The Human Appendix: It’s Not Evidence for Evolution

By L. Alfred James

The Human Appendix It's Not Evidence for EvolutionThe human appendix is a poster child of human evolutionary theory. Whenever human evolution is taught in public schools you can almost guarantee that the appendix will be mentioned. And if you were to poll people on the street, asking them for proof that we evolved, I’d bet that the vast majority would mention it as an important piece of evidence.

In case you were never subjected to this kind of public education, allow me a moment to explain. For most of human history it was unclear what function, if any, the appendix had. The only thing we knew for sure was that it can kill you really quick if it gets inflamed and is not immediately removed surgically. Thus, it appears to be a leftover, a vestige, of evolution. Useless but deadly.

And this seems like a powerful argument when it is combined with our own experience (or that of family members) when surgery was required to remove an inflamed appendix. After all, people without an appendix go on to live perfectly normal and healthy lives. So, apart from being potentially lethal, it doesn’t seem to do much of anything. This sentiment was nicely captured in a Popular Science magazine article by D.A. Turnquist nearly 100 years ago (in 1925). He said, “In the human body we find an amazing number of muscles and organs…which are useless or practically useless to us,” among these is the “appendix, which not only is useless, but often dangerous. It is believed to be a vestige of a time when our ancestors were grass-eaters.” This story has been repeated thousands of times, and it is still repeated in our day. In 2009 Jerry Coyne asserted,

In other words, our appendix is simply the remnant of an organ that was critically important to our leaf-eating ancestors, but of no real value to us. Does an appendix do us any good at all? If so, it’s not obvious. Removing it doesn’t produce any bad side effects or increase mortality (in fact, removal seems to reduce the incidence of colitis). Discussing the appendix in his famous textbook The Vertebrate Body, the paleontologist Alfred Romer remarked dryly, “Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.”1

On the surface, this appears to be a legitimate argument in favor of evolution. Are we supposed to believe that God designed this organ that doesn’t do much of anything, but kills you really quick if it gets inflamed and bursts? Does that sound like intelligent design? Honestly, it actually sounds more like stupid design. Why would there be such a thing in the human body? Well, if evolution is true, then we apparently have a good explanation. It is just a leftover.

However, there is a major problem with the evidence presented in most of these discussions (especially in schools). They assume that an organ must be useless if you can live without it. And then they assume something else: if an organ is useless, then it must be a leftover of evolution, right? However, neither one of these assumptions is true, as we will see.

First, just because people can live without a particular organ or body part, that is not proof that it is useless. People can live without a gallbladder, but a properly functioning gallbladder is very advantageous for digesting proteins and fats. Likewise, people can live without a spleen, but having a healthy spleen is definitely advantageous for an optimal lymphatic system. Heck, you can live without a left arm, but it is definitely advantageous to have both arms.

By the same token, you can live without an appendix, but that is not proof that it is useless. Indeed, mounting evidence shows it is advantageous to keep it. And this brings me to my second point: Recent research demonstrates that the appendix plays a very important role. It serves as a safe-house for beneficial bacteria for the gut, and it replenishes the gut with this good bacteria after diarrhea. Diarrhea, after all, not only flushes out toxins and pathogens. It flushes out everything in the gut, including the good bacteria we need to stay healthy.

This might not seem like a big deal. Some evolutionists downplay this research. Indeed, Jerry Coyne concedes that the appendix has this role, but he says it only provides “minor benefits”:

But to be fair, it may be of some small use. The appendix contains patches of tissue that may function as part of the immune system. It has also been suggested that it provides a refuge for useful gut bacteria when an infection removes them from the rest of our digestive system.2

In other words, “Yeah, it does something. But it isn’t all that important.”

The unfortunate thing about Coyne’s reasoning is that it is based on a very limited data set. It is based entirely on the experience of people who live in industrialized countries with clean drinking water and high standards for food safety. This is sad, because there are millions of people in the world who don’t have access to clean water and food. And diarrhea is an extremely common experience for them or their family members.

This is quite dangerous because recurrent diarrhea quickly leads to dehydration, and dehydration quickly leads to death. Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, diarrhea-inducing diseases are the second leading cause of death in low-income countries.

Thus, because it leads to dehydration, recurrent diarrhea is a major killer in our world.

But recent research (in these low-income countries) has revealed that those who have had their appendix removed have a significantly higher chance of dying from recurrent diarrhea. This is because they do not have an immediate supply of beneficial bacteria (which the appendix provides) to replenish the gut and combat invading pathogens. Meanwhile, those folks who still have their appendix are more likely to recover from such illnesses.3

Thus, it is easy for well-paid professors—living in Europe or the United States—to opine about the uselessness of the appendix. Their sources of drinking water are not teeming over with E. coli, C. difficile, or norovirus. But the same cannot be said for millions of other people. For them, an appendix provides a strong advantage for dealing with a serious problem that is part and parcel of their community.

In summary, the appendix is not useless, and it is not evidence for evolution. It is evidence of a Designer who cares for those who live in underprivileged regions of the world. And this whole discussion is further evidence of how hasty evolutionists have been to draw unwarranted conclusions (and make unwarranted pronouncements) about the certainty of their theory.

1. Jerry A.Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2009), 61.
2.Ibid.
3. In 2011, medical researcher Gene Im and his colleagues did a study in which they found there was a significant increase of recurrent diarrhea in patients who had had their appendix removed. Patients who still had their appendix were much less likely to experience any relapses of this acute form of diarrhea. Dr. Im explains, “The presence of an appendix has a significant and independent, inverse association with CDI recurrence [Clostridium Difficile Recurrence]”. In a video summary of their research he pulls no punches: “What is clear is the mounting evidence that the human appendix is indeed not simply a vestige of evolution, but likely an important player in the complex interactions between host immune responses and pathogenic and commensal bacteria in the gut.”
See Gene Y. Im, Rani J. Modayil, Cheng T. Lin, Steven J. Geier, Douglas S. Katz, Martin Feuerman, and James H. Grendell, “The appendix may protect against Clostridium difficile recurrence,” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 9 (2011): 1072–1077.

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