Nowadays, from a biological point of view, the concept of a human being is quite well defined. A species is defined as all beings capable of having fertile descendants.

But in medieval times, that was way more complicated, since there was no definition for a species. For example, during the conquest of the American continent by European, the question arise to know whether or not indigenous people were human.

Given a medieval world where the concept of humanity is not clearly defined by science, could other sentient species (elves, dwarves, goblins, etc.) be considered "human" (and could they consider humans to be "elves", "dwarves", "goblins") ?

In other words : could an inclusive concept of humanity exists, where massive biological differences are considered on the same level as other differences we know between different ethnic groups of humans (e.g. cultural differences) ?

There is of course two cases to consider :

  1. Different species suddenly discover each other
  2. Different species have cohabited since immemorial times
  • $\begingroup$ If you consider everybody "human", you still need a word to describe those you can have sex with and reproduce... $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 2 '15 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ Are you suggesting that the word "human" could expand wider, without anything taking that word's place? Or perhaps we're just suggesting that the rights that are currently attributed to "humans" expands beyond its current limits. It's worth noting that, as a general rule, words tend to appear where they are needed to provide a helpful distinction. So long as the distinction is helpful, a word will be there. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 2 '15 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ eventually the definition will become more distinct... I hope but people still calls me a troll... $\endgroup$ – user6760 Sep 3 '15 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ "A species is defined as all beings capable of having fertile descendants." Not quite, at least not exclusively. Wolves and domesticated dogs are commonly (though not always) considered to be two separate species, yet they produce fertile offspring. The same holds for wolves (C. lupus) and coyotes (C. lantras). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 3 '15 at 21:30

I think the idea you are searching for is personhood.

Elves, Dwarves, etc. would all be given personhood, as they have subjective experience, their own individual agency, and own desires and wants. From a genetic point of view, they could share no commonality in their DNA, but still be considered 'people'.


There's some semantics involved here and how words are being used. Human generally is synonymous with Homo Sapiens, even before we knew what that was. Debating whether an indigenous person was 'human' or 'other' was based partly on ethnocentrism and the unknown. Especially if you paid attention to some of the literature at the time, Europeans were Expecting to find 'intelligent' 'human-like' beings, that were not actually human. Expectation can have a huge impact on what one sees. Ever hear of the Monopods?

Now, there would be a bit of a difference whether the races have known of each other for a long time or if they suddenly 'discover' one another.

If they've known about each other for a long time, then they 'know' how the other is. They might get along fine, or have just as much trouble as different human nations warring back and forth all the time, with periods of peace and trade. Dwarves and humans could live together fairly peaceably (as much as any human group can live with another) since the dwarves might live underground and the humans above, and the trade would be very profitable for both.

If they suddenly met and discovered each other, it would depend on several factors, how 'alike' are they to us, how powerful do they appear to be vs. us and how aggressive are they in general. If we feel mildly threatened by them or superior relations might go as well as they did for the South Americans. If they are more powerful, we would treat with them trying for goods and allies against others.

Now for classification, we of course are humans, 'friendly' races are first individually identified (dwarf, elf, halfling, etc.) then would be identified as friend or foe, us or them. Though we would also likely come up with a term that equates to 'sentient races'.

If we discovered a new race, we have two starting points. One, we already have met some, Knowing about elves and dwarves and then meeting Halflings or not knowing any and discovering a completely new race.

The second situation would be much more like how we treated any new race we met in the past, Americas, China, Japan, Australia etc. Depending on their abilities, often the discoverer is more advanced (technologically) than the Discovered and they are then looked down upon as a lower life form. If we already knew some before, then our reaction would be tempered by what we knew of the other races. If we've only known kind elves then meeting rabid orcs might not go well the first go around, or vice versa.

But anyone we don't get along with will not be 'human' but dirty animals, and friends would be friends.

I wrote a lot, but I'm not sure I really answered the question.


Perhaps there are two issues here.

One is, Do we consider other species or kinds of creatures to be "just like us" in some important ways? The second is, What do we call the creatures who meet the criteria for like-ness?

The answer to the first question is surely that yes, it is possible that people would. Science fiction stories routinely portray intelligent aliens as "fellow intelligent beings", with both sides taking it for granted that the others deserve to have "human rights" (or whatever you want to call that concept).

The second question is just a matter of definitions of words. If there were such things as elves or if some day we do meet intelligent aliens, it stands to reason that we will need a word that describes the human species, and we also need a word that describes any kind of intelligent beings. Whether "human" would be reserved for our own species and another word used or invented for the larger group, or "human" would be used for the larger group and another word used or invented for the narrower, is impossible to say.


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