Skeptic at work – Evolution and wisdom teeth

Hello!  It’s been awhile.  And I hear there are imitators which makes me very happy.  Hopefully, someday, everyone will experience the joy of researching stupid things people say.

This episode of Skeptic at Work is sponsored by evolution which means it will likely be accidentally found by people searching for more important things.  Hopefully I don’t disappoint.

I recently went to a trip to the dentist after a long hiatus and, while I figured there were issues with my wisdom teeth, turns out I have completely horizontal impaction which looks something like this.  Yeah… so obviously a trip to the dental surgeon is in my near future but until then, I’m not in any pain or discomfort… just in case you were worried.  :)  Anyway, I mentioned this to a friend of mine later who informed me that she never developped third molars.  I remarked that she was pretty lucky, to which she replied that she was “more evolved.”

Yeah.  No.

So according to my friend (and others like her) wisdom teeth are obsolete and human evolution is slowly trending towards eliminating them from our development.  So soon, over a course of several generations, we will no longer grow widsom teeth and student dental surgeons everywhere will have to CUT THEIR TEETH some other way (see what I did there?)

Well, unfortunately for the collective egos of these lucky few who are born without wisdom teeth, evolution doesn’t work that way.  Saying you are more evolved because of lack of wisdom teeth is the equivalent of saying you are more evolved because you have blue eyes or blond hair (maybe not as politically dangerous though).  This is because there is no significant advantage, or disadvantage, to having widsom teeth or not.  With modern medicine/surgery/dental hygiene techniques being so cheap and effective and easy the less fortunate folks like me with wisdom teeth have absolutely no disadvantage when it comes to having offspring.  Not many people die from impacted wisdom teeth before they get a chance to procreate.  Alternatively, the folks who avoid the few days of recovery associated with wisdom teeth extraction aren’t piling up babies at an advanced rate.

And then there’s all the actual facts about wisdom teeth that show they’re not all useless and harmful.  There are various ethnicities/races that have plenty of room in their mouths for their third molars and almost never get impacted teeth.  There’s also habits and behaviors that seem to aid in the development of your jaws that can make room for those teeth like singing and chewing gum.

If you google wisdom teeth and evolution you will get 80,000 hits from various sources claiming that wisdom teeth are vestigal products of our ape-like ancestors who had larger jaws and now that we have smaller jaws those extra back teeth are just annoyances.  But this biologist brings up an even better example of vestigal teeth.  Our canines are actually even more useless than an extra set of molars.  We apparently don’t even use them as canines anymore and yet there they are, clearly canine-y and not inscisor-y.

So there you  have it.  Next time someone touts that they are more evolved because they don’t have to contend with wisdom teeth remind them that the rest of us are still having babies and those babies will likely have wisdom teeth too.  There’s no stopping us.

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7 responses to “Skeptic at work – Evolution and wisdom teeth

  1. Kimbo Jones

    I have a vagina so I’m “more evolved” than you because clearly I evolved past the need for a useless penis.

    I have glasses so I’m “more evolved” than you because I get to have sexy face jewelry.

    More evolved? What does that even mean? Evolution doesn’t have an aim. So-called positive or negative traits now could be the opposite if something in the physical or social environment changes.

    The school system is doing a bad job of evolution. It’s no wonder so many people think there’s a debate.

  2. I feel your pain. Or will be feeling your pain in the near future. I’m trying to hold off on having my wisdom teeth cut out as long as possible, but they’re headed on a straight course for the rest of my molars just like yours.

    I suppose the “I’m more evolved because I don’t have wisdom teeth” crowd don’t have much overlap with the “the Industrial Revolution ended evolution for us” crowd, which is usually what I get a chuckle out of around here (assuming I can find someone who actually believe in evolution here in the Deep South).

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  4. lol funny/thoughtful post

  5. Chuck Rathmann

    The lack of wisdom teeth may not bea sign of being more evolved, but having a jaw large enough to accommodate the wisdom teeth may be a sign of being less evolved. I am an example of the latter, and due to this and various other primitive features and behaviors, feel that I may in fact be less evolved than others who less resemble a neanderthal.

    Fascinating post, though.

    • Variations in a single arbitrary trait are neither a sign of being more or less “evolved”. If you put jaw size on a bell curve, most people would float around the average, but a small percent of people are going to have very large and very small jaws (each end of the curve) just based on random variation. If some selective pressure makes one particular size lead to greater fitness, then that size may increase in frequency, but there will still be a variety of sizes among the general population – like height, for example.

  6. just the idea that fewer and fewer people have wisdom is proof that we are evolving. this is something that happens over a long period of time. the fact that our jaws are smaller is the reason for the shift from having them to not needing them.