Chocolate is a favorite among many people; we eat it, we drink it, we coat stuff in it. A new study by evolutionary scientists claims that understanding the evolutionary origins of the cocoa plant could have positive ramifications for the chocolate industry. They do this in part by looking at their hypothetical evolutionary tree (called a phylogenetic tree). Researchers say that their "molecular phylogenetics and distribution" clock studies led them to believe that cocoa is much older than they once thought (in a nutshell, they analyze hereditary molecular differences, mainly in DNA sequences, and use this information to postulate an organism's evolutionary relationships). In other words, the secular researchers look at the cocoa plant in light of an evolutionary worldview and, based on their evolutionary beliefs, have now adjusted their ancient date of the cocoa plant to be even older in their story. They also postulate that ancient diversification of the plant resulted in increased genetic variability. Based on this story, the hope is that this could yield novel and delicious chocolate flavors as well as produce cocoa plants that are hardier, more resistant to disease, and able to grow elsewhere in the world. But is it really an understanding of cocoa’s supposed evolution that we need?
Chocolate and Natural Selection
The authors of the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, attempt to show the supposed evolution of the cocoa plant. According to the study, the Theobroma cacao plant (from which cocoa is produced) diverged from its most recent common ancestor about 9.9 million years ago and then diverged early from other lineages within the genus. According to the summary article, "the early diversification produced an enormous amount of genetic diversity within the cacao tree, resulting in the creation of additional species that still may not be fully understood."