May 11, 2008
While reading a high school biology textbook written by two highly reputable science authors, I couldn’t help but feel resentment when I came across the following statement: “The appendix is a vestigial organ that does not seem to serve a function in digestion today.”
The statement is misleading. Now it’s not as much the first half of this statement I wish to contest as the last, although I have a few non-traditional opinions about the first half as well. The official position on vestigial organs here is that we don’t claim them any more favorable to the atheist, evolutionary worldview than the faith-based, creationist worldview, and that all participants in the debate need to understand clearly what constitutes a vestigial structure. The point of this post and why I think it belongs on the site is that even accomplished biology textbook writers holding Ph.D degrees and better occasionally succumb to confirmation bias and perpetuate errors and misconceptions concerning the human body. With the textbook editors I will be less forgiving, first for not catching the error in the editing process, and second for not explaining anything else about the matter of vestigial organs at all. For example, what concrete point of reference do we have upon which we might reason the current state of affairs in the appendix is reduced or in any way rudimentary? Can we say with surety that the appendix did more for Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago or at any other point in time? Or is our conclusion reached on account of more functioning appendices in other species?
The English vestigial derives from the Latin vestigium, meaning among other things an imprint or trace. Definitions of vestigial organs vary from source to source. My personal, off-the-cuff definition as I write this today is "the remnant of a superior, fully functional organ thought to have once existed in an ancient ancestor, based on the theory of linear descent from a LUCA. Generally characterized by reduced function, it is important to note that not all vestigial organs are claimed to be useless and there is nothing about the term that demands non-utility. German Anatomist R. Wiedersheim in 1893 included approximately 85 structures in his original list of vestiges, and it was later said that man possessed nearly 200 vestigial organs including the appendix, coccyx, pineal gland, the tonsils and the pituitary gland. Of course as science and understanding of human anatomy have progressed, the number of vestigial organs has dwindled, and there is of course ongoing debate about the subject. Medical professionals have demonstrated bona fide functions of many organs classified as vestigial, supported among other documented evidences by the observation of drastic changes in patient physiology noted upon removal of the organ in question. For example, the extensive work of the Calderoli brothers details this occurrence in tonsillectomy patients.
More accurately described as a gland than an organ, the modest vermiform appendix sits in a crucially important location, located just below the ileo-cecal valve at the beginning of the colon or large intestine. Other animals have larger appendices such as the Koala bear and we know rather specifically what some of the functions of the appendix are. Among other things it has an active relationship with the hypothalamus gland, and one function of the hypothalamus is to regulate body responses in a manner conducive to its protection. With an average length around three inches, this tube-like cluster of lymph and glands is responsible for secreting a germicidal fluid that is automatically injected into the colon in the event that waste matter coming from the small intestine is determined to be toxic for the individual.
Poor eating habits add to the burden of our faculties and when maintained over a significant duration of time, the appendix will eventually tire from overexertion. Appendicitis is a typical result descriptive of a worn and inflamed appendix. Too much toxic waste for too long causes the appendix to work overtime and once the limit of inflammation has been reached, the poor gut has no choice but to burst, causing considerable pain and privation to the sufferer. Among other things your appendix is a built-in detector and neutralizer of certain toxicities and poison, a seemingly fitting feature congruent with many other self-maintenance mechanisms our bodies possess.
Especially in the context of the argument, Miller and Levine’s statement that the appendix "does not seem to serve a function in digestion today" is an inaccurate and misleading claim, one that nutritionists and health experts have been known to take issue with. As stated the claim does not belong in a high-school textbook, especially in the absence of further information about the appendix or the phenomenon of vestigial organs in general, and the claim is of the caliber one might expect from an irresponsible tabloid newspaper, cheap YEC tract or the machinations of science-fiction. In fact, thinking back I do recall that Isaac Asimov makes this very same claim in his Words of Science: "The appendix is thus the useless remainder of a once useful organ…"
Now I normally don’t have too much of a problem with assumptions provided they are supported by sound logic, observation or scientific principle. However, when an assumption is not only unfounded and unscientific but also demonstrably wrong, I do have a problem, and when such assumptions are pawned off onto unsuspecting school kids in the name of science, whether in defense of creationism or evolution in my such tactics are certainly reprehensible. The error of calling the appendix an organ as opposed to a gland is really just a technicality and is, of course, both arguable and forgivable. However, the error of claiming the appendix "does not seem to serve a function in digestion today" reveals ignorance regarding nutrition and anatomy.
Another enigma is why those militant about the quality of science education in this country don’t seem to apply the same level of stringency when an error is unrelated to creationism. What’s further interesting is the special pleading of individuals who embrace vestigial organs as suggestive of Darwinism while harshly criticizing those who embrace life’s complexity as being suggestive of intelligent design, when both conclusions are in fact arrived at via identical means. Isn’t declaring an organ vestigial on account of the fact we haven’t identified its function yet the very same error ID gets charged with for declaring the universe a product of intelligent design because we haven’t discerned a natural cause for it yet?
However it arose, the appendix is a useful feature of human physiology.