafting because it might somehow “enhance” the cognitive ability of NHPs and thus increase their awareness and potential for suffering. What other species spends time pondering a concern like that, or considers the matter important in the first place?

    ~ B2

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