Are Darwinists right to say that the appendix has no useful functions?

Evolution News points to this Washington Post article.


The appendix “acts as a good safe house for bacteria,” said Duke surgery professor Bill Parker, a study co-author. Its location — just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine in a sort of gut cul-de-sac — helps support the theory, he said. Also, the worm-shaped organ outgrowth acts like a bacteria factory, cultivating the good germs, Parker said. That use is not needed in a modern industrialized society, Parker said. If a person’s gut flora dies, it can usually be repopulated easily with germs they pick up from other people, he said. But before dense populations in modern times and during epidemics of cholera that affected a whole region, it wasn’t as easy to grow back that bacteria and the appendix came in handy.

Evolution News adds:

Additionally, Loren G. Martin, professor of physiology at Oklahoma State University, lists various likely functions for the appendix . Writing on Scientific American‘s website, he includes these examples:

  •  being “involved primarily in immune functions”
  • “function[ing] as a lymphoid organ, assisting with the maturation of B lymphocytes (one variety of white blood cell) and in the production of the class of antibodies known as immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies.”
  • helping with “the production of molecules that help to direct the movement of lymphocytes to various other locations in the body”
  • “suppress[ing] potentially destructive humoral (blood- and lymph-borne) antibody responses while promoting local immunity”
  • Additionally, it is “an important ‘back-up’ that can be used in a variety of reconstructive surgical techniques”

Likewise, a few months back David Klinghoffer reported that researchers in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found:

Individuals without an appendix were four times more likely to have a recurrence of Clostridium difficile, [a pathogen common in hospitals,] exactly as Parker’s hypothesis predicted. Recurrence in individuals with their appendix intact occurred in 11% of cases. Recurrence in individuals without their appendix occurred in 48% of cases.

In other words, the appendix performs important immune-related functions. Thus, the appendix is not there to occasionally explode. With the appendix increasingly considered to be an important organ that you wouldn’t want to lose, researchers have also found that antibiotics can cure many cases of appendicitis (see Eriksson et al., 2006  ).

It just goes to show you that it’s a good idea to not decide your worldview by appealing to cartoons and funny one-liners. First of all, just because something is not perfect, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t designed. The Chevy Volt vehicle that Obama subsidizes with your tax dollars might burst into flames unexpectedly, but it’s still designed. Secondly, no designed object can be perfect in every way – every engineered object is a tradeoff of different, conflicting design goals. It might be nice to have a laptop that can last for 16 hours on a single charge, but then it’s either going to either weigh 12 pounds or cost $4000.

Junk DNA

This isn’t the only time that arguments of “poor design” are made by Darwinists, either – I also hear a lot about Junk DNA.

Look at what the peer-reviewed journal Nature says:

In 1961, French biologists François Jacob and Jacques Monod proposed the idea that ‘regulator’ proteins bind to DNA to control the expression of genes. Five years later, American biochemist Walter Gilbert confirmed this model by discovering the lac repressor protein, which binds to DNA to control lactose metabolism in Escherichia colibacteria1. For the rest of the twentieth century, scientists expanded on the details of the model, but they were confident that they understood the basics. “The crux of regulation,” says the 1997 genetics textbook Genes VI (Oxford Univ. Press), “is that a regulator gene codes for a regulator protein that controls transcription by binding to particular site(s) on DNA.”

Just one decade of post-genome biology has exploded that view. Biology’s new glimpse at a universe of non-coding DNA — what used to be called ‘junk’ DNA — has been fascinating and befuddling. Researchers from an international collaborative project called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) showed that in a selected portion of the genome containing just a few per cent of protein-coding sequence, between 74% and 93% of DNA was transcribed into RNA2Much non-coding DNA has a regulatory role; small RNAs of different varieties seem to control gene expression at the level of both DNA and RNA transcripts in ways that are still only beginning to become clear. “Just the sheer existence of these exotic regulators suggests that our understanding about the most basic things — such as how a cell turns on and off — is incredibly naive,” says Joshua Plotkin, a mathematical biologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Let’s not be too hasty when making these “bad design” arguments – let’s be guided by the progress of science, and not just by cartoons and snarky terms like “junk DNA”.

One thought on “Are Darwinists right to say that the appendix has no useful functions?”

  1. Last night I was listening to the 2005 debate between William Lane Craig and Austin Dacey, and Dacey uses the existence of the appendix to buttress one of his arguments against God’s existence. He says that God’s existence is unlikely, and one reason is the inefficiency of the designer: would a Designer make an appendix? What’s up with that, he says.

    Well, there goes that argument … It’s amazing how dated that argument is – only seven years later.

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