For the next few days, I have a new source of amusement in my life. My brother had his wisdom teeth out today, and currently his face would double as a scrotum in a men's health awareness ad. I do have some sympathy for my aggrieved sibling, as I went through the same ordeal a few years ago. My dental extraction days are (hopefully) long passed, but I still vividly remember cursing human evolution for its failure to eliminate extra molars, or at least allowing us to have accommodating jaws like popeye.
It's only now, without the chubby index fingers of agony poking incessantly at my cheeks, that I can consider my lamentations in a clearer light. How is it that wisdom teeth still persist in the jaws of the collective population, like a colony of ivory meerkats strapped with explosives? Well, it goes like this. Imagine you're a peasant in medieval times. You've got some top-notch hessian duds, and after a hard day harvesting mud, you go home to a dinner of potatoes and poo (you don't have any education, so naturally you are unaware that potatoes haven't been discovered yet). Life is good, comparable to living in Moe. However, one day you feel a bump at the back of your jaw. This lump is your wisdom tooth, developing into a painful abscess (helped in no small part by the extra helping of poo you had the night before). Over the next few days you slowly succumb to the infection until you finally die in a blaze of Willy Wonka inspired delirium.
The puppy-dog eyes of death
The point of this little scenario is this: back in John Howard-style 'good old days' people regularly died from infection and septicaemia caused by backed-up wisdom teeth. Corpses face hardships starting a family, and thus in the natural world, less well-toothed individuals would have a baby-making advantage, eventually leading to a world without wisdom teeth. That is, until dentists showed up and gave evolution a nipple cripple by removing any infected chompers. Instead of being eradicated, wisdom teeth are allowed to flourish, causing untold suffering for future generations. This isn't just confined to dentistry either. Throughout society, evolution is being stifled, as there is no selection pressure to direct progress. Everyone has an almost equal chance of survival, and therefore everyone has an equal input into the next generation.
I'm not saying that we need to eliminate everyone with extra teeth. The last thing I want on my hands is a bunch of concentration camps filled with our poly-dental brethren. But next time you hear a conversation denouncing eugenics - the practice of guiding human evolution through breeding - just consider that it's already being done passively, for good or bad. Once we acknowledge this, and accept some responsibility for it, then we'll be able to have some meaningful discussion about the future of mankind, and finally resolve that most difficult of questions: which would be better; wings, gills or a tail?