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Evolution and Wisdom Teeth

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 2 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
Evolution Wisdom Teeth Molars Ancestors

For a great many of us, our wisdom teeth are an annoying accessory to an otherwise comfortable, functional and healthy mouth. It seems that wisdom tooth extraction has become more and more commonplace in dentistry today, as these emerging teeth crowd our mouths and place pressure and pain on proper functioning.

When You Don't Have Wisdom Teeth

But for some people, their wisdom teeth simply aren't present. This isn't referring to those who have impacted wisdom teeth that never emerge. Rather, it's a minority of the population who show no evidence of wisdom teeth in dental scans.

Is it a Sign of Evolution?

Given all of the problems of having wisdom teeth, some people wonder – is this is a sign of evolution? In fact, those without wisdom teeth may even enjoy the odd joke about being 'highly evolved'. However, it's important to understand more about wisdom teeth and the process of evolution before making any judgment calls on whether a lack of wisdom teeth is representative of evolution.

Understanding Wisdom Teeth

Humans have thirty-two teeth, with most coming in before puberty and our 'third molars' coming in later in our teens, when we're supposed to be older and 'wiser', thus the term 'wisdom teeth'.

The problem today is that our wisdom teeth aren't really necessary for us to chew and otherwise have a functional, healthy mouth. This has led to the high rate of extractions.

Useful Wisdom Teeth

Quite likely, these molars were of aid to our ancestors who needed to chew and break down tougher meats and similar foods. For our ancestors, these would have been a benefit to live longer due to handling such foods. If we use evolutionary logic, these molars would have been an advantage to help their survival.

As our diets have changed over the centuries, however, our wisdom teeth are no longer needed to chew our foods. The rest of our teeth are more than adequate to break down foods and handle modern diets.

Problems With Wisdom Teeth

Yet if these are an advantage, then why do humans today suffer from problems with wisdom teeth? Why must they be removed? As humans have evolved, our skulls are a bit smaller and our jaws shorter as well. There is less space to accommodate all of our teeth, including wisdom teeth. This leads to impacted teeth and a host of other related issues.

Are We Evolving?

But while not having wisdom teeth might make life easier because you don't have to deal with their extraction, it doesn't provide any kind of significant or special evolutionary advantage. In fact, it's more so true when you think about all the dentists who are on hand to remove these troublesome teeth.

Clearly, the debate will continue about whether a lack of wisdom teeth represents human evolution but overall, the debate seems to be leaning to the answer of 'no' given that it wouldn't constitute a significant evolutionary advantage. One thing is certain though – people who don't have wisdom teeth can be quite pleased they don't need to undergo dental surgery to have them removed!

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