Is the Appendix an Useless Organ?

Researchers have recently discovered that the appendix acts as a ‘good safe house for bacteria’. This protects and fosters the growth of good germs for use in the intestines, and enables digestive bacteria system to ‘reboot’ after bouts of disease such as cholera. The researchers point out that the very features of the appendix that caused people to think of it as useless turn out to be important features for its function, writes V. A. MOHAMMED ASHROF

 

 

Vestigial organs – such as the Appendix – were thought to be degenerate or atrophied, having become functionless in the course of evolution. Many biologists claim that vestigial organs are the leftover organs of evolutionary change, since we have evolved past our earlier variation what was needed then is no longer needed for our more evolved form. The point of such assertions is made clear in an older textbook, 1977’s Elements of Zoology:

‘Structures without use and of reduced size are termed vestigial organs. From the standpoint of special creation these organs are difficult to explain; from that of evolution they are obviously features that were functional and necessary in their ancestors but are now in the process of disappearing from living organisms.’1

In 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica recorded about appendix thus: ‘The appendix does not serve any useful purpose as a digestive organ in humans, and it is believed to be gradually disappearing in the human species over evolutionary time.’2

However, researchers have recently identified a new job that the appendix has: acting as a ‘good safe house for bacteria’. This protects and fosters the growth of good germs for use in the intestines, and enables digestive bacteria system to ‘reboot’ after bouts of disease such as cholera. The researchers point out that the very features of the appendix that caused people to think of it as useless turn out to be important features for its function.

The appendix’s position in the intestines enables the bacteria cultivated in the appendix to populate the colon with the natural flow of material through the colon. The small worm-like shape of the appendix restricts access and allows the bacteria a ‘safe haven’ to grow. These bacteria help in digestion and are essential for our survival. Since the body possesses more bacterial cells than human cells, one would expect the body, if it were designed, to take care of these bacterial communities so that they are always in abundant supply to do their job.

The appendix, in conjunction with other parts of the body which also contain cells called B-lymphocytes, manufactures several types of antibodies:

1. IgA immunoglobulins, involved in surface or mucosal immunity. These are vital in maintaining the protective barrier between the bowel and the bloodstream.

2. IgM and IgG immunoglobulins, which fight invaders via the bloodstream.

The appendix is, in fact, part of the Gut-Associated Lymphatic Tissue (GALT) system. The lymphoid follicles develop in the appendix at around two weeks after birth, which is the time when the large bowel begins to be colonized with the necessary bacteria. It is likely that its major function peaks in this neonatal period.

In a 1995 medical textbook, the authors are emphatic about the function of the appendix: The mucosa and sub-mucosa of the appendix are dominated by lymphoid nodules, and its primary function is as an organ of the lymphatic system.3

It is now known that the appendix contains lymphatic tissue and has a role in controlling bacteria entering the intestines. It functions in a similar way to the tonsils at the other end of the alimentary canal, which are known to increase resistance to throat infections, although once also thought to be useless organs.

Biologist S.R. Scadding sets out the implication of the evolutionary reasoning: “Since it is not possible to unambiguously identify useless structures, and since the structure of the argument used is not scientifically valid, I conclude that ‘vestigial organs’ provide no special evidence for the theory of evolution.”4

But the question is: if it has a function, why can it be removed without much ill-effects? Our body has been brilliantly designed, with plenty in reserve, and the ability for some organs to take over the function of others. Thus, there are a number of organs which everybody agrees have a definite function, but we can still cope without them. Some examples could be cited here:

Our gall bladder has a definite function – it stores bile from the liver, and squirts it into the intestine as required to help with the digestion of fat. However, it can be removed and the body will cope – for instance, by secreting more bile continuously. One can cope with having a kidney out, because there is still enough kidney tissue left in the other one. (In the same way, a part of the GALT, which includes the appendix, can be removed, and the remaining lymphoid tissue will usually be enough to carry on the total function). We won’t suffer from having our thymus out (if one is an adult), because this extremely important gland, which ‘educates’ our immune cells when we were very young, is then no longer required. This is likely to be very relevant to the appendix.

The history of science documents a steady reduction in the number of the so-called vestigial organs. The allegedly non-functional organs, one by one, turned out to be organs whose functions had not yet been discovered. Thus, at one time, biologists postulated there were 180 vestigial (functionless) structures (including the appendix) in the human body. Today, this list has shrunk to virtually none. Imagine asking a doctor in 1925 to remove all these ‘functionless’ structures from your body!

Why is the appendix so susceptible to disease? It is clear that appendicitis is only common in countries where a very highly refined modern diet is eaten. Where people eat a high proportion of vegetables, fruit and unrefined cereals, (in other words, have a high fibre diet), appendicitis is actually very rare. The appendix can become diseased from bacteria that are present in the intestinal tract. When infected, the appendix becomes swollen and inflamed, causing the extreme pain of appendicitis.

Why was the appendix regarded as vestigial? The reason lies in the dogmatism based on the primitive level of science at the time of Darwin and his supportive biologists. The appendix’s lymphoid tissue could not be viewed under their primitive microscopes. Unable to understand its structure, they regarded the tissue as “functionless” in the light of their own theories and added it to their list of “vestigial” organs.

 

The Marvelous Human Body

George Gaylord Simpson of Harvard University argued that the brain of man is “the most highly endowed organization of matter that has yet appeared on the earth.”5

The neuron may be likened to a switch which is turned either on or off according to the right conditions. Under normal body conditions, the frequency of [electrical pulse] transmission may range between 10 and 500 impulses per second.6

The impulse is not generated unless the neuron has been given a strong enough stimulus. It is hard to imagine the complex integration of electrical signals without realizing the Creator’s power and wisdom. The brain consists of approximately 100 billion nerve cells, and the number of synapses between them is estimated to be around 1 quadrillion. It is an absolutely incredible form of organized nerve cells so as to construct such a breathtaking intercommunication. The individual neuron is only a small component in the interconnected circuitry of the nervous system.

Information scientist, Werner Gitt says, “If it were possible to describe [the nervous system] as a circuit diagram, [with each neuron] represented by a single pinhead, such a circuit diagram would require an area of several square kilometers… [it would be] several hundred times more complex than the entire global telephone network.”7

 

References:

1. Storer, T and Usinger, R.L., Elements of Zoology, McGraw-Hill: New York, 1977, p.208

2. New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1997 Edition, Volume: 1, p.491

3. Frederic H. Martini, Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1995, p.916

4. Scadding S. R., Do ‘Vestigial Organs’ Provide Evidence for Evolution?, Evolutionary Theory, vol. 5, May 1981, p.173

5. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Life, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1949, p.293

6. Tortora, G.J. and Anagnostakos, N.P., Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, Harper & Row: New York, 1981, p.290,