In my lifetime, the definition of what it means to be human has gone through many changes. When I was in high school, defining a human was based on the use of tools. Since then, people have observed crows, monkeys, and ants using primitive tools. Physical characteristics like brain size and erect posture fail on several fronts and, therefore, cannot be what distinguishes humans. Some have suggested that group dynamics are characteristic of humans, but bees, ants, and naked mole rats exhibit very complex group dynamics.
Scientists use the term “eusociality” for instances where colony members play various and separate roles to ensure the group’s survival. Now researchers have discovered plants that display eusociality. Dr. Kevin Burns at Victoria University of Wellington led a study of the staghorn fern Platycerium bifurcatum, an epiphytic plant. Epiphytic plants grow on other plants or trees and get their moisture and nutrients from the air. These staghorn ferns grow in colonies on trees in Australia.
Ferns reproduce by spores that originate on the fronds, which are the leaves of the ferns. The research team found that these ferns produce two types of fronds. Strap fronds are long and narrow and produce energy for the colony by photosynthesis. Some also produce spores for reproduction, but 40% do not. Nest fronds varied in size and shape and did not contribute to reproduction. Instead, they anchor the colony to the tree and provide for water and nutrient storage. In this colony of ferns, we see separate roles to ensure colony survival. With each of the roles contributing to the colony’s survival, this is an example of eusociality.
In the system of life on this planet, we see animals and even plants that do surprising things, showing design by an intelligent Creator. With that in mind, defining what it means to be human cannot be merely based on what we can do. The biblical definition of humans avoids that problem by describing humans as created in the image of God. Our spiritual makeup is what makes us unique. Our physical characteristics and what we can do physically cannot define what it means to be human. We are created in the Creator’s image, which sets us apart from the rest of the creation.
— John N. Clayton © 2022