Wood has long provided mankind with construction material, fuel, enjoyable scenery, and shade. One of the most abundant biological products in the world, wood consists of the thickened cell wall deposits that provide support for branches and stems in trees and woody plants. Scientists recently described the oldest known example as “a simple type of wood,”1 but just how “simple” is this material?

The study published in Science looked at fossilized wood found in rocks that are supposedly 10 million years older than the prior record-holder. The discovery of this substance in “Early Devonian plants was unexpected,” the researchers wrote, presumably because wood is such a complicated biomolecule that it should have evolved later, not earlier.

According to one evolutionary hypothesis, wood supposedly evolved in order to propel plants skyward, giving them a survival advantage over their fleshy, low-lying cousins. However, the authors of the Science report suggested that wood instead evolved in response to an “early” plant’s need for carbon dioxide during a time when that gas was supposedly scarce. Plants require the carbon source to build sugar and wood, and with only small amounts of carbon dioxide available, the thought is that they might have developed wood to provide faster-flowing pipelines to gather the precious gas.

But which came first, the extra carbon dioxide that would be required to build the woody pipelines, or the woody pipelines that would be required to gather the extra carbon dioxide?

The study authors wrote that because of the small size of these woody plants, “the evolution of wood was initially driven by hydraulic constraints [inadequate fluid flow] rather than by the necessity of mechanical support for increasing height.”1 But neither inadequate water flow nor the necessity of mechanical support are sufficient causes for wood development. In the real world, problems never produce their own solutions. Rather, solutions are always purposefully engineered by intelligent problem-solvers….

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