Human Vestigiality

In the context of human evolution, human vestigiality [ve-stij-ee-al-i-tee] involves those characters (such as organs or behaviors) occurring in the human species that are considered vestigial—in other words having lost all or most of their original function through evolution. Although structures usually called ‘vestigial’ often appear functionless, a vestigial structure may retain lesser functions or develop minor new ones.

In some cases, structures once identified as vestigial simply had an unrecognized function. The examples of human vestigiality are numerous, including the anatomical (such as the human appendix, tailbone, wisdom teeth, and inside corner of the eye), the behavioral (goose bumps and infant grasp reflex), sensory (decreased olfaction), and molecular (junk DNA). Many human characteristics are also vestigial in other primates and related animals.

In 1893, Robert Wiedersheim published a book on human anatomy and its relevance to man’s evolutionary history. This book contained a list of 86 human organs that he considered vestigial, or as Wiedersheim himself explained: ‘Organs having become wholly or in part functionless, some appearing in the Embryo alone, others present during Life constantly or inconstantly. For the greater part Organs which may be rightly termed Vestigial.’ In the 1895 edition his wording was subtly, but significantly, different: ‘By such organs are meant those which were formerly of greater physiological significance than at present.’

Some of these organs that had lost their obvious, original functions later turned out to have retained functions that had gone unrecognized before the discovery of hormones or many of the functions and tissues of the immune system. Examples included: the role of the pineal in the regulation of the circadian rhythm (neither the function nor even the existence of melatonin was yet known); discovery of the role of the thymus in the immune system lay many decades in the future; it remained a mystery organ till after the mid-20th century; and the pituitary and hypothalamus with their many and varied hormones were far from understood, let alone the complexity of their interrelationships.

Historically there was a trend not only to dismiss the vermiform appendix as being uselessly vestigial, but an anatomical hazard, a liability to dangerous inflammation. As late as the mid 20th century many reputable authorities conceded it no beneficial function. This was a view supported, or perhaps inspired, by Darwin himself in the 1874 edition of his book ‘The Descent of Man,’ and Selection in Relation to Sex.’ The organ’s patent liability to appendicitis and its poorly-understood role left the appendix open to blame for a number of possibly unrelated conditions. For example, in 1916 a surgeon claimed that removal of the appendix had cured several cases of trifacial neuralgia and other nerve pain about the head and face, even though he stated that the evidence for appendicitis in those patients was inconclusive.

The discovery of hormones and hormonal principles, notably by Bayliss and Starling argued against these views, but in the early twentieth century there remained a great deal of fundamental research to be done on the functions of large parts of the digestive tract. In 1916 an author found it necessary to argue against the idea that the colon had no important function and that ‘…the ultimate disappearance of the appendix is a coordinate action and not necessarily associated with such frequent inflammations as we are witnessing in the human…’ There had been a long history of doubt about such dismissive views. Around 1920 the prominent surgeon Kenelm Hutchinson Digby documented previous observations, going back more than thirty years, that suggested lymphatic tissues, such as the tonsils and appendix, may have substantial immunological functions.

In modern humans, the vermiform appendix is a vestige of an organ that in ancestral species had digestive functions, much as it still does in extant species in which intestinal flora hydrolyse cellulose and similar indigestible plant materials. Some herbivorous animals, such as rabbits, have a terminal vermiform appendix and cecum that apparently bear patches of tissue with immune functions and may also be important in maintaining the composition of gut flora. It does not however seem to have much digestive function, if any, and is not present in all herbivores, even those with large caeca. The human appendix typically is about comparable to that of the rabbit in size, though the caecum is reduced to a single bulge where the ileum empties into the colon. Some carnivorous animals may have appendices too, but seldom have more than vestigial caeca. In line with the possibility of vestigial organs developing new functions, some research suggests that the appendix may guard against the loss of symbiotic bacteria that aid in digestion, though that is unlikely to be a novel function, given the presence of vermiform appendices in many herbivores. Intestinal bacterial populations entrenched in the appendix may support quick re-establishment of the large-gut flora after an illness, poisoning, or antibiotic treatment depletes or otherwise causes harmful changes to the bacterial population of the colon.

The coccyx, or tailbone, is the remnant of a lost tail. All mammals have a tail at one point in their development; in humans, it is present for a period of 4 weeks, during stages 14 to 22 of human embryogenesis. This tail is most prominent in human embryos 31–35 days old. The tailbone, located at the end of the spine, has lost its original function in assisting balance and mobility, though it still serves some secondary functions, such as being an attachment point for muscles, which explains why it has not degraded further. In rare cases congenital defect results in a short tail-like structure being present at birth. Twenty-three cases of human babies born with such a structure have been reported in the medical literature since 1884.

Wisdom teeth are vestigial third molars that human ancestors used to help in grinding down plant tissue. The common postulation is that the skulls of human ancestors had larger jaws with more teeth, which were possibly used to help chew down foliage to compensate for a lack of ability to efficiently digest the cellulose that makes up a plant cell wall. As human diets changed, smaller jaws were selected by evolution, yet the third molars, or ‘wisdom teeth,’ still commonly develop in human mouths. Currently, wisdom teeth have become useless and even harmful and are frequently removed.

In some animals the vomeronasal organ (VNO) is part of a second, completely separate sense of smell, known as the accessory olfactory system (devoted to pheromone detection). Many studies have been performed to find if there is an actual presence of a VNO in adult human beings. Trotier et al. estimated that around 92% of their subjects that had no septal surgery had at least one intact VNO. Kjaer and Fisher Hansen, on the other hand, stated that the VNO structure disappeared during fetal development as it does for some primates. However, Smith and Bhatnagar (2000) asserted that Kjaer and Fisher Hansen simply missed the structure in older fetuses. Among studies that use microanatomical methods, there is no reported evidence that human beings have active sensory neurons like those in working vomeronasal systems of other animals.

The ears of a Macaque monkey and most other monkeys have far more developed muscles than those of humans, and therefore have the capability to move their ears to better localize potential threats. Humans and other primates such as the orangutan and chimpanzee however have ear muscles that are minimally developed and non-functional, yet still large enough to be identifiable. A muscle attached to the ear that cannot move the ear, for whatever reason, can no longer be said to have any biological function. In humans there is variability in these muscles, such that some people are able to move their ears in various directions, and it has been said that it may be possible for others to gain such movement by repeated trials. In such primates the inability to move the ear is compensated mainly by the ability to turn the head on a horizontal plane, an ability which is not common to most monkeys—a function once provided by one structure is now replaced by another.

The plica semilunaris is a small fold of tissue on the inside corner of the eye. It is the vestigial remnant of the nictitating membrane, an organ that is fully functional in some other species of mammals. Its associated muscles are also vestigial. The plica semilunaris of Africans and Indigenous Australians are slightly larger than in other peoples. Only one species of primate, the Calabar Angwantibo, is known to have a functioning nictitating membrane (a transparent or translucent third eyelid present in some animals that can be drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining visibility). The hymen is a membrane that surrounds or partially covers the external vaginal opening. Some scientists view the function of hymen in young girls as a protecting the reproductive system from infection in the embryonic period. The existence of hymen in some animals, such as horses, prevent semen from leaving the vagina. Due to similar reproductive system development, many mammals, including chimpanzees, elephants, manatees, whales, and horses retain hymens. Extra nipples or breasts sometimes appear along the mammary lines of humans, appearing as a remnant to mammalian ancestors who possessed more than two nipples or breasts.

Although the sense of smell, or olfaction, is essential for many animals in avoiding predators, finding food, and other functions, olfaction is greatly decreased in humans as they have for the most part no predators and obtain food mostly by agriculture. There is great variation in olfactory sensitivity from person to person, which is common in vestigial characteristics. It has been observed that native South Americans, native North Americans, and African peoples have a highly developed sense of smell, such that they may be able to identify others in the dark by their odor alone. This does not mean that having any olfactory ability at all is vestigial, for example it may save a person from inhaling toxic fumes. A characteristic may degenerate despite being of some use if there is very little or no selection pressure on the genes associated with it. In other words, having a good sense of smell may be something a person would desire, but unless those without such abilities have a lower reproductive success or fitness, there is no barrier to its degeneration.

Humans also bear some vestigial behaviors and reflexes. For example, the formation of goose bumps in humans under stress is a vestigial reflex; a possible function in human evolutionary ancestors was to raise the body’s hair, making the ancestor appear larger and scaring off predators. Raising the hair is also used to trap an extra layer of air, keeping an animal warm. Due to the diminished amount of hair in humans, the reflex formation of goose bumps when cold is also vestigial. There are also vestigial molecular structures in humans, which are no longer in use but may indicate common ancestry with other species. One example of this is L-gulonolactone oxidase, a gene that is functional in most other mammals and produces an enzyme that synthesizes Vitamin C. In humans and other members of the suborder Haplorrhini, a mutation disabled the gene and made it unable to produce the enzyme. However, the remains of the gene are still present in the human genome as a vestigial genetic sequence called a pseudogene.

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