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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Appendix, and Other Organs You Thought Were Useless

A few years ago I got a bee in my bonnet about vestigial organs - organs that a species has no use for, and that have often shrunk or disappeared as the species evolved. It all started with a movie, as my weird 'thinks' often do. I was watching something called Lake Placid, which is actually a really funny movie. Betty White and Oliver Platt just killed it for me. "If I had a dick, this is where I would tell you to suck it!" Pretty much the ultimate Betty White line. Ever. Sorry for going off on a tangent, but it's what I do best, and quite frankly that's probably my all-time favourite movie. A lot of people didn't see it, because most figured it was a horror movie with a crocodile, which is a pretty lame concept. The people who marketed the movie that way should have been shot, or fired, whichever is easiest, because it was a comedy from start to finish.

In the movie Oliver Platt's character, Hector Cyr, talks about crocodiles having nictitating lenses. Having had pet cats for many years, I already knew what they were, but for anyone who doesn't have cats or hasn't made the connection (or maybe their cats don't fall asleep upside down like some of mine have), they're a second set of eyelids. You'll see them in cats when their outer lids fall open while they're sleeping, and the inner ones remain closed. Sounds like something from the first Men in Black movie, I know, but there are a lot of creatures on this earth that have them. Birds, crocodiles, etc. In birds they're meant to be closed while they're in flight, because it keeps the dust and debris from getting into their eyeballs. The lids are very thin so they can see shadows and such, but they can't see with any detail when they're closed.

So what's the connection with the appendix you ask? Well, the first connection is that humans actually have vestigial nictitating lenses. If you look at the inner corner of your eye you'll see a tiny lump of tissue. It used to be a second eyelid, or was intended to be at any rate, but we didn't need them. I don't know if it's because we don't spend a lot of time in the water, or that we don't move fast enough on our own to get that kind of debris in our eyes, but whatever the reason we've evolved to where we don't have them.

Now the second part of the connection has to do with the common misconception that the appendix is a vestigial organ, and to be fair even the doctors and scientists believed this to be true until recently. They didn't believe we needed it, or that it was used for anything, but it turned out that we actually do. The purpose of the appendix is somewhat gross to explain, but then a lot of fascinating topics are more than a little bit disgusting. The appendix stores and protects beneficial bacteria for those uncomfortable times when we experience severe diarrhea. Our intestines need that bacteria, particularly when recovering from bad bacteria that made us sick, so the appendix keeps some tucked away until the episode has passed - no pun intended - and then reintroduces it into the intestines that so rudely shoved out the bacteria in the first place. Once reintroduced it doesn't take long for it to multiply back to its former levels.

Sure, we can do without the appendix, but like any other organ in the body, we're better off having it in place usually. The spleen, gallbladder and tonsils, along with a single kidney, can be removed as well, but we're still better off with all our parts in order. After all, the kidney is such a vital organ that we require two of them to operate at peak efficiency when it comes to voiding the toxins and useless liquid wastes in our body. If our spleen gets damaged, however, it can be necessary to remove it to prevent a patient from bleeding to death really fast. Unless these necessary organs get damaged or severely infected, removal is just stupid.

Now there's no particular reason I decided to ramble about this tonight. It all popped into my head without so much as a by-your-leave, so I just went with it. If the topic were a little more important and interesting, one might actually call it inspiration. Instead this is more likely to be termed cerebral flatulence. There are days when I write about things that are important in life, but then there are days like this where I just feel like sharing knowledge about things no one really wanted to know. I actually had a friend once who told me I should write a book about thing nobody ever wanted to know. The idea stuck with me, despite the fact that it would obviously be a wasted effort if people really didn't want to know any of those things. Why the hell would they buy the book then? Still, the suggestion has lasted in my brain for the last 25 years or so, so maybe I'll write it just for the hell of it.