Defender's Guide to Science and Creationism

Mark Vuletic

Assertion

Supposedly "vestigial" organs actually have functions.

Background

Some creationists have argued that the vestigial organs do not exist. It is important at the outset to understand how creationists define vestigial organ. Here is an example, from creationist Scott Huse:

Vestigial organs are those structures which are presumed by evolutionists to be the useless remains of an organ which was once fully developed and operational in ancestral types. (Huse 1983: 107, emphasis mine)

Huse goes on to assert prematurely that "all organs formerly classed as vestigial are known to have some function during the life of the organism" (107). Most creationists are not quite so cavalier; they are satisfied to point out that many vestigial organs continue to have functions, which leaves open the possibility that functions will eventually be discovered for the remainder.

Analysis

Creationists are quite right that many vestigial organs are known to have functions of some sort; even Huse's optimism may eventually bear out. However, as biologist Jerry Coyne explains, this misses the point, because uselessness is not required for a structure to be vestigial:

Evolutionary theory doesn't say that vestigial characteristics have no function. A trait can be vestigial and functional at the same time. It is vestigial not because it is functionless but because it no longer performs the function for which it evolved. The wings of an ostrich are useful, but that doesn't mean that they tell us nothing about evolution. Wouldn't it be odd if a creator helped an ostrich balance itself by giving it appendages that just happen to look exactly like reduced wings, and which are constructed in exactly the same way as wings used for flying. (Coyne 2009: 58)

Coyne's initial wording may seem circular, since creationists like Huse will deny that there was an original evolved trait with its own function; however, as his last sentence makes clear, the evidence for a trait being vestigial is in fact accessible to both creationists and evolutionists, regardless of starting point. We see structures, like ostrich wings, that look exactly the way we would expect them to if they were the evolutionary remnants of structures with different functions: that much is clear to both sides.

Creationists have two options at this point: one is to concede that vestigial organs are in fact evidence for evolution, but only for a degenerative sort; this is by far the more credible option, although it, too, misses the point (as I will explain in a later article). The other option is to appeal to the inscrutable whimsy of the Creator, who chose to make many characteristics falsely appear vestigial out of some bizarre aesthetic sense, mindless of the fact that the result would mislead His subjects into rejecting creationism. The almighty Creator of the universe is thus reduced to a confused artist staggering around the cosmos—perhaps with a dog-eared copy of L'Etre et le NĂ©ant in the back pocket of his vaguely hemp-scented jeans—obliviously wondering why his work is so misunderstood. I will leave it to the reader to determine whether one ought to accept an interpretation of the natural world that hinges so critically not only upon theology, but upon such strange theology at that.

References

Coyne JA. 2009. Why Evolution is True. New York: Viking.

Huse SM. 1983. The Collapse of Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Last updated: 13 Mar 2009

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