Vestigial means something that is left over somehow from the past. There was at a time, not too long ago, when tonsils and appendixes were considered as “second class organs.” “Take them out” was a common surgeon’s cry; “they are of no value anyway.” At that time, many organs in the body such as the appendix and tonsils were considered “evolutionary vestiges,” or something which may have been useful in our “evolutionary past,” but which is of “no evolutionary value now.” Relegated to second class status.
This kind of concept, of course, is logically considered nonsense by today’s standards, since basically everything in the body, even though at first considered useless, seems to be always found to be “valuable” later, just awaiting our belated “discovery.”
My own appendix was removed in childhood (see “my “an appendix is not an appendix” story) for little reason, and undoubtedly affected by this “vestigial organ” concept. In fact I know many people who had operations of the abdomen, who would get their appendix removed, “as a bonus procedure” by the kind surgeon. I wonder how many fine healthy appendices have been removed because of this mistaken belief. And who knows the number of possible complications from people that get their appendixes removed unnecessarily for skimpy reasons.
As another example, doctors used to think that tonsils were “evolutionary vestiges” also, so that there were huge numbers of children who had their tonsils removed on the slightest pretext, such as larger tonsils or infection, resulting in many unnecessary deaths. Nowadays we realize that tonsils are useful for early defense against germs, and that surgery is usually unnecessary, so removal of tonsils has been sharply reduced. The consequent sharp reduction in mortality is now well proven.
But, in a less enlightened time, my wife’s brother died as a young man from a “standard” (now considered unnecessary) tonsil operation, and thus I have always had a keen personal interest in this. There was little reason for his surgery, only that it was commonly done for repeated infections of the tonsils.
I have personally seen many children get their tonsils removed unnecessarily. Like many others, I was once a young pediatric intern, pressed into service to check the physical condition of infants and children about to go into tonsil surgery. During these screenings, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a factory process, such was the volume in many hospitals. It was indeed a great revenue generator for hospitals and doctors, just incidentally.
Young people die at times from the tonsil operation because bleeding after surgery from the tonsil area may not be recognized until it is too late, since the bleeding occurs in a hidden area at the back of the throat. Belief in such concepts as “evolutionary vestige” can be tragic.
In the past, doctors thought that the pineal gland was an evolutionary vestige, but now we know that it is an important endocrine organ that controls basic body rhythms (everything in the body has rhythms which are not totally understood as yet), among many other things.
For example, one of its relatively newly discovered hormones, melatonin, has been popularly used to control “jet lag” when we fly internationally. The lesson is that we should not easily dismiss organs in the body as “useless,” since the Creator’s designs are truly ingenious, and unlikely to be “vestigial.” The term “vestigial” itself is now vestigial, as you can see from the following story.
One day I was giving a lecture on a newly discovered hormone at the time, calcitonin, which comes from the thyroid gland (you can read my “funny thyroid” article in Reggietales.org). It was exciting to measure that new hormone in babies, something which few people had done. So one learned professor asked me a leading question after my lecture: “do you think this is a vestigial hormone?” implying that the hormone really might not be of much value in “modern life”.
一天，我正在做关于那个时候新发现的激素降钙素的报告，其来源于甲状腺（你可以在网站 Reggietales.org 上阅读我的文章“可爱的甲状腺”）。那时检测婴儿这个新的激素的水平是一件愉快的事情，这个工作先前没有人做过。我报告完毕，一位博学的教授问了我一个很有诱导性的问题：“你认为这是一个（进化后）的激素遗迹吗？”意思是这个激素在“现代生活”中是真的还是可能没有重要价值了。
I jokingly replied, “when was the last time you saw a vestigial hormone” implying that hormones considered “vestigial” years ago have been discovered later to have value, often having an amazing function that we in our ignorance have not yet “discovered” or imagined. The assembly of top scientists roared in laughter, catching the joke and agreeing with the gist of my riposte. Laughter is a good way to poke fun at scientific pomposity.
One day at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati, which is a foremost children’s hospitals in the USA, the Professor of Urology was speaking. He had designed a new urinary bladder for children with very difficult bladder anatomy. He took the appendix of the child, and startlingly moved it to become the outlet channel for the bladder, which was a fascinating breakthrough operation. This really takes some imagination, both for the surgeon and for us (imagine a funnel like bladder draining into the appendix), but it was a perfect reconstruction.
I happened to be chairman of that particular meeting, a “grand rounds,” where the entire medical staff come together weekly for a clinical presentation. I made a concluding comment, “now I know why God made the appendix,” accompanied by echoing laughter. It is indeed my goal as a scientist, to find out why God made this or that, in this or that way, though not necessarily by making natural structures do unusual functions (that is why God made surgeons!!)