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Vestigial Structures


Definition - a vestigial structure is one which no longer functions in the original form in which it was adapted.  Notice that the definition does not say that the structure in its present state is necessarily functionless.


A few structures are listed and discussed below.  These are best understood and are best explained through an evolutionary framework. The reader is invited to research antievolution explanations and decide for yourself which discussions make more sense. Possible explanations are not the same as probable explanations.   Since most people are interested in humans, examples are heavily weighted towards our species.  In general, evolution predicts that there should be many vestigial structures and those who deny macroevolution predict there should be none.


Selected diagrams and pictures -------------- >  Click here


I  Human


1. Appendix - the correct name for this structure is the vermiform appendix because in many cases it resembles a worm (vermiform = worm-like).  It originates from the bottom of the ascending colon in humans, below where the small intestine joins the large intestine. It can be as long as 10 cm (about a half a foot in length). Uniquely, it is not common, being only found in humans, rabbits, other apes, and two species of marsupials.  When compared to the large cecum and appendix of the rabbit it is easy to see how it would be assumed to be vestigial, especially when removing it causes no known deleterious effects and it becomes infected so often in modern societies. Acute appendicitis is common in humans and is said to be a well recognized cause of death in gibbons who are in captivity. Scott in 1980 published an anatomical comparative study of primate appendices. His conclusion was that it was not vestigial because there was evidence that it began to develop in Old World monkeys and actually progressively developed in primates. Appendix picture: click here.

     In 2007 Bollinger et al.  and LINK published a paper outlining a hypothesis that the human appendix indeed had a function and that was to be a 'safe house' or kind of 'bacterial Noah's Ark' for repopulating the biofilm (the complex layer of bacteria that coats the intestines) of the gut after a severe case of diarrhea. They further discuss reasons why appendicitis occurs in up to 6% of industrial societies but not often in developing countries.  Possible etiologies include the differences in diet and the "hygiene hypothesis".  They suggest the latter is more agreeable to them, with the immune tissue in the appendix becoming over reactive due to the lack of prior stimulation as we develop in cleaner environments (similar to the allergist stating, "eat dirt and live").  This publication and immune discussion was greeted with great joy by opponents of evolution since in their worldview macroevolution is untrue and there should be no vestigial structures.

     However, in reading Bollinger et al.'s article it becomes clear that these researchers are stating that it probably IS becoming vestigial right in our own time. On page 830, section 5 they write,


"However, to the extent that the primary function of the appendix is the one proposed herein, it might be argued that the human appendix is not important in industrialized countries with modern medical care and sanitation practices.  Indeed, maintenance of a reserve supply of commensal bacteria in the event of infection by pathogens may be unnecessary in areas where outbreaks of enteric pathogens do not affect the vast majority of the population at any one point."


And in an interview with Parker, one of the authors of the study, the reporter Bob Hirshon at one point speaking with Parker on an AAAS Science Update states:


"Parker and his colleagues, including R. Randal Bollinger, propose something a little bit different: Yes, the organ doesn't really serve a purpose to modern Americans — but the organ probably became obsolete within the past century or two, not over hundreds of thousands of years."


Thus, this article is really providing evidence for the human appendix in the process of becoming vestigial - even stronger evidence for natural selection and evolution since it is occurring during our lifetimes. In addition, it should be noted that this is only a hypothesis. What really needs to occur is for someone to test it. Calculate how many chimps would be statistically needed to perform a randomized blinded study to answer it; remove the appendix in a group of chimps and compare an introduced diarrheal infection to a group with intact appendices.  The Discovery Institute has a nearly $4.5 million annual budget; this would be an excellent opportunity. The other aspect about this hypothesis is the shape of the finger like appendix dangling off the cecum. Is that really the best shape for holding bacteria to recolonize the gut? Would it not be better to have recharging stations scattered along the biofilm in more shallow structures?  And who's to say that the entire biofilm is compromised during infection - would not much of it remain behind? Has anyone tested that part of the hypothesis? See comments by Theobald, Why that appendix still hurts.


In 2009, several of the authors also published a paper using phylogenetic comparisons that they inferred showed the appendix has been selected for and thus is conserved by selection (has a function). Link  PZ Myers discusses why this approach is suggestive by lacks vigor in its conclusions. What is needed is genetic comparisons to finally examine if the appendix really does have a necessary function in humans. Link   Link


2. Arrector pili - attached to each of our body hairs is a small muscle bearing the name listed here.  When they contract, the hair becomes erect and a small dimple forms on the skin due to the shortening of the skin around it; we commonly call these "goose bumps" since they resemble the skin of a plucked bird. When do these occur?  Common situations are when we step out of a shower on a cold day or if we are frightened, often our hairs will stand up at the base of our neck. What is going on? With us, there is no real function.  But in birds on a cold day you can see them fluff their feathers in order to trap heat and keep themselves warm, producing an insulating effect. So too, in mammals this can increase insulation.  In some animals, like cats, it can also make them seem larger when they are threatened. Prediction - if anyone studies the genes controlling this remnant function in detail, the same basic genes that control the response in mammals and birds should be found in us.


3. Coccyx & extensor coccygis - to just about anyone, our tail bones look like a shrunken tail. A designer could have put together something that only had a few bones or looked very different. Why does it LOOK like a tail? And occasionally a person is born with a tail outside their bodies and some persons are born with a muscle attached to it that is identical to the muscle that wags the tails of other mammals (see human tail atavism).  Yes, it still anchors some muscles of the pelvis today, but there are other ways this could have been accomplished without a series of small bones with the appearance of a tail, and one that has a muscle attached that is identical to muscles used for wagging tails of living mammals.


4. Ear muscles - in land and some water dwelling mammals there is an outer ear called the pinna or auricle. It is attached to the skull by a series of muscles. In mammals except humans it can be moved for sound localization or flapped for cooling; for example in cats their pinnae can be independently rotated 180 degrees and each has some 30 muscles.  In humans, our pinnae also have intrinsic muscles: helicis major, helicis minor, tragicus, antitragicus transverse and the obliques auriculae.  Our extinsic muscles that attach the auricles to the skull and scalp include the auriculares anterior and the auriculares superior. Muscles are for movement and yet no human can move their ears like a dog, deer, cat, or elephant. If we were going to design a human we would not attach the ears with atrophied small useless muscles.  This only makes sense if they are remnants from a time when our outer ears really could be moved significantly at will.


Un-Intelligent Design: Human Ear Muscles - LINK


5. Lanugo - at about 6 months gestation while in the womb we become completely covered in a fine hair called lanugo. We carry it until a month before delivery when it is shed and replaced by the less dense type of body hair we will have as an adult.  In humans this transitional hair serves no purpose.  But in monkeys, who are covered with this type of hair at the same stage in their development, they do not shed it and it later forms their thicker coat of body hair after they are born.


6. Male breast cancer - about 2,000 men contract breast cancer in the US each year.  It is as deadly for them as it is for women. That means men have breast tissue that could be induced to make milk.  Why would a creator design not just nipples but actual breasts for a gender that would never use them? And of course there is the human nipple line where people can grow extra breasts from their armpits to their groin along a nipple line often seen in other mammals.


7. Mammalian testes - in humans, male testes begin development in the abdomen near the kidneys although to properly function they must be in a cooler place outside of the warm body. When the male fetus is six to seven months old they begin a long migration into the pelvis through two oblong openings called the inguinal canals and at birth even need to slip over the pubis finally ending, if all goes well, in the scrotum. Sometimes they don't make it or slip back up into the abdomen.  They should stay down in the scrotum by 3 - 6 months.  If they remain in the abdomen they can become cancerous later if not brought down with surgery or even removed if not found until later (cryptorchidism). Where the testes descend through the abdominal wall the channel closes and forms a remnant ligament called the gubernaculum. Unfortunately for many adult males, if enough abdominal pressure is exerted later in life, a delamination can occur producing an inguinal hernia that often needs to be repaired. This incredible testicular journey with its occasional errors occurs because of our past ancestry and location of the testicles in distant ancestors.  A grand designer would never sketch out such a convoluted developmental sequence.


8. Plantaris muscle - this muscle is about 2 - 4 inches long and found in the foot, although it is missing in about 7 - 10% of people. It provides so little function that it is often harvested to be used elsewhere during reconstructive surgery. It is often so small it is mistaken for a nerve by medical students and has been called the 'freshman nerve'.  Dr. Richard Brown of Bristol, UK wrote on the Internet: "Ever since I first dissected the plantaris muscle in the human calf as a medical student, I have been a convinced evolutionist. In the monkey it is a useful muscle which causes all the digits to flex at once, and thus is useful in swinging from trees by the feet.  In the human it is atrophied, may be absent, and does not even reach the toes, but disappears into the Achilles tendon."


Continued on next page  ------------------------->  Link

Biomed 5/10