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The Banana: Proof of Intelligent Design

Updated on August 30, 2012
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The banana is one of the most important agricultural commodities in the world, grown for export and domestic consumption on farms and plantations across the tropics. A staple food of millions of people around the world, the banana and its relative the plantain seem almost too good to be true. The banana is almost tailor-made for human consumption - seedless, easy to peel, and perfectly sized for the human hand. This has led many to suggest that the banana was intelligently designed, as such a perfect fruit could never have evolved through natural processes.

As a matter of fact, this is correct. The seedless yellow banana in our supermarkets today did indeed have an intelligent designer - us. Over thousands of years of cultivation and hybridization, human beings have transformed the unpalatable berry of the banana plant into the fruit we know and love.

The less-than-appetizing inside of an unripe wild Musa balbisana fruit, with numerous hard seeds.
The less-than-appetizing inside of an unripe wild Musa balbisana fruit, with numerous hard seeds. | Source

How The Banana Lost Its Seeds

Modern bananas are hybrids of multiple varieties of two main species of banana plant: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. The fruits of the wild varieties of both plants are short, stubby berries filled with dozens of hard seeds - not a very palatable fruit for human consumption. However, thousands of years of human cultivation has produced polyploid plants with multiple sets of chromosomes: diploid plants with two sets and triploid plants with three sets. One of the results of this polyploidy in banana plants is the production of fruit with small inactive seeds, and even seedless fruit - ideal for human consumption.

Combining different varieties of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana has produced a large variety of bananas with different flavors. These varieties are grouped according to their chromosome makeup. The sweet Cavendish banana we are most familiar with is a triploid blend of three Musa acuminata genomes, and thus is in the AAA group of banana cultivars. The plantain bananas found in Latin American and West African cuisine are from the AAB group, with two sets of Musa acuminata DNA and one set of Musa balbisiana DNA, or the ABB group with one acuminata and two balbisiana sets.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Modern Banana Cultivation

While the production of seedless bananas is great for palatability, it does have the side effect of making it impossible for the banana plant to reproduce sexually. Banana plants also reproduce asexually, however, using an offshoot known as a corm to sprout a new stem once the main stem has fruited. Banana plantations continually dig up and replant these corms as they sprout in order to produce the next year's crop, as it takes 10-15 months for a banana plant to produce fruit from a corm. Once a banana plant has fruited it will not produce fruit again, so the main plant is cut down and the land re-used.

This asexual reproduction does have some negative consequences for sustainability, however. As the modern banana plant is essentially a clone of previous generations of its variety, it never has the opportunity to combine DNA with other banana plants and does not have the ability to evolve through generations of sexual reproduction. This makes banana plants extremely vulnerable to disease and pests, as the plant is not able to evolve resistance or defense mechanisms.

The consequences of this were felt strongly in the early 20th Century, when an outbreak of Panama disease - a fungal infection fatal to banana plants - wiped out many South American plantations that were growing the Gros Michel, or "Big Mike" banana variety. This caused severe banana shortages in the United States and inspired the 1923 hit song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas." The Cavendish variety grown today is resistant to Panama disease, but could be susceptible to future disease outbreaks without human intervention.

Map of Ancestral Banana Species and Subspecies

show route and directions
A markerbanksii -
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C markerburmannica -
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E markermicrocarpa -
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F markertruncata -
get directions

G markermalaccensis -
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H markerzebrina -
get directions

I markerM. balbisiana -
get directions

Ripening hand of bananas in Vietnam
Ripening hand of bananas in Vietnam | Source
Banana flower with baby bananas
Banana flower with baby bananas | Source

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Early Banana Cultivation: Genetic and Archaeological Evidence

Modern genome analysis of wild and cultivated banana varieties has found that the various subspecies of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana evolved from an ancestral Musa species over a wide region of Southeast Asia. Different subspecies arose on different islands of modern-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Leste, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea, as well as Burma, Thailand, and southern China on the mainland. Many of these locations are separated by large portions of the South China Sea, making it unlikely that the flowers from one subspecies cross-pollinated with another subspecies without human intervention.

Archaeological evidence of banana cultivation has now been found in multiple locations in Africa and Asia. Since cultivated bananas do not produce seeds and the tissue of leaves and stems does not preserve well, the primary evidence of ancient cultivation is found in microscopic silica deposits known as phytoliths.

Phytoliths are produced by many different species of plants using silicon, oxygen, carbon, and other elements taken up from the soil. Though their exact purpose is not known, they are thought by many botanists to provide support to plant structures. The phytoliths produced by different types of plants have unique shapes and chemical signatures, making them useful as a botanic fingerprint for identifying ancient plants whose tissues have long since decayed away. The presence of carbon in phytoliths also allows them to be used for radiometric C14 dating, establishing an estimated age when the plant lived.

At an archaeological site in Nkang, Cameroon, phytoliths found in pottery shards have been identified as belonging to an AAB plantain variety. These have been dated radiologically to between 2,300 and 2,750 years ago. Since the ancestor Musa species are not native to Africa, it indicates that this plantain variety was hybridized much earlier and brought to Africa by human migration or trade.

An even older example of cultivation has been found at Kuk Swamp in the Papua New Guinea highlands. The phytoliths found at this site have been found to belong to the native-dwelling M. acuminata banskii subspecies, and were found along with soil mounds and stone tools indicative of early agriculture. These were dated to between 6,440 and 6,950 years ago, demonstrating that cultivation of the banana likely dates back nearly seven thousand years.

A Long History of Human Design

Like many domesticated plant and animal species, the banana is an example of human design. Over thousands of years, human intervention has taken a wild plant and modified it into an organism that meets our needs in a way that would be impossible by natural selection alone. Today, human design is even more intricate than cross-pollination and hybridization - we have the capability to manipulate, splice, and even create genes from scratch. In July 2012, a team of French geneticists sequenced the M. acuminata genome - an important breakthrough in the effort to preserve the Cavendish banana. It may be that this new genetic technology will be what saves our seedless banana creations from the next disease that threatens their existence.

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    • NathanielZhu profile image

      Nathaniel Zhu 5 years ago from Virginia Beach

      oh phhheewww. From the title I thought this was going to be one of those BS religious arguments about intelligent design but I got a well deserved smack in the face once I started reading.

      Great article!

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Haha! Mission accomplished! Thank you for reading - glad you enjoyed it!

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hahahaha! Very clever title, you had me going for a minute there. Essentially you could refer to any sort of domestication as 'intelligent design' except that its us, not any sort of God that's responsible. Voted up etc.

    • f_hruz profile image

      f_hruz 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Scott, what a great example how to present facts!

      Human ingenuity in food cultivation had a real and practical focus 6,500 years ago ... so clinging to ID and Creationism to maintain the myth that some god created man around that time, can now be debunked with the help of a banana ... I love it! :)

      Congratulations - I'd like to formally suggest your hub for inclusion into the category of "Advancing the Understanding of Science"

      Franto in Toronto

    • cryptid profile image

      cryptid 5 years ago from Earth

      Very informative. I too thought this was going to have religious slant, but it turned out to be much more interesting. I'll never look at a banana the same.

    • HSAdvocate profile image

      HSAdvocate 4 years ago from Home

      You got me... Excellent bait and switch and a good explanation of the domestication and utility of one of my favorite foods!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "Today, human design is even more intricate than cross-pollination and hybridization - we have the capability to manipulate, splice, and even create genes from scratch."

      No, we can't create genes from scratch. We can create jeans from scratch: I get mine at JC Penny.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "You can argue the semantics if you like"

      I will, don't worry.

      "Yes, not all of the code was original - the bulk of it had to be borrowed from nature in order to make the cell work. "

      In my scientific experience, that's plagiarism. I'm pretty sure that my thesis committee would have rejected a document that was 'borrowed' from another source.

      What Dr. Venter did was really cool, but he didn't create life.

      "But other genes, like Venter's "wartermark" were original sequences not found in nature."

      So? What functional purpose does the watermark serve? Zero. It's an advertisement for his lab. You are actually making my point anyway: the watermark required intelligence to create.

      Read Dr. Venter's Book, as I have, and get back to me. We can discuss. http://www.amazon.com/Life-Decoded-My-Genome/dp/B0...

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 4 years ago from USA

      "What Dr. Venter did was really cool, but he didn't create life."

      Ok. So? I never made that assertion. Congratulations on once again defeating your own straw man.

      All I stated in my last paragraph is that we have the capability to create functional genes from scratch. What Craig Venter actually did with his synthetic genome is irrelevant. The fact remains that the technology to create a functional gene by outputting nucleotides exists.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

      ""What Dr. Venter did was really cool, but he didn't create life."

      Ok. So? I never made that assertion. Congratulations on once again defeating your own straw man."

      And no one said you did make that assertion.

      "The fact remains that the technology to create a functional gene by outputting nucleotides exists."

      As I seem to be saying to you over and over: so what? To what end? Are you suggesting that something else will follow? Share with us your vision.

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 4 years ago from USA

      "As I seem to be saying to you over and over: so what? To what end? Are you suggesting that something else will follow? Share with us your vision."

      Actually, you've never said that until just now. You began by denying that humans can create genes. When I proved you wrong you moved the goalposts to assert that humans cannot create life. Now that I've shown the irrelevance of that argument you are moving the goalposts again to say "so what?"

      The point of this article was to show how human cultivation has designed the modern edible banana from the inedible fruit produced by natural evolution. The conclusion - my "vision" - is that as a result of the cloning process human cultivators have been using, the banana has not been allowed to evolve naturally and is thus very susceptible to disease. Thus, the genetic technology we have invented will likely need to be used to redesign the banana in the near future in order to prevent it from being wiped out.

      That's it. That's my "vision." I can't wait to see where you take the goalposts next.

    • twosheds1 profile image

      twosheds1 4 years ago

      I was SOOOO ready to post a nasty reply, but then once I read, I realized... Well done. Voted up.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "Actually, you've never said that until just now. You began by denying that humans can create genes. When I proved you wrong... "

      You proved you were uninformed. Humans did not create genes, they copied existing genes. That's like saying I created a car by putting a functional engine from one car into another functional car.

      And the watermark doesn't count: that's like saying I created a car by putting license plates on it.

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 4 years ago from USA

      "Humans did not create genes, they copied existing genes."

      Now where did those goalposts go? I swear I just saw them here a minute ago. Where are they?

      I mean, all I stated was the fact that we can create genes from nucleotides. Now the goalposts have been moved to differentiate between functional and non-functional DNA produced by Craig Venter's lab. Never mind the fact that the technology to create synthetic genes has been around since the 1970s.

      The only logical conclusion I can arrive at from this exchange is that not only are Creationists intellectually dishonest, they're also terrible sore losers.

    • PrometheusKid profile image

      PrometheusKid 4 years ago from Heaven

      I don't think nicomp is a creationist scott.

    • f_hruz profile image

      f_hruz 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      If not a creationist, then maybe an intelligent design artist or simply a defender of the common god delusional joker?

    • Spongy0llama profile image

      Jake Brannen 4 years ago from Canada

      Awesome article! The title scared me into thinking you were a christian fundamentalist picking straws as usual. I'm glad my assumption was wrong! This is really great, the history of the banana is fascinating and I am immensely interested in what insights selective breeding and cultivation can give into the process of evolution.

    • profile image

      ScottLeMay 2 years ago

      So how did the original plants come into existence, or how did man develop the intelligence to design?

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 2 years ago from USA

      Scott,

      Good questions. The answers to both are the same: evolution.

      In the case of bananas, the wild muss species that humans hybridized into modern bananas evolved naturally from ancestors in the musaceae family. In humans, intelligence likely evolved due to natural and cultural selection pressure.

    • YogaKat profile image

      YogaKat 2 years ago from Oahu Hawaii

      Aloha from Hawaii - Did you know we have pink bananas in Hawaii? How bizarre is that? Maybe the pink banana has seeds? I don't know, but I was at Harold L. Lyon Arboretum - University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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