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Almonds and Arsenic

How normally undesirable traits redefine fitness

“almond seed on top of green seeds” by chuttersnap on Unsplash

It’s not actually arsenic. It’s glycoside amygdalin which converts to hydrogen cyanide within your body. Not the first thing to come to mind when you think of almonds, but I thought it sounded like a play or something so here we are.

Although the nuts that you buy nowadays are safe for humans, their ancestors would have been fatal if consumed. How these once poisonous nuts became a household snack is an underdog story only Mother Nature could write herself.

I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond when I first stumbled upon this curiosity. The toxin in Almond trees likely evolved in order to discourage foraging animals (such as ourselves) from raiding their branches. So how did these once bitter nuts become palatable? Diamond points to a rare, seemingly unfavorable trait within the population: some of the trees bore fruit without poison.

This seems like a contradiction to the old adage of survival of the fittest. After all, the bitter genetic trait developed prevalence for a reason within the population. But this mutation allowed almonds to be one of the first foods to be domesticated by humans around 3000–2000 BC. Now, groves of almonds orchards stretch for miles down California, dwarfing the progeny of their bitter ancestor.

It’s a helpful reminder that seemingly negative traits or situations can have unforeseen benefits. Toughness from adversity. Innovation from desperation. Art from suffering. The inexorable duality of the highest highs and the lowest lows is a motif of our world. And sometimes, the only way to that high is to persevere through that low.

So be like the almond and make the best of what you were given. It is darkest just before the dawn.

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