It is curious that I remember well time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!
— Charles Darwin, Letter to Asa Gray, April 1860
(The Darwin Correspondence Project)
The word vestigial is invariably paired with another word, and that word is organ, and the whole enchilada—vestigial organ—refers almost exclusively to the human appendix, which is THE vestigial organ: a chubby little worm of tissue dangling off the massive corridor of the large intestine, a celebrated symbol of evolution’s occasional failure to rid itself of obsolete developments.
Useless. That’s what vestigial really means, useless like the dusty VCR wedged into the shelf under your flat panel television even though you no longer own any videotapes and the very thought of even playing a videotape—the chunk and whirr of that oblong plastic brick being slurped into the mechanical maw of the thing—makes you shudder with inexplicable feelings of nausea and sadness. Ah, but back in your college years your mom gave you that VCR when you were home for the holidays, and this magical engine of wonder and delight served you well for many years, conjuring up hours of Monty Python and Star Trek and all the porn you had the courage to rent from the creepy back room of that Korean video store, and so it remains in your possession, an artifact of a long-gone era of technological innocence, forever blinking midnight.
The appendix, of course, is not the only useless part of your body. The utility of the grub-like pinky toe, with its tough little slab of greenish nail, has been regarded with skepticism. Neither science nor scripture has adequately addressed the mystery of male nipples. If you can live without a gall bladder then why do you need it in the first place? Don’t get me started on wisdom teeth.
But what makes the appendix fascinating is not so much that it’s useless, but that it can kill you. So, actually: less than useless. Its primary function is to explode without warning. It’s a strange joke of evolution that we are all born with this deadly little time bomb tucked into the bottom shelf of our most important insides, as if the human body had been hastily manufactured by Samsung.
The exploding appendix has always been a subject of special delight for small children, as of course it should be. The bizarre treachery of the appendix is disclosed to children at an early age, because their parents worry that their sons and daughters won’t be adequately alarmed if their appendices should suddenly burst inside of them. When I was a child, it was tempting to categorize this as just one more incredibly stupid parental concern, because so many parental concerns are so incredibly stupid. Children often feel this way, that their parents are complete idiots, and I agree with them. Although I have no children of my own, my long years on this earth have given me the opportunity to witness many fine examples of parental idiocy across multiple generations, and it has been both delightful and demoralizing to realize that perfectly sensible children often grow up into perfectly idiotic parents who will perpetuate the same patently dumb shit upon their children that they themselves were once subjected to by their own idiotic parents. This, too, must be evolution at work. Upon successfully reproducing, some genetic switch is flipped off in the parental brain so that the idiot parade can march on in perpetuity. It’s the only way to explain how otherwise more or less functional adults—like, you know, grown-ups, endowed with the minimal cognitive skills required to make mortgage payments or operate a microwave—can continue, generation after generation, to subscribe to variations of the same imbecilic, hare-brained notions, such as:
- If you eat that hot dog and jump back into the pool you will get cramps and drown.
- 13-year-old suburban girls wear colored-coded plastic bracelets to advertise their sexual exploits to classmates.
- Those smeary rub-on tattoos dispensed by gumball machines are laced with LSD by drug dealers hoping to hook kids on bad acid trips.
- Such dealers find their most lucrative venues at school playgrounds because there’s just no market for selling recreational drugs to adults.
- Every Halloween, some of your neighbors succumb to the irresistible temptation to insert razor blades into apples and distribute them to unsuspecting children.
- An unsupervised child in possession of a large sack of Hershey bars and Skittles will, nonetheless, prefer to eat an apple which may or may not contain a razor blade.
Philip Larkin was right. Hysteria builds like a coastal shelf. The thing that kills me is that the same implausible rumors which were circulated by mimeograph at PTA meetings when I was a kid in the 1970s are now circulated by my peers on Facebook and Twitter.
Now, I don’t want to get carried away. Pay attention, kids. Some parental fears really are based in the empirical universe. You really shouldn’t run with scissors, or climb into unmarked vans driven by strangers, and acute appendicitis really is more likely to occur in children than adults, and that is exactly why whenever you had a pain in your side, your mother would anxiously inquire whether it was the left side or the right, although I guarantee you that every time she asked this question she struggled to remember which side mattered, because no one can ever remember which side matters. Even as I write these words, I myself can’t remember. This, too, seems part of the evolutionary scheme, the long Darwinian struggle between human and appendix.
In such situations, my own mother would consult the ancient leather-bound medical encyclopedia she had preserved from her own childhood in the 1930s, the era in which four out of five lung surgeons recommended Lucky Strikes for their patients who smoked. Although modern antibiotics and polio vaccines went unmentioned in this tome, it was otherwise an impressive distillation of mid-20th-century medical knowledge, and thus a reasonably accurate guide to the everyday ailments and maladies of the human body. In this regard, my mother probably held an advantage over modern-day mommies, who are likely to consult Google for medical advice, thus risking exposure to scientifically dubious theories concerning wheat gluten and measles vaccinations.
Mid-20th-century medical science took a dim view of vestigials. Like tonsils or foreskins, the appendix was dismissed as a less-than-essential body part that could be conveniently discarded in childhood with no more thought than you’d give to tossing an empty can of Schlitz out the window of your ’55 Buick Roadmaster.
Television writers of the black-and-white era loved appendectomies. If your ratings slipped, and you needed to inject some novelty into the clockwork universe of your bland family sitcom, well, a little routine surgery might be just the ticket. Timmy won’t eat his French toast, doesn’t want to go to school, says he’s got a tummy ache. Mommy lays an anxious hand across the little ankle-biter’s forehead, frowns. Dr. Shapiro knocks at the door, black bag in hand. Oh yes, he says, folding up his stethoscope. I’m quite sure. You’ll have to bring him in, I’m afraid. Mommy phones Daddy at the office, who grabs his hat and briefcase. Hospital scene, some lab coats—easy to borrow the set from one of the daytime soaps. Toss in your favorite doctor jokes and a pretty nurse and call it a day. You’ve titillated your viewers with a Child in Jeopardy and the taboo whiff of human mortality, and now you can wrap up the whole thing—routine surgery!—with a happy outcome of so little consequence that no future episode will have to acknowledge it even happened.
For the sake of variety, broken bones and dental catastrophes could be similarly deployed, but tonsillectomies were especially favored by sitcom writers: an even better choice than appendectomies, since tonsils used to be removed prophylactically. Vestigial! By my childhood in the Seventies, doctors had stopped routinely yanking out tonsils—turned out they might be useful after all—but tonsillitis continued to serve as a tried-and-true plot device on contemporary dreck like The Brady Bunch. In such episodes, the humor revolved around enticing a frightened child into an operating room with the prospect of unlimited ice cream to follow.
These shows made surgery seem like an important rite of passage, but like stickball, swimmin’ holes, and drugstore soda fountains, perfunctory tonsillectomies were yet another hallowed, character-forming American tradition that had somehow been excised from my polyester New Jersey suburban childhood of Tang and Saturday morning cartoons.
So I took note of such Very Special Episodes with keen interest. They inspired in me a strange sense of envy. It wasn’t the fucking ice cream. I wanted to be injured.
The problem was I didn’t play sports, and I was also a coward. Opportunities for broken bones were limited. When I was eight, I did manage to fracture my ankle after I threw a Superman cape over my shoulders and jumped off a one-story ledge onto the concrete surface of our driveway. My superpowers failed. My bravery was rewarded with a genuine plaster cast that could be signed by my classmates, but hobbling around on crutches turned out to be a remarkably shitty way to spend the summer.
By the time I reached adulthood, I’d lost two of my wisdom teeth and my foreskin (not in that order). But I still had my tonsils and my appendix. My mom had been worried over nothing every time.
As a young, newly independent adult, I still felt an obligation to worry whenever I got a pain in my side—I owed my mother that much—although I could never remember which side mattered because I didn’t own a medical encyclopedia and Google hadn’t been invented yet, and by the time it was, I knew that a persistent pain in your side might be gas, or cancer, or the result of a sexual mishap, but whatever it is, it is definitely not appendicitis.
Except, of course, when it is.