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Vestigial Organ Arguments: Useful or Unnecessary?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on October 22, 2011

FOXNews: “9 Useless Body PartsThe vestigial vestigial organ arguments

Ever since Darwin branded organs he considered useless as evidence for evolution, evolutionists have periodically trotted out their favorite vestigial list. Since Fox News opted to join this organ recital, now is a good time to review this issue.

Vestige comes from a Latin word meaning “footprint.” From Darwin’s dozen, the list of anatomical “footprints” of our evolutionary past soon grew to a hundred in humans alone. Vestigial structures supposedly had a function in evolutionary ancestors but due to evolutionary progress lost it—their function, that is.

Many structures on the hit list for eventual evolutionary elimination were later found to actually have functions. Undaunted by these emerging facts, those committed to keeping vestigial structures in their bag of evolutionary evidence changed their definition. Nowadays, vestigial organs don’t really have to be useless; they can simply have evolved a different function. So goes the story.

From a biblical view accepting God as Creator, we understand vestigial structures are indeed vestiges—“footprints”—but not of a hypothetical, unwitnessed, unproven evolutionary origin.

From a biblical view accepting God as Creator, we understand vestigial structures are indeed vestiges—“footprints”—but not of a hypothetical, unwitnessed, unproven evolutionary origin. Vestigial structures are actually the “footprints” of embryology and the “footprints” of the efficiently engineered designs of our common Designer, God.

Embryology explains many vestigial structures. Such structures function during the development of the embryo but, when they are no longer needed, regress. Examples include the ligamentum arteriosum, an obliterated remnant of a fetal blood vessel used in the fetal heart to allow blood to by-pass the lungs. Clearly, such a structure has an important function during development, but we would not want it to continue to function after birth (when by-passing the lungs would be a very bad idea indeed!)

Structures that develop in both sexes and then regress in one or the other can likewise only be understood in light of embryology. Evolutionary explanations for the existence of male nipples, for instance, make no sense. Do evolutionists suppose males once evolved nipples to nurse their young? Yet embryology reveals God’s design for all humans is initially the same. Identical nipples present on both genders at birth are an example of design economy, not of divergent evolutionary paths in males and females. Read more about male nipples, #9 on the Fox News list, at Why Do Men Have Nipples?

Four other items on the list are easy to explain to anyone who realizes that a good design can often be efficiently adapted to a number of uses. Similarity of parts—homologies—between different creatures demonstrates that our common Designer used well-engineered designs to serve various functions.

The #1 item—the plica semilunaris (third eyelid)—according to Fox News, is “left over from what’s known as a ‘nictitating membrane,’ which is still present in animals like chickens, lizards, and sharks.” While this fold of protective eye covering is thought to be homologous with the more complete protective covering in some animals, it is far from useless. Secretions from this “#1 useless body part” mop debris from your eyes. (You know it is doing the job God intended when you awake with dried crust in the corners of your eyes.)

Body hair and the erector pili muscles attached to them are #2 and #6. The list says, “No doubt we were once hairier. Up until about 3 million years ago, we were covered with it. But by the time Homo erectus arrived, the ability to sweat meant we could shed our wooly ways.” And about the tiny muscles, it says, “When we were hairier, the erector pili made the hairs stand on end when we needed to appear bigger and scarier. Now, it just gives us goose bumps.”

Yet human hair is not a non-functional relic of common ancestry with apes.

Yet human hair is not a non-functional relic of common ancestry with apes. Thick hair serves some animals for warmth and sun protection, but a thick covering of hair would impede the evaporation of sweat that God designed as the cooling system for humans. Most of the hair on humans is fine vellus hair, but it is not evolving away. All hair follicles are attached to sensitive nerve endings that detect nearby motion. Hair follicles provide needed materials to heal damaged skin. And the erector pili muscles tugging on follicles cause the protective oil from attached sebaceous glands to ooze onto the skin. They also generate some heat while giving us goose bumps. These are far from unimportant functions!

The list says the coccyx, or tailbone, is “left over from the olden days when we had tails.” Well, according to the Bible, we are all descended from Adam and Eve who were created distinct from the animals and in the image of God. Humans have never had tails and do not share common ancestry with creatures that do (or did).

God gave the human coccyx a vital function. The muscles of the pelvis attach to the coccyx to form slings supporting all the pelvic organs in their proper geometric orientation. When those muscles weaken, pelvic organs can herniate downward causing discomfort and loss of control. The coccyx, essential to our vertical lifestyle, is not a marginal evolutionary remnant on its way out.

The list also includes tonsils, adenoids, and the appendix. It condemns the adenoids and tonsils, despite their immune function, because “they’re prone to swelling and infection.” Yet these immune structures only do this because they are busy doing what God designed them to do: trap bacteria. Likewise the appendix, which “Darwin claimed . . . was useful for digestion during our early plant-eating years” but which has “dwindled down to little since we started eating more digestible foods,” has immunological tissues. You can do without these organs, and in a cursed world they can get infected, but they are not useless.

Finally, the list includes the wisdom teeth. Though these “third molars” can become impacted, when they come in normally they are perfectly functional teeth. The risk of the jaw being too small to accommodate wisdom teeth is greater in more industrialized societies, and diet is implicated as a factor. But to suggest that wisdom teeth are evolving into useless or problematic structures is a Lamarckian fallacy, supposing that the inheritance pattern for a structure changes because it doesn’t get exercised much.1

While some may think the vestigial argument is of no consequence, the worldview that sees functional features God designed as useless evolutionary leftovers is not harmless. Elective surgical removal has always entailed some risk and was often based on the idea that organs like the appendix and the wisdom teeth were superfluous.

The concept of vestigial organs should be abandoned as a vestige of evolutionary thinking. Vestigial organs are not evolutionary leftovers. God designed such structures to have function in the embryologic past or in the well-engineered present. Even when we can get along without them, their existence does not confirm common ancestry. God designed humans with fully functional organs from the beginning, as Jesus said in Matthew 19:4!

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  1. Are Wisdom Teeth (Third Molars) Vestiges of Human Evolution?


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