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The Vestigial Organ

lcorhan's picture

            Without a doubt, everyone knows of someone who needed to have his or her appendix removed. Certainly, this begs the question, “What does the appendix do?” Although some people might seem as though they have had their brain removed, that is not a realistic procedure; nor can one have his or her heart removed. Many organs can be transplanted, to be sure, but why do we human beings have an organ that we can simply do without? Plenty of organs can be removed without fatal consequences, but there are almost always consequences. Yet this is not the case with the appendix. One has the appendix removed, generally recovers quickly, and then lives their lives, a couple ounces lighter, as if nothing has changed. The truth is that while the appendix served a purpose earlier in mankind’s evolution, it is now an unnecessary organ that can easily be removed if it creates problems. Now that it’s major role is becoming infected, why do we possess this ticking time bomb and will it always be a part of human anatomy?

            The vestigial organ known as the vermiform appendix is generally located in the lower abdomen as a junction between the small and large intestines. Due to its tendency to become inflamed and possibly cause death, the appendix was commonly removed during unrelated abdominal surgeries. This is no longer a common practice because the appendix can be used to reconstruct other organs such as the bladder. Also, some scientists believe it may serve as a place to store useful bacteria in the event that the digestive system loses these bacteria due to disease. Although bacteria regeneration is rarely needed in the U.S. due to higher population density and fewer digestive disease epidemics, citizens of developing nations may benefit from the appendix.
            Despite the possibility that the appendix helps to fight digestive epidemics in developing countries, currently over 2 million children in those countries die per year from diarrhea alone. Clearly, the appendix isn’t very effective in fighting digestive diseases today. What’s more, current studies show that people born without appendices are generally healthier. Because of these findings, it is clear that having an appendix is not advantageous to survival and therefore can be removed without repercussions when inflamed.
            Although the vermiform appendix benefited our evolutionary ancestors, it causes more harm than good to humans today. Like any trait that isn’t vitally necessary, humans will evolve to not have an appendix. Just like the many attributes of early human kind that once served a purpose and are now nonexistent, humans will be better off without the appendix. The appendix will be like the extended eyebrow ridge of early humans.
            That being said, the vermiform appendix will still be here in the generations of tomorrow. The appendix is not a strong enough threat to human health to be evolutionarily extinguished in the near future, however, it is on its way out. Each year in the United States alone 321,000 people are hospitalized for appendicitis and in any given year between 300 and 400 people die from it. If the original vermiform appendix developed to protect us from diseases, why is it causing so many deaths and complications? Moreover, if appendices now only cause death and disease then why are we still born with them?
            The problem with the appendix is that while initially it was used for protection against disease which warranted the risk of infection, the risk now outweighs the benefit; we no longer require the appendix for disease protection. One way to think of this is like having snow chains on car tires in Southern California. While snow chains are extremely useful in upstate New York, having them in Southern California would only be detrimental. Changing circumstances require a different and constantly changing set of tools, and the appendix in no longer needed, nor is it beneficial. This is essentially the concept that leads to evolution.
            Appendicitis will serve as evolution’s way of phasing out the appendix. While the appendix isn’t overtly detrimental, people born without it are at a decisive evolutionary advantage. This is due to the fact that they are generally healthier and do not possess the risk of appendicitis that those born with the vestigial organ have. It is near impossible to imagine a scenario where the appendix will always remain a human organ, as the scales are certainly tipped in the other direction.
            In the end, the appendix will live up to its seemingly facetious name. It will simply be a side-note in human anatomy that will puzzle future generations even more than it puzzles our current medical scholars. In the future, fewer and fewer deaths will be attributed to this troublesome organ as the number of people born with it approaches zero. Hopefully, the appendix will be replaced with a more useful organ in the future. Perhaps the tonsils will suffer a similar fate.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the future of the appendix and culture

"it is clear that having an appendix is not advantageous to survival"

Or more accurately, if I understand your paper correctly, it is advantageous to survival in particular contexts but not in others, including many contemporary cultures?  So the question about its future depends on the future evolution of human culture?