The Evolution of . . . Chocolate?

by Troy Lacey and Avery Foley on December 14, 2015; last featured July 7, 2019

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.”1

The practical applications (when stripped of the evolutionary baggage) are stated in the journal article:

The timing of diversification and extent of variability has implications for the chocolate industry as basing plantations on only a percentage of this genetic diversity means that it may be at unnecessary risk from disease and other threats such as climate change. Under-utilized wild varieties may be brought into cultivation to introduce greater genetic diversity that might protect against these risks and also introduce a wider range of flavors to the industry.2

In other words, domestication and artificial selection for some of the best traits (larger cacao beans, less bitter cacao beans, higher fat content in the nibs, and so on) have decreased the genetic diversity of the species. Now scientists are looking at ways to see if wild varieties can add back in some genetic diversity to make them more resistant to bacterial, fungal, and viral infections.

Rapid diversification is what we would expect from plant species early on in the post-Flood world.

In reality this has nothing to do with supposed algae-to-tree evolution. Rapid diversification is what we would expect from plant species early on in the post-Flood world. Genetic drift, natural selection, mutation, and others would have all been viable mechanisms driving speciation in a new world going through radical climate changes and ongoing geological upheavals. Once humans found out the potential of the cacao tree and domesticated the plant to produce cocoa, they began the process of artificially selecting the plants with the best traits (and once commercialization took over, this practice became standardized). This process over the past few centuries has led to a loss of genetic diversity. Natural selection is not a mechanism that resulted in the origin and evolution of the cacao tree; instead, it is a God-given mechanism that helped the tree speciate, survive, and thrive in the ecological and geographical niche it was in. Artificial selection may have improved productivity, but it cost the plant genetic diversity, which has made it more susceptible to diseases.

Chocolate and Social Justice

One added benefit of this study is the potential for more fair trade and ethically derived sources for chocolate. The article notes that “greater knowledge of the cacao tree and its relatives could broaden the sources for the world’s cocoa supply, allowing chocolate to be cultivated in regions that offer greater protection for workers, a welcome development in an industry blighted by reports of child labor,”3 particularly in West Africa. This is certainly an admirable goal in a biblical worldview. But these researchers hold to an evolutionary worldview, and in this view there is no ultimate basis for calling child labor wrong! How does an immaterial concept evolve (evolution applies only to material things)? In an evolutionary worldview, right and wrong are arbitrary because there is no ultimate basis, just man himself, so how can what is right and wrong as determined by one person apply to all people everywhere? While evolutionists can be moral and call things right and wrong, they do so arbitrarily and inconsistently with their worldview.

But in a biblical worldview, God and His Word provide an ultimate basis for determining right and wrong. God is the Creator and the very definition of good. Oppressing others is wrong, and Christians are to fight against oppression, especially the oppression of orphans and widows. Here is just a small sampling of the many verses that command God’s followers to seek justice:

Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And plead the cause of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:9)
Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy. (Psalm 82:3)
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Christians should be excited about the prospect that good, observable research (unlike evolutionary storytelling) could not only introduce new flavors of chocolate and increase the global production of cocoa beans, but that it also has the potential to help people to be treated fairly. We should strive to promote social justice in this world. One way that we at Answers in Genesis have done this is through a Fair Trade Market here at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.

Chocolate as a Reminder of God’s Goodness

Instead of giving us an insight into the evolutionary history of chocolate, this study actually shows us the amazing diversity God has placed into all organisms. Even when we commercially exploit a product and may have dramatically reduced its genetic diversity, God has created ample wild varieties and given humans the intellect to hybridize plant species to make them hardier.

Even in a sin-cursed, post-Fall world, God gives us much to enjoy.

In addition, we know that God created plants for human enjoyment (Genesis 1:29). Even in a sin-cursed, post-Fall world, God gives us much to enjoy. When the Israelites were getting ready to enter Canaan, God told them of the sweets they would enjoy: fig trees, pomegranates, and honey (Deuteronomy 8:8). Prior to the discovery of cocoa and the manufacture of chocolate (which has added sugar), these were some of the sweetest foods available. Now we live in a world where chocolate is readily obtainable, and like the Israelites who were reminded not to forget the good things God had given and was going to give to them, we should also acknowledge that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). And yes, chocolate is one of those God-given gifts for us to enjoy.


  1. Olivia Lowenberg, “Cacao Evolution Study Could Yield Sweet Results for Chocolate Industry,” Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 2015,
  2. James E. Richardson, Barbara A. Whitlock, Alan W. Meerow, and Santiago Madriñán, “The Age of Chocolate: A Diversification History of Theobroma and Malvaceae,” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 3, no. 120 (2015),
  3. Lowenberg, “Cacao Evolution Study . . . ”


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