A Disgraceful Nerve

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Richard Dawkins describes spending a day with veterinary anatomists dissecting a young giraffe that had died in a zoo. He was particularly interested is seeing the recurrent laryngeal nerve, one of the nerves that supplies the giraffe larynx (voice box). Dawkins describes the recurrent laryngeal nerve as follows: “On each side of the neck, one of the branches of the laryngeal nerve goes straight to the larynx following a direct route such as a designer might have chosen. The other one goes to the larynx via an astonishing detour. It dives right down into the chest, loops around one of the main arteries leaving the heart (a different artery on the left and right sides, but the principle is the same), and then heads back up the neck to its destination. If you think of it as the product of design, the recurrent laryngeal nerve is a disgrace.”

Dawkins was interested in seeing the giraffe’s recurrent laryngeal nerve because a giraffe has a particularly long neck and the larynx is a long way from its chest, but its recurrent laryngeal nerve does the same loop.
Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, Bantam Press, 2009, pp 356, 360-362

Editorial Comment: The way Dawkins writes it, a reader would assume the recurrent laryngeal nerve only controls the larynx. It does not. The nerve branches from the main trunk of the Vagus nerve in the top of the chest and supplies the trachea (windpipe) and oesophagus (food pipe) as it courses upwards through the neck.

Dawkins’ assertion that its circuitous route proves it wasn’t created that way because an intelligent creator would not make it like that is a philosophical/theological claim, not a scientific one. It is based on Dawkins’ assumptions about what he would do if he was the creator god. This assumption faces only one major challenge: giraffes function very well thank you, and when Dawkins has made a better giraffe we will be interested in his opinion. At present he is just being a foolish amateur.

Why the recurrent laryngeal nerve has this route we don’t know, but it works, and the best scientific way to find out more about the nerve is to work on the principle that it is like this for a reason, and do some further research. (Ref. neurology, cranial nerves anatomy)

Evidence News, 26 May 2010