It’s called the Miracle Tree, the Tree of Life, and Nature’s Medicine Cabinet. Where Darwin’s “tree of life” (phylogenetic diagram) is a record of competition, selfish genes and extinction, this tree of life brings healing, hygiene and nutrition — in abundance!
Its scientific name is Moringa oleifera, but it goes by popular names like the drumstick tree, the horseradish tree, and various ethnic names. Every part of this plant, from roots to leaves to pods and seeds, is edible. Scientists are amazed that this simple plant is one of the most nutrient-rich foods known. Among its 92 nutrients and 46 antioxidants, it has:
- 10 times more vitamin A than carrots
- 7 times more vitamin C than oranges
- 25 times more iron than spinach
- 6 times more zinc than almonds
- 17 times more calcium than milk
- 17 types of amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids
- 9 times more protein than yogurt
- 15 times more potassium than bananas
- Multiple anti-inflammatory compounds
- Anti-aging properties
- Low calories and low sodium content
The nutritious compounds produced by Moringa fight cancer and heart disease, help prevent blindness, counteract obesity and diabetes, and improve people’s energy and well-being. But nutrition is not the only wonder in this plant. Its seeds can provide cooking oil. Crushed seeds can purify water and fight bacteria. The wood can be used for fuel. The trees help fortify the soil with nitrogen.
And get this — it grows where it is most needed, in arid, subtropical environments like Africa and India. The tree is durable and easy to grow from cuttings, and lasts many years. Poor farmers can find a living growing and selling Moringa. Malnourished children can quickly improve when fed the leaves without excessive cooking. The seed pods taste like green beans, only sweeter (NPR) and the plant can be enjoyed in tea, smoothies, juices, and salads, and as flour for baked goods. Westerners on unhealthy diets can benefit by adding crushed leaves to their normal food, or use Moringa capsules as a dietary supplement.
What’s Not to Love About This Plant?
The purpose of this post is not to give nutritional advice. Those interested can research Moringa further, and should ask their medical professional whether it is appropriate for them, and if so, in what amounts. The point to ask from an ID perspective is why on earth would a plant give so much and take so little? In Darwin’s “tree of life,” organisms are selfish. Every plant and animal is just trying to survive and compete for resources. What’s in it for Moringa to provide a virtual medicine cabinet and food store for animals and people it cannot even see?
One must be careful about using the nice examples, because not all plants are beneficial. Poison ivy is a vegetable, and so is hemlock. For every cuddly animal, there is toxic one eagerly waiting for Darwinians to hold up as an argument against design. Additionally, Darwin’s theory has evolved, so to speak; today’s evolutionary theorists readily talk about cooperation arising through natural selection or other mechanisms. Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” is not the whole picture these days. Actually, that’s a weakness for Darwinism. Matti Leisola in Heretic pointed out that Darwinism is so flexible, it explains everything, even opposite things (pp. 198-199).
Beyond a Struggle for Existence
These caveats being noted, the case for design in Moringa remains strong. In symbiotic relationships, each organism in Darwin’s tree has to get something out of the transaction to be naturally selected. That’s easy to see in mutualistic symbioses, where a yucca gets pollinated and the yucca moth gets a nice place to lay its eggs. Predator-prey relationships provide food for the lion at high cost to the prey, but stable food webs ensure that not all the prey are eaten. In one of Darwin’s personal favorite examples, a wasp lays its eggs inside a living caterpillar, so that the hatchlings can eat fresh food upon hatching. He could see no intelligent design in that!
In the case of Moringa, though, there is no life-or-death struggle. There is no mutual cost-sharing arrangement. This tree just grows and grows on its own. It doesn’t kill the predator, putting toxins on its leaves or thorns to say, “Keep out.” Most importantly, it goes to a lot of work in order to benefit animals, especially humans. Each vitamin and phytochemical requires DNA codes and molecular machines to produce. This is a costly operation for the plant to harvest sunlight and make all these beneficial compounds for others. A recently-published paper in Genomics examined the transcriptome of Moringa, looking for candidate genes governing the production of the tree’s multitudinous phytochemicals. The summary on Phys.org says that dozens were found in tissues from roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds:
A total of 36 candidate genes were tracked in this study from all five tissues. These include the synthesizing enzymes for compounds (flavonoids, terpenoids, vitamins and alkaloids like moringine) and transporters of minerals. Among these, the bioactive compounds of medicinal value such as quercetin (effective in metabolic disorders) and its synthesizing enzymes are observed more in leaves and flowers. Kaempferol (effective as anti-cancer agent) was observed to be abundant in the flowers.
If Moringa were selfish, it would do as little as possible to grow and reproduce. Look what a paper in Food Science and Human Wellness said in 2016. Explain this in Darwinian terms:
Moringa oleifera, native to India, grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is commonly known as ‘drumstick tree’ or ‘horseradish tree’. Moringa can withstand both severe drought and mild frost conditions and hence widely cultivated across the world. With its high nutritive values, every part of the tree is suitable for either nutritional or commercial purposes. The leaves are rich in minerals, vitamins and other essential phytochemicals. Extracts from the leaves are used to treat malnutrition, augment breast milk in lactating mothers. It is used as potential antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic and antimicrobial agent. M. oleifera seed, a natural coagulant is extensively used in water treatment. The scientific effort of this research provides insights on the use of moringa as a cure for diabetes and cancer and fortification of moringa in commercial products. This review explores the use of moringa across disciplines for its medicinal value and deals with cultivation, nutrition, commercial and prominent pharmacological properties of this “Miracle Tree”.
Does Evolution Explain Moringa?
To fit these observations into Darwinism, an evolutionist would have to argue either that (1) the plant needs every chemical it produces to survive. All those vitamins, antioxidants, anti-aging compounds and the rest would have to be so important to Moringa, it would go extinct without them. That seems false, because many other plants do fine with far less. Natural selection would not expend excess energy for nothing. Or, (2) a Darwinian might argue that Moringa evolved to become attractive to humans so that people would plant more of it and spread its genes. That seems a stretch as well. Birds might ingest the seeds and spread them, but why manufacture all those vitamins, minerals and complex organic compounds for that? Some plants require animals for seed dispersal, but not all of them. There’s nothing particularly attractive about Moringa trees, but they grow where people who most need their nutrition can benefit.
Does Design Explain Moringa?
At face value, this tree looks designed for the benefit of humans, animals, or both. Humans benefit especially, because other animals are not going to use it for firewood, water purification, cooking oil and other activities unique to humans. If humans had not even appeared when this plant began to exist, would that not indicate Foresight, as Marcos Eberlin argues in his book of that name?
The argument for design of phytochemicals in plants still needs to consider the bad cases: toxic plants like castor beans and oleanders, which can kill a man in small doses. If we put together Eberlin’s Foresight principle with Michael Behe’s Darwin Devolves principle, an explanation suggests itself. Intelligent design would propose that all creatures were beneficial at the start (foresight), but some genes were broken or blunted down the line (devolution). The evolutionary “arms race” to avoid predators took advantage of broken genes to accentuate the strength of some phytochemicals into becoming toxic, even if they started out beneficial. This idea could suggest testable hypotheses, such as:
- Do other plants contain these same genes for phytochemicals, but fail to produce them due to broken genes?
- Do toxins in plants derive from damaged genes that are beneficial in related species?
- Does mutating genes for beneficial phytochemicals in Moringa reduce its viability?
- How many of the beneficial genes are unique to Moringa?
- Are any of the enzymes that synthesize the phytochemicals irreducibly complex?
The design view, therefore, is a science-starter. Curiosity about this plant could lead to improved understanding of the genetic basis of its many benefits. Application of such findings could lead to global production for better nutrition, breeding of varieties for specialized purposes, and more ways to incorporate it into nutritious foods and drinks people enjoy. Even meat production might improve using Moringa as nutritious and easy-to-grow fodder for livestock. Third-world countries can get access to clean water. All that is needed are scientists like George Washington Carver to investigate the possibilities, like he did for peanuts and sweet potatoes, and then entrepreneurs to bring the benefits to the world.
Moringa, a real “tree of life” wins over Darwin’s “tree of life” (actually a tree of death and extinction) in a multitude of ways. May it grow and flourish!
Photo: Moringa oleifera, by Obsidian Soul [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.