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Thread: What is human?

  1. #1
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    What is human?

    Hi all, I know I'm not the best at continuing to comment on my OP responses, but I like to think that i spark interesting conversation. Here goes.

    Recently, I have been thinking about the word human. What does it mean, is there a distinct definition for human?

    The form of what we know as human varies from person to person: not only for genetic or epigentic reasons, but for injuries sustained during life (missing limbs for instance). Even in the hypothetical case where an individual was reduced to a living head (or brain) - their body completely destroyed - we would consider this person human.

    It seems the only way we can tell a human from a non-human is by our DNA. The human copy number variation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_genetic_variation) is measured to be at least 0.5%. Like a heap of sand, at what point is the variation too great for everyone to be considered human? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox

    The funny thing about naming human evolutionary ancestors (or the remains of any dead organism) is that we are a bit lucky that every single ancestor that died wasn't preserved. indeed, if every living thing were somehow preserved, we would have to abandon the concept of species (no A Afarensis, no A Africanus, etc). Instead, we'd have to name all of these individual's separately (1, 2, 3, 4....): at least there is a discreteness between parents and progenitors.

    Thoughts...scathing criticism?

    M74

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    The simple answer I can give is that "human" is a word, a human concept if you want, and can have different definitions. Is a brain from a human a human? I don't know, it depends on what you mean by human. Is a single cell of a person human? Is a dead person still human? What about when they start to decompose? What about when it has become a pile of dust? So I don't think there can be a simple answer to that.
    As above, so below

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    Dawkins goes over a similar question nicely in The Ancestor's Tale.

    (I just finished it, so it is fresh in my mind)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    The simple answer I can give is that "human" is a word, a human concept if you want, and can have different definitions. Is a brain from a human a human? I don't know, it depends on what you mean by human. Is a single cell of a person human? Is a dead person still human? What about when they start to decompose? What about when it has become a pile of dust? So I don't think there can be a simple answer to that.
    Yes, I agree that human is just a human concept, which is related to our interest in categorizing everything. However, it also comes from our limited experience with nature. I think that if one could perceive macroevolution (like homo georgicus into homo sapiens for instance) that one would then realize that even though we may try to categorize life in terms of species, any temporal boundaries we set on the evolutionary tree are bound to be arbitrary .

    Since our experience with ancestral forms exist in "slices of time" and since their forms are sometimes very different, it seems sensible to call these things (be it dinosaur, ancient hominid, or ichthyosaur) a species. I don't argue that.

    Your questions are very interesting Jens and they represent why there will always be a debate over any kind of cloning, abortion, or any kind of euthanasia. If there is no agreed upon definition of what is human and what is not human, then there will always be room for political argument.

    Maybe as long as the information exists to reproduce a human, a thing is still human. Like taking a single cell and growing a human from it.

    I'm confused

    M74

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    You could say that human means a member of the species H sapiens. But then "species" is a fairly arbitrary human construct as well. There has been discussion recently that some of the different "species" of humans (e.g. neanderthals) might just be varieties/subspecies/cultivars/whatever rather than distinct species.

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    It has always been an important question but even more so today. With new AI possibilities and genetic programming, we really do need a consensus. Here's a starter:

    Humans: 1. Individuals that have concern for other members of their group or family. 2. A human being values themselves and other human beings. 3. A human being can widen its sense of family to cover a wider range of thinking individuals. 4. A human also values beings that are not human, although not more than humans. 5. The more a creature has these qualities, the more human it is.

    This provides a scale of humanity: A kind person is more human than a cruel one. A dog is more human than a fish, which is more human than a worm. A kind dog may be more human than a cruel person; so it may actually have more value.

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    No, I think the the term human should be treated as a holistic category and not a spectrum for measurement. I think a reference to species is the best. If it can breed with that which we call human, then it is human. If you want another word for that which resembles human morphology or human mentality, then use other words that already exist for that term, like anthropoid or humane/sentient. If you need to differentiate between a human and part-human/part-machine, then use the time-tested term, cyborg. For example, George Washington had wooden teeth, thus the Father of America was a cyborg.
    Et tu BAUT? Quantum mutatus ab illo.

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    I totally agree that George Washington was a cyborg by your definition. Additionally he could breed with that which we call human, and so he was also a human. That does confuse a little, since it leaves a grey area between humans and cyborgs which holistically are not necessarily the same. By breed I assume you mean 'Reproduce?' What about humans that cannot reproduce or never have children?

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    I don't buy any "scale" of humanity, as many such scales have been proposed throughout the centuries of the past, often leading to very inhumane culls of those portions of the population who don't make some dictator's idea of a cut.

    In my mind, a human is someone who either can or has successfully interbred with humans, or will or would have had the potential of doing so given the right child-bearing age range and assuming normal reproductive capacity. This leaves the definition well ensconsed in the realm of the verifiable and reproducible results and well out of the hands of those who control, trick, or deceive powerful leaders into committing yet more atrocities around the world.

    The thing I like about my definition is it's most accepting of the wide diversity of humans while still shutting the door on those folks with whom no respectible human would ever want to breed (murderers, rapists, child molesters, dictators...).

    And if you'd like to believe George Washington was a cyborg because he had wooden teeth, you go right ahead! I support you in your belief! However, I do not agree with it, for, by definition, a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, and I sincerely doubt his teeth would have met any current definition of "cybernetic:"

    "Date: 1948: the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems (as the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems)" - Source

    Please explain the mechanical-electrical communication systems involved with George Washington's wooden teeth. I'm an inquiring mind, so I'd like to know...

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    To err is human.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    I don't buy any "scale" of humanity, as many such scales have been proposed throughout the centuries of the past, often leading to very inhumane culls of those portions of the population who don't make some dictator's idea of a cut.
    I agree that a scale is probably not a good idea, but the point is to define some criteria.

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    In my mind, a human is someone who either can or has successfully interbred with humans...
    You do realise that this is a completely circular argument, right? What you just said is "humans are things that breed with humans", this is like saying "X is X", but that doesn't tell us what X is!

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    In my mind, a human is someone who either can or has successfully interbred with humans, or will or would have had the potential of doing so given the right child-bearing age range and assuming normal reproductive capacity. This leaves the definition well ensconsed in the realm of the verifiable and reproducible results and well out of the hands of those who control, trick, or deceive powerful leaders into committing yet more atrocities around the world.
    And does this include people who cannot reproduce?

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    The thing I like about my definition is it's most accepting of the wide diversity of humans while still shutting the door on those folks with whom no respectible human would ever want to breed (murderers, rapists, child molesters, dictators...).
    Huh! Are you saying that murderers, rapists, child molesters, dictators, etc, are not human beings? I mean you could say a lot about such people, but to say they are not Homo Sapiens is truly bizarre. I assume you mean it in a more metaphorical way than literal.

    By that definition, every soldier who ever killed someone in a war would be deemed "non-human", plus every King or Queen in history, etc. I think Genghis Khan would meet every one of your criteria, last time I checked he was a human though.

    Anyway, we all know what the "hot button issues" are with relation to "what is human?". There are several major areas where people disagree about it, namely "when does an unborn baby become a human?", is it right from the minute it is conceived as a Zygote?, or only when it is born?, or some time in-between? (BTW I'm not going to attempt to answer these questions right now, just present the questions at contention).

    Then there's the question of "is a brain-dead person or someone in a coma (from which they will never awake) human?" Are they always human no matter what, even if they are being kept alive only by life-support machines? Or are they already effectively dead bodies?

    There're also certain issues around the "human-ness" of our ancient ancestors. "When did early Hominids become human?" At what point did the first "human" live? Were Neanderthals human? Were Homo Erectus human?, etc.

    That's the only ones I can think of right now, Opinions?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange

    You could say that human means a member of the species H sapiens. But then "species" is a fairly arbitrary human construct as well. T
    Right, and we do say this, but then the question becomes how do we define the "boundaries" of H. sapiens...but really that is just the same question. So yeah, still a bit arbitrary.

    Quote Originally Posted by Strange
    There has been discussion recently that some of the different "species" of humans (e.g. neanderthals) might just be varieties/subspecies/cultivars/whatever rather than distinct species.
    You could even include them in "extended family" and in a sense, you would be correct.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ara Pacis
    ...I think the the term human should be treated as a holistic category and not a spectrum for measurement. I think a reference to species is the best. If it can breed with that which we call human, then it is human.
    I really don't think the spectrum idea is far off. If currently every individual we identify as human has a maximum copy number variation of 0.5%, then there is indeed a spectrum of individuals that can mostly successfully procreate. The question then becomes, how large can that copy number variation become before two individuals can no longer successfully procreate (i'm guessing this is a oversimplification as I not any sort of biologist)?

    The problem with your "holistic category" idea, in my mind, is that it neglects the temporal aspect. Take a fertile human now that could successfully procreate with another human in his/her lifetime. Would s/he be able to procreate with humans 10,000 years ago, 200,000 years ago, what about 1Mya? Or some arbitrary number of years into the future?

    Quote Originally Posted by FarmMarsNow
    I totally agree that George Washington was a cyborg by your definition. Additionally he could breed with that which we call human, and so he was also a human. That does confuse a little, since it leaves a grey area between humans and cyborgs which holistically are not necessarily the same. By breed I assume you mean 'Reproduce?' What about humans that cannot reproduce or never have children?
    This leads to quite the dilemma, I believe. If what we identify as human can vary greatly in morphology, is sometimes unable to reproduce, and has somewhat arbitrary evolutionary boundaries, then what is left? Anyone have any bright ideas, maybe a psychological argument/definition for identifying human?

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens

    I don't buy any "scale" of humanity, as many such scales have been proposed throughout the centuries of the past, often leading to very inhumane culls of those portions of the population who don't make some dictator's idea of a cu[l]t.
    I agree that such an idea can and has been misused for "evil" behavior, but history shows that it is not the only excuse for "evil" behavior. Many wars were fought over difference in ideology (cold war, Vietnam war, Korean war), but probably in every case racial differences were used to incite.
    Some examples on wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaga..._United_States

    This being the case mugaliens, I don't think we should allow, if I may use the word, humanity's weakness to prevent all of us from asking this kind of question in a purely philosophical way.

    Quote Originally Posted by Murphy
    Anyway, we all know what the "hot button issues" are with relation to "what is human?". There are several major areas where people disagree about it, namely "when does an unborn baby become a human?", is it right from the minute it is conceived as a Zygote?, or only when it is born?, or some time in-between? (BTW I'm not going to attempt to answer these questions right now, just present the questions at contention)
    I don't think there is any question that a fertilized egg is alive, but is it human? If we choose to base the definition of human solely on the genetic content of a cell or grouping of cells, then even a zygote is a human. The next factor to introduce is whether or not the living thing is viable, can it be cared for outside of the womb? That is a completely open-ended question and is dependent on the level and availability of relevant technology. I believe it is reasonable to say that there will come a day when a human can fully develop from zygote to adult form independent of the mother's womb with the proper technological application.

    Whether or not abortion is right is a moral question, not a scientific one and so I will make no comment there.

    M74

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    Wow, loaded metaphysical question there. So naturally, I'm avoiding the hard parts and almost side-stepping the issue:
    Quote Originally Posted by m74z00219 View Post
    It seems the only way we can tell a human from a non-human is by our DNA. The human copy number variation... is measured to be at least 0.5%. Like a heap of sand, at what point is the variation too great for everyone to be considered human?
    Differences in DNA might be too simplistic. It's becoming clearer that how genes are expressed and, perhaps even more important, what the cells do with the information carried by the genes are really what sets species apart. An analogy could be (and I'm NOT looking to start another debate this is illustrative only!) is both PC and MAC use similar silicon chips, so if we were to only look "under the hood" and not at how those chips are used, we'd assume MAC and PC are not all that different after all. So the 5-10% inter-species difference in DNA code between humans and apes could actually represent a, say, 45% difference in expression, while the 0.5% intra-species DNA code difference represents a 0.8% difference in expression (don't quote me on the numbers). So rather than a DNA-code difference we should be looking at DNA coding vs. DNA-expression based difference (adjusted for environmental factors and all the other wonderful processes complicating DNA expression).

    But if pressed for an answer to your original question, I agree with DrRocket, since the gecko hanging around my apartment seems to do everything right!

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    Quote Originally Posted by FarmMarsNow View Post
    It has always been an important question but even more so today. With new AI possibilities and genetic programming, we really do need a consensus. Here's a starter:

    Humans: 1. Individuals that have concern for other members of their group or family. 2. A human being values themselves and other human beings. 3. A human being can widen its sense of family to cover a wider range of thinking individuals. 4. A human also values beings that are not human, although not more than humans. 5. The more a creature has these qualities, the more human it is.
    There are human cultures who would disqualify under that rule set, and several of the rules would include many herd animals as human.

    Actually, you're simply making the classical tribal definition of human: People like us.

    I would hope that if a consensus is ever found, it isn't one based from any specific culture.
    This provides a scale of humanity: A kind person is more human than a cruel one. A dog is more human than a fish, which is more human than a worm. A kind dog may be more human than a cruel person; so it may actually have more value.
    A kind person may be more humane, but cruelty is one of the traits humanity has in abundance. Together with greed and the persistence to plan very long term for the fulfillment of said greed.

    For traits that makes us unique you have to look at other things, sex for fun is one (Bonobo's, despite their reputation does not have intercourse as part of their copulation-imitating social-bonding behavior).
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    This whole thread is an example of the fallacy of trying to draw a line in the grey.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen
    This whole thread is an example of the fallacy of trying to draw a line in the grey.
    Hmm, yes, I brought this up in the OP and has been hit upon several times in said thread.

    Quote Originally Posted by m74z00219
    Like a heap of sand, at what point is the variation too great for everyone to be considered human? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox
    I didn't start this thread for a particular reason, but I would say that it is absolutely relevant.


    Quote Originally Posted by rpanetta
    Differences in DNA might be too simplistic. It's becoming clearer that how genes are expressed and, perhaps even more important, what the cells do with the information carried by the genes are really what sets species apart. An analogy could be (and I'm NOT looking to start another debate this is illustrative only!) is both PC and MAC use similar silicon chips, so if we were to only look "under the hood" and not at how those chips are used, we'd assume MAC and PC are not all that different after all. So the 5-10% inter-species difference in DNA code between humans and apes could actually represent a, say, 45% difference in expression, while the 0.5% intra-species DNA code difference represents a 0.8% difference in expression (don't quote me on the numbers). So rather than a DNA-code difference we should be looking at DNA coding vs. DNA-expression based difference (adjusted for environmental factors and all the other wonderful processes complicating DNA expression).
    Hi rpanetta, I believe what you are commenting on is indeed epigenetics.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

    If I understand you correctly, it's not just genetic difference but genetic expression as well that is important to defining what is human - is that right?

    One day, possibly, we will be presented with the question of whether or not a machine that can convince fleshy humans that it is human, is really human. Something that is morphologically and internally very unlike what we think of as human, yet in the way it expresses itself is unquestionably human.

    What then is there? Perhaps it is impossible to escape a consensus-based definition? The humans of 5000 years from now might not be recognizably human when observed with contemporary eyes.

    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen
    I would hope that if a consensus is ever found, it isn't one based from any specific culture.
    Henrik, I very strongly agree with this. When dealing with definitions that are ultimately bounded by grey, it behooves humanity to do so in a way that is non-exclusive.

    M74

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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    This whole thread is an example of the fallacy of trying to draw a line in the grey.
    Or, this whole thread is an example of trying to impose human intellectual concepts on the physical world. But I understand that the OP understands this, and is trying to discuss the issue rather than come up with a clear-cut answer.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by m74z00219 View Post
    I really don't think the spectrum idea is far off. If currently every individual we identify as human has a maximum copy number variation of 0.5%, then there is indeed a spectrum of individuals that can mostly successfully procreate. The question then becomes, how large can that copy number variation become before two individuals can no longer successfully procreate (i'm guessing this is a oversimplification as I not any sort of biologist)?

    The problem with your "holistic category" idea, in my mind, is that it neglects the temporal aspect. Take a fertile human now that could successfully procreate with another human in his/her lifetime. Would s/he be able to procreate with humans 10,000 years ago, 200,000 years ago, what about 1Mya? Or some arbitrary number of years into the future?
    I'm not concerned with the similarity in genetics so much as the expression thereof that allows for successful interbreeding. This does not mean one person could successfully breed with all other humans, just at least one other (because there are reasons why some people can't breed with other people due to fatally reinforcing recessives genes).

    Yes, this would be limited in time due to genetic variations over time. Have we determined whether human evolution is mostly slow genetic drift or if it's punctuated? If humans could have interbred or did interbreed with neanderthals, then perhaps we should consider them human. In that case we could either define "human" as a non-hierarchical term that encompasses multiple relates species, or we could perhaps consider them subspecies of sapiens (which is what a Wikipedia editor suggests in the first paragraph of that article).
    Et tu BAUT? Quantum mutatus ab illo.

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    Quote Originally Posted by m74z00219 View Post
    I have been thinking about the word human. What does it mean, is there a distinct definition for human?
    Human is a biological machine which has evolved to a point of being able to contemplate its own demise.

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    What is a person is a better question. The word 'human' carries too many connotations and associations with a certain species of primate, while person can be freer to be what it is.
    To me, a person is something that claims to have goals and desires and acts on said goals and desires.
    There is exceptions in either direction, but that basically covers it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    What is a person is a better question. The word 'human' carries too many connotations and associations with a certain species of primate, while person can be freer to be what it is.
    To me, a person is something that claims to have goals and desires and acts on said goals and desires.
    There is exceptions in either direction, but that basically covers it.
    I'm reminded of this from Issac Asimov:

    "Why do you want to be free, Andrew? In what way will this matter to you?”
    Andrew said, “Would you wish to be a slave, Your Honor?”
    “But you are not a slave. You are a perfectly good robot-- a genius of a robot, I am given to understand, capable of an artistic expression that can be matched nowhere. What more could you do if you were free?”
    “Perhaps no more than I do now, Your Honor, but with greater joy. It has been said in this courtroom that only a human being can be free. It seems to me that only someone who wishes for freedom can be free. I wish for freedom.”
    And it was that statement that cued the judge. The crucial sentence in his decision was “There is no right to deny freedom to any object with a mind advanced enough to grasp the concept and desire the state.” It was eventually upheld by the World Court.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ravens_cry View Post
    What is a person is a better question. The word 'human' carries too many connotations and associations with a certain species of primate, while person can be freer to be what it is.
    To me, a person is something that claims to have goals and desires and acts on said goals and desires.
    There is exceptions in either direction, but that basically covers it.
    Do you consider chimpanzees to be persons?

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    Quote Originally Posted by P Timmy View Post
    Do you consider chimpanzees to be persons?
    Do you know any chimps who have claimed to have goals?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    I'm reminded of this from Issac Asimov:

    “There is no right to deny freedom to any object with a mind advanced enough to grasp the concept and desire the state.”
    And yet... "we" agree that certain objects which grasp the concept of freedom... deserve to have freedoms denied through incarceration.

    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    Do you know any chimps who have claimed to have goals?
    No... but through observation it appears they do have goals... do you agree?

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    I think many animals have the idea of freedom and goals to some degree. Certainly not as many as humans, but enough that it seems to fit the definition to me.

    Based on some documentaries that I have seen, it seems that humans are the only ones who have the foresight for pre-emptive instruction.
    It seems as though humans are the only ones that will pass along (and record) knowledge before the need for that knowledge has arisen.

    Other animals seem to live in the present. Even those animals that store food or build shelters seem to have it as an instinct rather than a plan.

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    Quote Originally Posted by NEOWatcher View Post
    Other animals seem to live in the present. Even those animals that store food or build shelters seem to have it as an instinct rather than a plan.
    Is the difference between instinct and a plan a matter of degree?

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    My answer is pretty similar to Henrik's on post 15 (2 years ago).

    Remember back when it was pretty clear cut what a planet was? Now we know more and see more, and so some more precise definition was needed... and people often don't like change, or new definition.

    So, I'd suggest that we let the term human be loosely defined, and generally be taken to mean "us", and then develop much more technical terms for scientific and legal use.
    Forming opinions as we speak

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    Quote Originally Posted by P Timmy View Post
    And yet... "we" agree that certain objects which grasp the concept of freedom... deserve to have freedoms denied through incarceration.
    Are you going to turn this into another thread on punishment? I say that as a member not a moderator - but I have no interest in such a discussion. I just always liked that passage from The Bicentennial Man and was reminded of it by what ravens_cry wrote.

    As to the OP, I don't think it is possible to come up with a single definition of what is a human; it is different in law, biology, medicine, politics, philosophy, and even within those various disciplines will change in context.
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    Quote Originally Posted by P Timmy View Post
    Is the difference between instinct and a plan a matter of degree?
    You did include my qualifying statement that puts what I said into context about living in the moment.
    I'm not sure how to define it, but to exemplify, it would be the difference bewtween "I'm cold, so I'm building shelter" and "It could be cold later, so I should build a shelter".

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    Quote Originally Posted by antoniseb View Post
    Remember back when it was pretty clear cut what a planet was?
    Yeah, me and Pythagoras was arguing just the other day about about his rash desicion of replacing both Hesperus and Phosporus with Venus. And then someone claimed that the luminaries aren't planets. What is the world coming to...

    (Just to reinforce that you point about the need to redefine classifications is an old one)

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