The Cranberry and Evolution

on November 27, 2010; last featured November 27, 2020
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This small fruit plays a big role in the traditional Thanksgiving holiday dinner in the United States. So should we have given thanks to evolution for the cranberry?

From its bitter taste to its ability to float, the cranberry isn’t your average fruit. Inside Science News Service offers a look at what makes the cranberry special—and commercially popular. But if the report is to be believed, the cranberry’s uniqueness is all the work of evolution.

Cranberries did not “evolve” into a more advanced organism

For one thing, cranberries are dispersed quite differently from most fruits, which rely on hungry animals to eat them and spread the seeds as they travel. Instead, cranberries, which grow well in wetlands, rely on water for transportation. According to geneticist Nick Vorsa at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research, this explains why other fruits evolved to produce sugars (to attract animals), while cranberries didn’t have to—leaving them naturally sour and bitter.

Vorsa thinks the evolutionary stimulus came during the most recent ice age, when fewer animals were around to eat the fruit. Selective pressures led to sweeter and sweeter blueberries, for instance, but cranberries grew more acidic. Many years later, the cranberry’s ability to float drove its commercial success because harvesting was relatively straightforward. Cranberry bogs are flooded, and the floating berries are skimmed off the top. The cranberry is also popular for its medical merits, which may trace back to its distinct chemical composition.

So should we thank evolution for cranberries? To the contrary, natural and artificial selection make sense in the biblical worldview. Cranberries did not “evolve” into a more advanced organism; environmental and human pressures may have selected for cranberries with certain characteristics (e.g., better floaters). Easy seed dispersal via water probably meant that there was no selective pressure for sugar production, which other fruits may have experienced. The cranberry, like all fruits, has no doubt seen many changes over time, but it ultimately traces back to God’s creation.

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