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Almost all organs in the human body have a rather large threshold within which the organ or tissue is capable of repairing itself using materials supplied by the body, whether it's made from organic tissue or structural proteins. Wounds and minor damage to the skin or flesh for example heal by themselves, skin, nails and body hair can grow back if damaged or removed, even most bones can be repaired autonomously by a biological body. Cutting off a significant chunk from the human flesh or removing over 90% of a hair or a nail would cause no permanent injury, and the body is capable of repairing the damage over time with ease. The vast majority of the human body (not counting critical organs such as the heart or the brain) can be "grown back" to an extent by itself, because such parts have a rather large damage threshold.

On the contrary, teeth do not. There is a certain threshold in which tooth enamel can be supplied and "repaired" by the body to an minimal degree, but past that point virtually any damage caused to teeth are permanently irreparable by natural means. Which is quite strange, given how fragile a set of human teeth is, be it chemical or physical damage. Especially if you take more "artificial" causes into account. A moderately heavy object aimed towards a human mouth, for example, can easily render ten to fifteen teeth permanently damaged past the point of recovery within a heartbeat, also causing the said person's digestive process to be heavily impaired.

Another strange fact worth noting, is that the human body is capable of producing two separate set of teeth due to biological growth and size differences, but not more than that. Wouldn't it be beneficial for a biological body to be able to supply new teeth in the place of ones that have been damaged or removed? One could argue that such an action would be too complex and impossible, similarly to growing back an entire limb or a spare heart, but given the material that makes up teeth and its fragile nature, it would be safe to assume that it is biologically possible, especially given the fact that the human body DOES produce two separate set of teeth over its lifespan.

However, even stranger still, is that the only element capable of damaging or deteriorating teeth by natural means, is the consumed food itself, and the acidic bacteria found within. Several types of edible food consumable by human means are capable of damaging the enamel to critical levels within relatively short periods of time, even non-artificial ones. What happened before the invention of the toothbrush and various dental cleaning methods? Why haven't humans evolved in the past tens of thousands of years to the point where repairing or regrowing teeth by natural means is feasible? Simply put, why don't teeth grow back contrary to hair, nails or skin?

What is the biological and evolutionary reason behind teeth being so fragile and indisposable?

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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the replacement of teeth, sharks do this continuously. $\endgroup$ – Rory M May 11 '13 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ I think your premise is wrong - teeth are not fragile and enamel is supposed to be the hardest part of the human body. Also, strictly speaking, humans do not produce two sets of teeth independently. Both sets are produced at the same time (with a very cool looking result): The mouth of a child is a terrifying thing to behold $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jun 10 '13 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ @RoryM most non-mammals replace teeth continuously mammals are the weird group out with only limited numbers. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '18 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ I don't recall where I read this, but I believe human teeth cannot be replaced because we require a fairly high-precision bite. Compare this with a shark's mouth where they just need a bunch of teeth in the same general area, making it practical to regrow them at will. $\endgroup$ – forest Mar 22 '18 at 22:25
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The evolutionary biologist in me would argue that, on average, teeth are exactly as strong as they need to be. In other words, the fitness cost of producing and maintaining teeth is balanced with the the fitness benefits of having teeth.

To address your questions from an evolutionary lens:

Why haven't humans evolved in the past tens of thousands of years to the point where repairing or regrowing teeth by natural means is feasible? Simply put, why don't teeth grow back contrary to hair, nails or skin?

The short answer is that we have evolved the ability to regrow teeth. That's why you lost your baby teeth and a new set grew in their place. And why most folks have wisdom teeth that grow in later in life. Essentially, we only need enough functional teeth to get us to the point of reproduction. After that, the effects of selection for stronger, more, better teeth wanes.

You may find this review article1 helpful wherein the authors explore the evolution of teeth, and specifically health issues related to teeth from an evolutionary perspective.


[1] Koussoulakou et al. (2009) A curriculum vitae of teeth: evolution, generation, regeneration. Int J Biol Sci; 5(3): 266-243.

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    $\begingroup$ you do realize endless teeth is the norm mammals have lost that ability. We have not evolved the ability to grow new teeth, we grow a set number of teeth. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 27 '18 at 14:34
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Human teeth and animal teeth are not fragile. It is meant to last a life time, barring physical injury. If anything makes it fragile it is ourselves. The main two causes of tooth loss is dental decay and gum disease. Both are cause by the soft tenacious bacteria filled biofilm called 'Plaque". If there is no plaque then there is no dental caries(cavities) and no periodontal disease(gum disease). Wild animals don't have both and eskimos did not have these diseases till they were exposed to modern civilization. Raw fibrous food have a terrific cleaning effect and effectively removes plaque. And even if there is plaque, since there is no refined carbohydrates there is no decay. If you want to prevent dental decay remove plaque completely, by brushing ,flossing and sealing all the pits and fissures where plaque can lodge. Follow this and one can eat all the sugary things without worrying about their teeth if not anything else.

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  • $\begingroup$ "If there is no plaque then there is no dental caries". I can agree with that, as there must be a method of decay, but is bacteria really the cause? Can a tooth be "healthy" enough to resist the actions of bacteria (which I would think would be present in everyone's mouth, yet some people's teeth don't decay even with no brushing ie eskimos)? An analogy would be that dead animals decay because they're dead. If they decayed because of bacteria, then live animals would decay as well (unless they cleaned the bacteria off 3 times a day, which they don't). I question the accepted cause of caries. $\endgroup$ – Randy Aug 23 '13 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think the reason for caries is more chemical than biological (ie plaque is a symptom, not the cause). Also, caries are common in all cultures and are present in animals. The diet seems to be the single most prominent factor in the formation of dental caries. On the Eskimo thing, is that from Price? $\endgroup$ – 3970 Jan 10 '14 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ The sequence is like this: Plaque harbours and protects the acid producing (acidogenic) micro organisms. Acid producing microorganisms metabolise refined carbohydrates to pretty strong acid. This acid easily decalcifies the enamel which is 96% minerals. However the quantity of the acid priduced is minute and its action lasts for 20 minutes to 40 minutes and tapers off. The role of the plaque is to harbour these Microbes in high concentrations close to the enamel or tooth structure and to prevent dilution of $\endgroup$ – Ram Manohar M Jan 12 '14 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ the acid by saliva. The effect of acid in enamel is like acid on marble. Enamel gets damaged even by mild acids like carbonated drinks. These are well established facts readily available in standard text books in Dentistry. In short no plaque no caries. $\endgroup$ – Ram Manohar M Jan 12 '14 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @RamManoharM I've heard the claim before that indigenous people had no cavities nor gum disease until after European contact. Do you have a reference that evidences this? $\endgroup$ – et is Nov 23 '16 at 15:44
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Human teeth are strongly attached to a socket, which is not true for many other animals. Our teeth are designed to last our lifetime (specifically up until the point we pass on our genes). Most people's teeth last until they are in their 50s, when the majority of people have passed their genes on.

As for food attacking our teeth, this would be fruit juice, sugar etc. These were not the diet of people years ago, in fact refining sugar is more of a recent discovery. And since that time we have been plagued with bad teeth. I think it was queen Victoria that was first introduced to refined sugar and suffered deleterious consequences quite rapidly.

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    $\begingroup$ The amount of food (especially more fiber?) and water consumed might also be significant (in this sugar might provide a double-whammy, dense calories as well as more directly encouraging tooth decay). Chewing on (tougher) low-sugar foods might have some direct tooth-cleaning effect and might encourage more salivation from the food being in the mouth longer (which might also help "wash" teeth). Just "reasonable" speculation. $\endgroup$ – Paul A. Clayton Jun 9 '13 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to your answer; for most of our evolutionary history we lived shorter lives and reproduced at an earlier age. Therefore, our teeth have probably served us fine, and there haven't been strong selection for even more durable teeth. I can also imagine a trade off with other parts of the body for the minerals needed to build teeth, especially in a sometimes poor hunter/gatherer diet. $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Jun 10 '13 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ Sugar is water soluble, so it doesn't stick to teeth. The real enemy is starch found in grains. $\endgroup$ – Bjorn Roche Aug 11 '14 at 19:24
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Because teeth first evolved to be disposable not permanent... then mammals lost the ability to replace them.

There are two questions here, one about regrowth of teeth the other about tooth composition.

Tooth regrowth

The norm for vertebrates is to keep growing new teeth forever, mammals have lost this ability, the current reasoning is that the ancestor of all living mammals were all small nocturnal short lived insectivores. Because of this we are stuck with a bunch of otherwise counterproductive adaptations, limited numbers of teeth is one of them. insectivores benefit greatly from tightly fitted complex teeth which you can't do with endlessly growing teeth (you can dinosaurs found a way but it is not easy) The current understanding is that mammals used (mutated) the genes that let us regenerate growth centers for teeth into genes that control the shape of teeth which is why mammal teeth are so much more complex than any other group of organisms. Since they were short lived this limited number of teeth would not be a hindrance. Because these genes are now used for something else the only way to get them back would be to recreate them from scratch. (two great books on the subject non mammalian teeth and the (evolution of teeth) Mammals don't really grow multiple sets of teeth they grow one set of teeth over an extended time frame, some mammals like elephants only grow a few at a time but still run out eventually. Note there are one group of mammals that does keep regrowing teeth, cetaceans have re-evolved polydont by giving up the differentiated heterodont complex teeth of other mammals, they have lost the genes entirely. So for mammals the choices are extremely simple endless teeth or a set number of different complex teeth.

Why teeth are made of what they are

Tooth enamel and dentin did not originally evolve for eating things, they developed from the external armor of thelodont fish. The inorganic salts teeth are made from were originally a way of storing calcium, then were used in armor, then were used for their electrical properties, only after all this did they start to get used for processing food. Basically early fish used what they already had available, not a material specifically evolved for shear strength, so now we as their descendants are stuck with it. Evolution involves a lot of jerry rigged solutions, teeth happen to be a good example. Snails for instance have "teeth" (radula) made of a much harder material than vertebrates have, it is actually among the strongest natural materials ever found.

Why human teeth are particularly weak

Now humans have fairly weak teeth because we have much less enamel than our relatives (chimps, early hominids, ect) this is believed to be due to to invention of tools and cooking by our ancestors, cooking, among other things, softens foods. Teeth cost a lot in terms of energy and calcium to produce so if they do not need thick heavy enamel to they will naturally evolve to be weaker so those resources can be used elsewhere. On top of that our jaw is much smaller so there would have been considerable pressure ot make teeth smaller as well. For most of human history our teeth were good enough, only now with advances in medicine and sugar rich foods are we regularly exceeding the operational lifetime of our teeth.

To sum it up mammals are using a disposable structure in a permanent capacity.

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Human teeth aren't fragile. One might say that evolution simply hasn't had time to catch up to our fast-changing environment, which includes a diet radically different than that of our ancestors.

It's interesting to note that bears can get cavities, likely for similar reasons. Bears are carnivorans (order Carnivora), similar to cats and dogs. But many bears are largely herbivorous. The giant panda is wholly omnivorous, subsisting on bamboo. But some bears eat lots of sweet fruit, presumably reflecting a relatively recent change in lifestyle. Perhaps bears will evolve more decay-resistant teeth in the distant future, particularly if tooth decay began to threaten their survival.

Although most of the comments here focus on sweets, I wonder if soft foods are another culprit. Our distant ancestors didn't have meat tenderizers and modern, processed foods that require little or no chewing.

On another note, it might be argued that humans are less reliant on their teeth than some other mammals. This is presumably related to our diverse diet and intelligence. A toothless person who can't chew hard food items can either grind them up or soften them or choose another food source. In contrast, a toothless tiger or buffalo would quickly starve to death.

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  • $\begingroup$ teeth are rather fragile compared to things like horn, shell, beak, or radula. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '18 at 5:05

protected by Chris May 25 '16 at 6:57

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