The Evolution of Caffeine and Plant and Animal’s Reliance on it

As this article clearly points out, and as most of us can confirm, coffee is a drug that benefits us. After all, “caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world”. So why do we intake it? Carl Zimmer does a nice job of using scientific research to show us.

The studies conducted demonstrates that plants such as ones used for tea and coffee both produce caffeine, however they evolved to producing it in different ways. That is, the enzyme N-Methyltransferase mutated and created caffeine in multiple species, including cacao and coffee. This example of convergent evolution shows that caffeine must be pretty useful to plants and animals, us included. If you are interested in knowing more about the affect of caffeine on humans, you can look at the two links below.

So what is the point of noting that caffeine had evolved? Or why it is significant? Every organism evolves, according to the theory of evolution. As Zimmer wrote in The New York Times article, caffeine was evolved for its useful qualities. Caffeine evolved because it works as a pesticide for plants, makes a plant’s nectar more distinctive and wakes us up in the morning. The article leaves the message that caffeine evolved with the purpose of assisting living organisms. So is that really how evolution works? Was caffeine really evolved for beneficiary reasons instead of being a coincidence? Evolution changes species to maximize their chance survival, as we are all familiar with the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Is this suggesting that caffeine is a necessity to certain plants and animals or does it simply enhance life? If this article was presented to skeptics of evolution, would their views on the topic change?

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28 Responses to The Evolution of Caffeine and Plant and Animal’s Reliance on it

  1. Evolution by nature occurs at first by “coincidence.” Meaning that all mutations are random and are not designed for either detrimental or beneficial reasons in the first place. After the primary mutation they begin to develop and occur in other plants or beings because they are beneficial to the mutants. So that is to say that at the point of mutation they are completely random but after the primary mutation it has to prove beneficial in order to survive. The plants, or all beings, are not actively changing themselves so that they are better suited to their environment, it occurs by happen chance.

    On a separate note, I would like to point out one of Harris’s techniques used in the New York Times article that you posted. If we remember from the reading Harris mentions that in good academic writing all of his techniques need to be employed in different combinations. I found that in the New York Times article that the author used both the techniques of authorizing and borrowing when he/she referred to the study on the cocoa plant. By presenting the study from the Scientific Journal, the author is able to support the claims he makes and prove that he did his homework on the subject. But at the same time he “borrows” the study so that he can move on to make the points he does and question why caffeine evolved. Essentially suggesting that in todays society coffee is good in moderation. And again at this ending point he borrows the words of Dr. Mustard saying that “They’re manipulating all of us.”

    • pigfish1116 says:

      I guess this reveals my lack of knowledge on the beginnings of evolution but at first I was skeptical of vikingsfootball33’s analysis that evolution began with a random mutation. I never really thought to look into how evolution began and The Hall of Human Origins does not even address the exact beginnings of organism or humans. I just had to look at this website to learn so thank you for that and thank Berkeley for this simple, 4th-grade explanation of the mechanisms of evolution:

      I think it’s a little creepy to think about how caffeine could be manipulating us. Aren’t we manipulating caffeine in a way by using its effectiveness to benefit ourselves? Although we use caffeine to keep us alert, it also has other affects on our body, not long-term, but still out of our control. More information on side effects:

      • graduallychanging says:

        pigfish1116, in your post you stated that the Hall of Human Origins (HoHO) does not address our origins. The exhibit touched on hominids that lived millions of years ago. In terms of modern humans, maps in the HoHO show that we originated in the continent of Africa. I do not remember, however, whether or not the maps highlighted a specific portion of Africa.
        I may be misunderstanding your point. Did you mean that the HoHO did not describe how modern humans evolved from single cell organisms to organisms composed of trillions of cells? I am interpreting your statement as if the HoHO chose an arbitrary point in our development to begin its explanation.
        I do agree that the HoHO does not discuss the origins of organisms in general, but the name of the exhibit tells museum visitors that the purpose of the exhibit is to discuss the development of hominids/humans.

      • moneytrees3001 says:

        Also, pigfish1116, I want to point out that Darwinism is absolutely unrelated to the appearance of single-celled organisms, and their transition into multi-cellular organisms. This is a false “shortcoming” that creationists are quick to point out, claiming that evolutionists need as much faith as religious groups do to believe in the sudden appearance of life on earth. Evolution just doesn’t make claims about that area; it only deals with the gradual changes of species once multi-cellular organisms came into existence and were able to mutate and be naturally selected. This is why the Hall didn’t deal with the origin of life or evolution.
        Dawkins explains this point well- “It’s a different argument to say how did the whole process start – how do we begin with the origin of life? The origin of life — the key process in the origin of life was the arising of a self-replicating molecule…There are various theories for how it might have happened. None of them is yet fully convincing. It may be that none of them ever will be, because it may be that we shall never know fully what the conditions were.”
        As usual, the scientist bravely admits lack of knowledge while creationists attempt to make baseless claims.

    • Vikingsfootball, while some evolutionary traits were genetic mutations or accidents that happen to work out, the evolution of caffeine clearly isn’t. This article helps to back up the idea that our ecosystem works together well and survival of the fittest interconnects multiple species as they affect each other in many ways. Evolution wouldn’t be necessary unless it was beneficial for the organism, which in the case of caffeine it clearly is.

      I would also like to point out that Harris’s techniques are being used very well in this article, that the are overlapping as he cites studies and draws his own conclusions after illustrating examples. Great job noticing them!

      • greyelephant1 says:

        pigfish1116, thank you for the clarification on mutations vs. natural selection ect. It appears that caffeine was originally a mutation, but because it became beneficial, through natural selection, the coffee plants without caffeine would die, making caffeine a permanent trait in coffee.

        Slowdownyourmind, I do think this is a great example of our ecosystem coming together! However, as pigfish1116 mentions in a different comment, were humans meant to use caffeine? Is it partly due to humans that we are all so connected because we utilize all of our resources?

      • That’s a great point greyelephant1 and pigfish1116, that caffeine could have been so effective at surviving and thriving that organism that weren’t meant to be introduced to it now consume caffeine on a daily basis. Many of the basic principles of evolution are bent buy humans due to our intellectual nature and the fact that we mass produce so many different crops that these plants thrive because of human intervention.

  2. pigfish1116 says:

    Although I do believe in evolution for some reason it always surprises me when I learn about th evolution processes of organisms other than humans. You just constantly think “Oh, I’m getting coffee.Dinosaurs who ate coffee beans probably went crazy off of this stuff.” But the fact that plants have evolved to have the beauty and function that they have today never ceases to amaze me.
    In response to greyelephant1’s question “If this article was presented to skeptics of evolution, would their views on the topic change?” I mean of course the “believability” (I just made up this world) of the evolutionary history of caffeine varies by individual, I think this eidence is not strong enough to convince the moderate skeptics of evolution. I think their main conflict with evolution is humans and the origin of the planet as a whole rather than a cacao plant.
    I find it interesting that although the evolution of caffeine is not scientifically supposed to be beneficial for humans, we have found some way to manipulate it to our advantage. Humans tend to do this a lot with all things ranging from animals we eat to chemicals we in our hair.

    • greyelephant1 says:

      pigfish1116, I agree with you that skeptics are more skeptical about the origin of humans and human evolution. That being said, it is another example of a trait being developed in plants to help with their survival (coffee plants keep insects away with it!). Also, noting your comment about the fact that humans have manipulated lots of chemicals is a good point and makes me wonder how humans ever thought to try it. Our bodies have adapted to using a lot of products, that we maybe were not supposed to have needed. For example, tobacco, like coffee is addicting, which is not a substance that evolved on earth for the beneficial use from humans. However, we have still found uses. So if humans are taking other organism’s resources, why haven’t they evolved to be distasteful or harmful to us? That is originally why caffeine was evolved.

      • pigfish1116 says:

        “So if humans are taking other organism’s resources, why haven’t they evolved to be distasteful or harmful to us?” That’s actually a really intriguing question greyelephant1! There could be a lot of answers to that question for example, some plants have evolved not to solely harm us but still can like roses with thorns on their stem and poison ivy that is only harmful to humans.

      • greyelephant1, I think that it is important to note that humans have taken the evolution of various plants and animals into their own hands. Even before science had the ability to change genetics, humans were mating the biggest bulls with the best heifers and growing different types of wheat. Even as far back as the days of human appearance in the Fertile Crescent humans where adapting wheat by using only the best plants year after year. So a lot of human activity has control mutation making it so that wheat is more prevalent on this planet than it ever would have been without human intervention. So we just keep things from being detrimental to us.

    • pigfish1116, do you think that it might be hypocritical or ludicrous (I don’t mean this as an insult) to for skeptics to believe that it is “ok” or “believable” for evolution to happen in plants but not in humans? I know most would say that humans are too complex for anything but divine creation to have created us. But it appears that you and I agree that the mutations of plants is flabbergasting. What is to say that our evolution is anymore impressive than that of plants? Just a few thoughts.

      • pigfish1116 says:

        In response to vikingsfootball33, I think your question brings us to the debate on whether it was the chicken or the egg, the plant or the see who was created first. I think it is easier for people with a basic knowledge of plants to believe in evolution of plants because they are “inferior” to humans but you know what, people will be people, I can’t judge ahha.

      • graduallychanging says:

        vikingsfootball33, in response to why it may be easier for skeptics to accept evolution in plants than in humans, I think that an important factor is the fact that we have not seen other humans evolve. As you mentioned in an earlier comment, we have manipulated the gene pool wheat and other plants in order for them to benefit us to a greater extent. Although that practice is not natural selection, it helps show that organisms are not static beings.
        A modern day example of animal evolution that we have witnessed is that of rats in the United Kingdom. In “Super rats!” Patrick Barkham described the problems that pest control services have had in the UK in relation to rats that have developed immunity to the poisons they had previously used. Barkham uses the word “evolve” multiple times in his article to describe changes in the rats or in their ecosystems. It is clear that natural selection is the reason why there are more rats that are immune to commonly used rat poison is comparison to those that are not.
        “Super rats!” article:

      • macnplease says:

        While there are some living things that are more complicated than others (simply by cell count/cell interaction/cell diversity), the processes that brought different types of cells together is the same for any organic being. While humans are indeed some of the more anatomically complicated and diverse beings on our planet, this doesn’t mean a different process of development molded our anatomy; at least not in the beginning. So, this point seems somewhat moot.

  3. greyelephant1 says:

    vikingsfootbal33, so are you saying you believe that caffeine is an example of a random mutation that then was developed more, as you stated above? You mention that all evolution in nature is a coincidence at first, what do you mean that all evolution is? Does that mean that natural selection is more by chance? What about the term survival of the fittest?

    As for your comment on Harris’s techniques, I noticed he did a great job presenting the facts and citing the article. I enjoyed seeing your connection to that because we are all working on that for our papers!

  4. greyelephant1, what I am saying is that evolution and natural selection is dependent upon the idea of mutations. To my knowledge, no creature or plant has ever, purposely mutated itself to adapt to its environment. Mutation is not an active decision. It just simply happens through accidents that occur in the construction of genetic code. Therefore sometimes mutations are seriously detrimental to the mutant and at times it can be greatly beneficial. So in that respect yes I am saying that Mutations are random. However, with that being sayer, after the mutation has occurred it is not coincidence that it continues to exist or dies out. The mutation will either be beneficial or detrimental to the mutant. If its beneficial the mutant will be more like to live and reproduce, therefor the mutation will be passed on and spread until the entire species contains the mutation. But if it is detrimental the mutants will be less likely to survive and the mutation will eventually die out. So it is not coincidence that mutations spread through a population but it is coincidence that they occur in the first place

    And thank you! Awesome post… i drink way too much coffee haha

  5. collegeblogger19 says:

    I thought this article was fascinating, actually. It’s amazing how complex nature can be–through mutations and convergent evolution. To answer greyelephant1’s question on how skeptics of evolution might look at this article, I think they might discard it as too complicated. If one didn’t believe in evolution, it would be really hard to believe the complex processes that Carl Zimmer brings up in the article. How could two different plants go through two different processes to make the same thing? It doesn’t seem plausible if one is not familiar with the detailed processes of evolution. Evolutionists would absolutely confirm with this article, but I think non-believers of evolution as well as skeptics of evolution might refute the article, and be unwilling to finish it.

    • macnplease says:

      This is a very legitimate point that always makes me frustrated about the whole debate between those who understand evolution and those that reject it. When skeptics get overwhelmed by information (which happens constantly since there are mountains of evidence stacked in favor of evolutionary theory), they just dismiss it without a willingness to even consider it!

  6. waterbottle19 says:

    Going off of what the question how skeptics would view this article, I generally agree with the previous posts. I think skeptics would largely reject this as evidence, but not from a lack of understanding like previous posters have suggested. I believe they will reject it based on their faith alone. Not to be harsh, but a creationist is not interested in logic or reason. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is produced to prove a point contrary to what he/she believes. A creationist will use one scrap of evidence and ignore the other substantial heap of evidence against what he/she believes. It’s rooted in firm faith, so approaching the situation with saying that evolution is true and creationism is false to a creationist isn’t a winnable argument. The best way to approach the situation is to attempt to explain how both are compatible. How evolution could be a mechanism of creation.

  7. thinkbrush says:

    I was impressed with the author of “How Caffeine Evolved to Help Plants Survive and Help People Wake Up”, Carl Zimmer, and his effective methods of forwarding in this piece of writing. Because Carl Zimmer so craftily wove in the concepts of Victor Albert, he was able to thoughtfully and clearly extend his argument about caffeine in plants. Zimmer compels readers to understand the scientific basis of caffeine via authorizing before referencing Julie Mustard within his description of the tale of caffeine’s evolution. These strengths in his writing make his argument regarding the evolutionary journey of caffeine significantly more compelling.

  8. macnplease says:

    Interesting article. Like the evolutionary process of caffeine development in certain plants, we can see these evolutionary paths in many living things on earth outside of the human race, as Vikingsfootball33 discusses above. Sloths, for example, evolved in a manner that gave them a characteristic of remarkable lethargy and lack of movement. Having no intention to result in a beneficiary purpose, nature allowed a certain type of algae to grow on the Sloth’s fur (as a result of their slow movement). This algae started growing out of pure coincidence, yet after enough time the sloth and the algae started benefiting from each other; the sloth uses the algae as a camouflage and the algae takes in nutrients around the sloth. Like caffeine in plants, there are countless examples of coincidental evolutionary changes that ended up benefiting some (or all) parties involved in the cycle.

    I commend greyelephant1 for giving a good summary of the article they attached and then asking, “So what?” This is an integral part of academic writing, and the advancement of knowledge in general. Greyelephant1’s prompt at the end allowed for the natural flow of discussion to take place in the comments.

  9. thinkbrush says:

    For me, the content of this article reenforces abstract concepts of evolution in general. The comparison of evolution in humans and in plants highlights the fact that evolution is decided by no one. Plants with caffeine are more ubiquitous today because plants that mutated to have caffeine were naturally better protected from insects, protected their turf better and are more valuable to humans and therefore cultivated. These plants with caffeine spread better than plants without this mutation and therefore produced more descendants. This is scientifically similar to the evolution of humans but clarifies the serendipitous nature of mutation and gradualism and its everlasting effects.

    • graduallychanging says:

      Thinkbrush, I agree that the New York Times article is portraying the development of caffeine in a manner that shows that “evolution is decided by no one.” In order to convey this concept, Zimmer explained why caffeine was beneficial to the plants that created it. Zimmer’s comment, ” the coffee plant and cacao plant took different evolutionary paths to reach the same destination” made understanding that the plants evolved side by side, instead of copying caffeine from the other, much easier.
      Did that comment stand out to anyone else?

  10. moneytrees3001 says:

    I think the idea about manipulation that is put forth near the end of Zimmer’s article is both interesting and persuasive. We humans often feel like we’ve completely escaped the evolutionary relationships in nature because of our understanding of their function. But this is clearly not the case, as one can observe here; the caffeine adaption of plants affects us the same way it affects insects. Insects get a sensory boost, and so remember the location of the plant better, giving it a better chance of pollination. Humans drink and get addicted to coffee, and so plant more coffee plants. I would argue that the coffee plants plays both insects and humans to its advantage; we understand that caffeine evolved to addict us, yet we can’t escape its power. Greyelephant1, I think this study would persuade evolutionary skeptics because it’s a firm reminder of the role evolution plays in our lives at this very moment, a reminder repeated by Hall of Human Origins exhibit in its interactive displays of the future evolution of our own species.

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