Was Darwin a Stoner? A Biological Glance Into the Evolution of Cannabis

We hate to break it to you, but the short answer is “no, Darwin was not a pothead.” However, the On the Origin of the Species author did have a ‘weed garden’ which was his testing mechanism for the principle of natural selection – one of the key tenets of his theory of evolution. Sadly, though, the ‘weed’ garden was comprised of actual weeds, and not marijuana! Even so, it gave us an interesting idea, which is to look at the evolution of marijuana from a biological sense.

The Early History of Marijuana

Unfortunately, even though there are no cannabis fossils on record, there is a possibility that the magical herb first arrived on earth over 34 million years ago! And interestingly enough, scientists now believe that endocannabinoids – which are the active ingredients in marijuana – first developed over 600 million years ago!

We are very much entering ‘unproven theory’ territory here, but there is even a suggestion that a “proto-cannabinoid” receptor evolved in primitive organisms even before the great division of plants and animals, which was around one billion years ago.

It is possible that when a nettle-type plant of some sort mutated, the reactivation of its cannabinoid genes caused it to ooze THC which confused and intoxicated animals that were a threat to the plant’s survival. Eventually, the intoxicated animals became prey and predators came along, feasting on the drugged-up animals and spreading the proto-cannabis plant’s genes around.

As we fast forward to 10,000 BC or so, archaeologists are forced to admit that they don’t know the identity of the first cannabis farmers. It is, however, around this date that the Taiwanese people were first believed to press weed into their pottery creations.

Carl Sagan once said that it would be wryly interesting if the cultivation of the marijuana plant were the reason for the invention of agriculture. This is plausible enough, as cannabis probably originated in Asia and it is there that Homo erectus was believed to migrate some 1.75 million years ago. By 1 million B.C. humans had discovered how to control fire, so one wonders if marijuana was being smoked way back then?

In reality, it is likely that mankind first used cannabis well over 12,000 years ago, but details of when it was first cultivated are sketchy. Also, suggestions as to the first cultivators vary; some say it was the lost civilization of Shangri La, while others believe it was nomadic tribes in the Central Asian steppes during the Neolithic period (10,200 BC – 2,000 BC).

Whatever the case, according to legendary historian Herodotus (who was alive in the 5th century BC), it is generally accepted that the Scythians carried hemp seeds into Europe and eventually migrated to India and China. Once weed was transported across Eurasia, various communities started to select plants for different purposes (such as food, medicine, and fiber). As these communities were so isolated from one another, they produced different varieties of marijuana, and now we are very much the beneficiaries.

Marijuana Evolves

Scientists use biological taxonomy to determine which differing plant and animal species are related. Each species is referred to as genera, which is the plural of the term genus. These genera are grouped into families, which are then grouped into orders, and so on. This method enables scientists to learn more about the relationships and differences between the life found on planet Earth.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plant that comes from the Cannabaceae family. Approximately six million years ago, cannabis became diverged from the homulus genus, which is also known as ‘hops’ – the same kind you find in beer. What we’ve yet to determine is whether or not weed’s different species are a result of environmental, or human action.

One argument states that the split came long before humans were able to influence cannabis’ evolution. Remember, there have been significant changes in climate since marijuana came to exist. The Eurasian continent, for example, has been covered in glacial ice sheets at different times in history. In warm eras, the ice melted and cannabis spread north. In colder eras, the plant moved south in search of warmer weather.

In 1837, an Austrian botanist named Stephen Endlicher gave cannabis and Humulus (marijuana’s sister plant) their own family, which he called Cannabaceae. Hooker and Bentham then placed the cannabis plant in the nettle family Urticaceae in 1880, while Prantl and Engler transferred it to the fig family Moraceae nine years later. In the modern era, taxonomists prefer to place the plant in the Moraceae or Cannabaceae families.

What Are the Best Growing Conditions for Marijuana?

We now know that cannabis plants love sun and warmth. While marijuana can grow in a shaded environment, it produces a far lower yield than when exposed to direct sunlight. It is also a fact that weed grows best during the long days of spring and summer, and it only flowers when the period of daily darkness falls below 12 hours.

Marijuana can also adapt to differing moisture levels, but it produces scant amounts in drought conditions. However, it is susceptible to attacks from fungi if exposed to excessive levels of moisture. Ultimately, the marijuana plant performs best in a northern temperate climate with warm, wet summers as long as it is allowed to complete its full 4-6-month life cycle.

Marijuana & Coevolution

Darwin was the first to describe the term ‘coevolution,’ but it wasn’t until 1964 when Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich released their paper entitled “Butterflies and plants: A study in coevolution,” that the phrase became well known. Coevolution is when two different living species influence each other and help one another survive and adapt. There’s a distinct possibility that coevolution happens between humans and marijuana.

At one time, weed was confined to Central Asia, but with human assistance, it spread all over the world. Human selection for nutritional, medicinal, or industrial traits has resulted in a huge array of new cannabis species, and weed has become stronger, more adaptive, and more diverse because of its relationship with humans.

All in all, it goes without saying that we have benefitted enormously from cannabis. Take this into consideration: it is widely known that hemp seeds (which come from cannabis) are extremely healthy and nutritious for humans. So is it a coincidence that cannabis has evolved into a plant that produces seeds which just so happen to produce essential fatty acids in almost the precise ratio that we required!?

Moreover, marijuana is capable of dozens of medicinal uses, and even its ‘high’ can prove a boon to creativity. Some of the best art, music, and writing we’ve ever produced as a species owes its existence to weed!

Final Thoughts on the Biological Evolution of Marijuana

Ancient civilizations referred to marijuana as the ‘tree of life,’ which should tell you everything you need to know about this remarkable plant. It seems incredible to think that a plant with such a rich history, and one that has obviously coevolved with humans, is banned in all but one country in the world. Meanwhile, we destroy our bodies and minds with so-called ‘legal’ pharmaceuticals.

When you dig deep into the history of marijuana, you will come to realize that it is inextricably linked with mankind. It was not only legal but also incredibly useful for at least the last 12,000 years right up until the last century when suddenly, it became associated with crazy behavior and addiction. We are pleased to see that Canada is taking the logical step of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and we hope that other nations, and other states, will follow suit. We need our coevolutionary partner, and it needs us!

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