Yes, it’s true. My nipples led me to question my faith. Specifically, the fact that most male mammals have nipples led me to doubt the young-earth creationism I’d been taught all my life. My parents always said, if creation isn’t true, no part of Christianity is true.
Back in the early 2000’s my dad had an associate pastor. He was a highly educated criminal defense lawyer. His specialty at the church was theology and in-depth teaching. He knew Greek and Hebrew and had a thorough understanding of Biblical concepts. Once per month he would host an “Ask the Pastor” service. No topic was off limits – any and all questions were encouraged.
I was sixteen at the time and one particular question had been bugging me for years: why do men have nipples? The question spread through our youth group and we’d ask it in Sunday School just to mess with the teachers. We knew they didn’t have any good answers and it was fun to say nipple. No one took it seriously, except for me. I really wanted to know how religion could explain it. Nipples make sense if evolution is true, but why would an almighty creator give men something so useless? It just didn’t make sense.
While attending an Ask the Pastor one Sunday morning I saw my chance. I stood up, explained that I had a serious question that may sound a little funny. Why do men have nipples? Pastor Steve’s face fell and he stared at me in silence. I was sure I was in trouble for daring to say nipple in church. Then he answered, “I’ve actually thought about this one before. Look at the beauty and majesty of nature. Look at our expansive universe. There’s so much in this world that doesn’t have a purpose, other than to look beautiful and declare the glory of our lord. I believe that nipples fall into the same category. God designed them for decoration.”
Seriously?! This intelligent man had actually pondered this very question and the only answer he could come up with was “they’re for decoration”? God must be a perv.
Answers in Genesis provides a marginally better defense of the male nipple. Here’s an excerpt:
The creation model provides a much better explanation for the presence of nipples in males. Male nipples are not a vestige of evolution but are instead a vestige of embryology. They in no way diminish the abilities of the creator God, but are actually another example of His wisdom. Nipples in males are actually an evidence of “design economy.”
The rest of their article focuses on a straw man argument. They mischaracterize the evolutionary position, insisting that science explains away male nipples as vestigial organs (like the appendix) however, that isn’t true, as you’ll see below. Answers in Genesis is fond of debunking claims no one is making.
Needless to say, neither answer satisfied my curiosity. I’m ashamed to say that I put the issue out of my mind and didn’t research it again for several years. Doubts were something I ran from in my Christian days.
So why do men (and other male mammals) have nipples? If we’re not trying to fit the question into a religious box, it’s actually quite simple. Like I briefly realized in my youth, evolution held the answer.
The video from SciShow explains things very well. If you didn’t watch, here’s a quick recap:
Females need nipples in order to breastfeed babies. That is a valuable survival trait and was even more necessary before the advent of formula. Male nipples aren’t needed for breastfeeding. Likewise, they aren’t leftover vestigial organs from a time when they did. They are actually artifacts of our own personal development.
Embryos start out by following a female blueprint. Nipples develop before sex is even determined. In the first few weeks, an embryo develops a pair of milk ridges that run the length of the chest and abdomen. Milk ridges eventually pull back, forming nipples.
During week 8, hormones kick in and cells begin to determine the sex of the embryo. Because development always takes place in this order, both males and females end up with nipples. Once sex is determined male hormones will block the development of female ducts and structures. Testosterone present in the embryo then begins to influence the development of other male-specific traits.
Evolution doesn’t really select for male nipples, but it doesn’t select against them either. So Ken Ham got one thing sort of right; they are evidence of “design economy”, just not in the way he thinks. Developing nipples doesn’t cost anything in terms of embryo development. That’s why they stick around.
So there you have it. We all started out (kind of) female. That’s why we have nipples. It’s pretty simple when you look at the question biologically.
As for god? Well, this particular decoration has nothing to do with him. If the Bible were actually true, then we would have a creator who knew you before you were born and knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). If that were the case, shouldn’t he have known whether you were going to be male or female? Maybe he just likes surprises.