Tuesday, September 21

Evolution of the Hot Pepper

In an interesting article in the New York Times this week the biology of the hot pepper is explored. Some facts to glean:

(1) humans love the pain of the pepper, and are the only mammals to do so:

"as Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

(2) the "hot" compound - capsaicin - seems to be actually be an evolved defense against fungus

(3) apparently as far back as 6,000 years ago people were domesticated these fruits in the Americas!

The article also points out:

"The fact that capsaicin causes pain to mammals seems to be accidental. There’s no evolutionary percentage in preventing animals from eating the peppers, which fall off the plant when ripe. Birds, which also eat fruits, don’t have the same biochemical pain pathway, so they don’t suffer at all from capsaicin. But in mammals it stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat."

All this interesting in the context of our conversation this week about spices from plants as a form of evolved plant defenses that humans just happen to find tasty while an insect very well may not... Alas, organisms are not such much things as realtions, all living in very different ecological niches of personal experience!


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