July 24, 2020 | Jerry Bergman

Ear Muscle “Wiggle”: A Vestigial-Organ Claim That We Should ‘Turn a Deaf Ear To’

 

Human ears were not designed to wiggle; their muscles were designed for other functions

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

A new study[1] found thathumans ‘prick up their ears,’ …  when they hear interesting sounds.”[2] The researchers then added that this “wiggling” outer ear trait exists in humans due to “our animal inheritance.” But the converse is also claimed: most humans cannot wiggle their ears, the evolutionary argument goes, because the muscles that cause the movement are now “vestigial.” No matter which claim is made, whether humans can wiggle our ears, or cannot wiggle our ears, it must be due to evolution. Darwin can’t lose: both contrary contradictions are still being made within evolutionary circles.

By “ears,” the authors referenced in this paper are referring to the pinna, the outer rim of the ear. Vestigial, as one high school learning app defined, characterizes organs or tissues in the body which are no longer “functional the way they were in their ancestral form …  It is [an] authentication of evolution.”[3] One of the best examples was given by an education web site that claimed the outer ear as the

Helix (outer rim of the ear) [which] is known to be a vestigial structure. Underdeveloped muscles in the ear make us incapable to bring about the movement of ears. Darwin’s tubercle is [also] a vestigial feature present on the juncture of the upper part of the ear.

Let’s examine these claims. First of all, Darwin’s tubercle (tuberculum Darwini), also called Darwin’s bump or Darwin’s point, is not a vestigial structure, as the author of this article (J. Bergman) has documented elsewhere.[4]

Darwin’s point, both the illustration and the figure caption, are from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, And Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871, p . 21.

The vestigial belief is based on the claim that our evolutionary ancestor was some type of monkey-like primate species that had the capability to move their ears. This ability evolved, they claim, to better hear sounds emanating from a variety of angles. Thus, to do this, they had far more-developed ear muscles as well as a different ear design than humans have today. Actually, although many mammal ears have a mobile pinna that can be moved to better pick up sound waves, most monkeys and apes—like humans—have immobile pinnae.[5] Humans and other primates, such as the orangutan and chimpanzee, also have ear muscles that are minimally developed and non-functional (as judged by evolutionists), yet the ear muscles are large enough to be identifiable with the naked eye.

In my book Useless Organs, I described how these muscles have several very important functions, including serving as a framework supporting and stabilizing the pinna. Furthermore, I concluded that the pinna in humans was not designed to move. Instead, the muscles that are connected to it serve several other important functions: for instance, they are part of the muscle system in the temple area that support blood circulation and innervation in the area of the cranium where they are located. Another function is to serve as padding to protect the underlining structures in the temples. In short, their major roles include covering and protecting the area around the ear and helping stabilize the pinna in its proper location.[6]

The parts of the pinna designed to maximize picking up sound waves in the range that frequency that humans can hear, namely from 20 to 20,000 Hz.

Evolutionary claims

One of the most blatant anti-design explanations for these “vestigial” muscles connected to the outer ear (named the auriculomotor muscles), was told by Stephanie Pappas at Live Science on 21 October 2015:

Around the human ear are tiny, weak muscles that once would have let [our] evolutionary ancestors pivot their ears to and fro. Today, the muscles aren’t capable of moving much — but their reflex action still exists. These muscles are vestigial, meaning they’re remnants of evolution that once had a purpose but no longer do. …. According to intelligent design and creationism, our body was designed by a being with perfect intelligence … If that were the case, why would he put circuits in our brains that don’t work? [thus, this trait is due to] Un-intelligent Design: No Purpose for Vestigial Ear-Wiggling Reflex [exists].[7]

According to University of Missouri psychologist Steven Hackley, author of the research on the auriculomotor muscles published in Psychophysiology, the auriculomotor muscles are activated in response to various positive and negative emotions. This fact creates a very useful means for psychologists seeking an objective method to measure emotion. It is an important means for others to better interpret the communications of their friends.[8] Major judgements are made about people based facial clues which are critically important in producing a harmonious society. It’s called body language. Entire college classes are based on understanding of this important form of nonverbal communication.[9] Those persons with the uncanny ability to read people, often attributed to women with their so-called “female intuition,” may be partly due to their sensitivity to nonverbal cues. This could well include the subtle movements made by the auriculomotor muscles, which are inherent parts of the facial muscle system.[10]

A review of the research summarized in Medical Xpress[11] supported this function for the auriculomotor muscles (11 July 2020). After observing that many animals, including dogs, cats, horses and some primates, move their ears to better focus their attention to a sound that is of interest, the researchers make a surprising admission. The discovery that

humans also have this capability was not known until now. A research team based in Saarland has demonstrated for the first time that we make minute, unconscious movements of our ears that are directed towards the sound [we] want to focus our attention on. The team discovered this ability by measuring electrical signals in the muscles of the vestigial motor system in the human ear. The results have now been published in the journal eLife.[12]

The research team, led by Professor Daniel J. Strauss, has demonstrated that the muscle set around the ear becomes active as soon as unusual or goal-relevant sounds, are perceived by the hearer. The researchers were able to record the signals that control the very small, generally invisible, movements of the pinna by surface electromyogram (EMGs) probes placed in the skin near muscles connected to the pinna. The auriculomotor muscles also are active in expressing a wide variety of emotions in this form of body language.[13]

EMG recordings revealed larger muscle activity of the ear on the side the subject was focusing on. The experiments showed that muscle movements in the formerly-claimed ‘vestigial’ pinna-orienting system indicate the direction of the subject’s auditory attention. The researchers were able to observe slight movements of the pinna as well as differences in the strength of the response on each side. They concluded that electromyography of the muscles connected to the ear is a simple means of measuring auditory focus. In short, muscle movements around the ear indicate the direction of the sounds a person is paying attention to, in addition to certain other emotions.[14]

A better explanation for the auriculomotor system

This research leads to a more logical reason why these muscles are activated. It is not to move the ears (as the vestigial-organ explanation claims) but rather—as the authors themselves note—to communicate with others. They are part of the facial response to sounds of interest and as part of the body communication system. The practical applications of the human ear-orienting system range from better understanding of the listener’s emotions to assessing hearing deficits in infants.[15] This knowledge has practical relevance. It can aid inventors in developing hearing aids with miniature processors that can amplify sounds that the wearer is focusing on and, concurrently, suppress noises that the wearer is attempting to ignore. The sensor would gauge the direction the user is attempting to direct their attention towards, and then adjust the gain and loss on the device’s directional microphones accordingly. Such a hearing aid device could enhance the wearer’s auditory experience, by helping the listener concentrate on the activity of interest, while suppressing distracting sounds, such as traffic noise, ambient conversation or TV sound coming from another room.

Their findings should have helped the authors appreciate the valuable functions they detected in the human auriculomotor system as signs of engineering. Instead, they attempted to explain their impressive research findings in terms of blind, careless evolution:

Unlike dogs and cats, people do not point their ears as they focus attention on novel, salient, or task-relevant stimuli. Our species may nevertheless have retained a vestigial pinna-orienting system that has persisted as a ‘neural fossil’ within in the brain for about 25 million years.[16]

The researchers added more Darwinese words in their obligatory attempt to tie their findings to evolution:

It is very likely that humans still possess a rudimentary orientation system that tries to control the movement of the pinna (the visible outer part of the ear). Despite becoming vestigial about 25 million years ago, this system still exists as a ‘neural fossil’ within our brains.[17]

The authors, however, admit a major problem with their evolution speculation: “The question why pinna orienting was lost during the evolution of the primate lineage has still not been completely resolved.”[18] Actually, no one has any idea why movement of the auricle to better focus on a certain sound source, as cats and some dogs do, would be lost by evolution. Wouldn’t its retention significantly aid in focusing attention to the sound source? Attributing the emergence and loss of a “beneficial” trait or survival advantage is just one more evolutionary contradiction that allows Darwinians to pretend that their doctrine increases “understanding” of nature.

In chapters 7 and 8, Dr Bergman discusses whether the auricle of the ear contains vestigial structures.

Summary

In my exploration of vestigial organ claims, one fact is consistent: all of the ‘useless organ’ claims have proven to be wrong. This may be one more example. The Vestigial Organs doctrine has discouraged research into the function of organs so labeled,[19] stopping curiosity and delaying discoveries about what these organs do. But once the door is opened to the possibility that functions exist—as has occurred in this case—no doubt other functions will be discovered for the auriculomotor system

References and notes

[1] Saarland University. 2020. Our animal inheritance: Humans ‘prick up their ears,’ too, when they hear interesting sounds. Medical Xpress, July 7. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-07-animal-inheritance-humans-ears.html

[2] Saarland University, 2020.

[3] Vestigial Organs. “What Are Vestigial Organs?” BJYU’s The Learning App. https://byjus.com/biology/vestigial-organs/ A Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

[4] Bergman, J.,“Darwin’s Point,” Journal of Creation 33(2):5-7, August 2019.

[5] Lieberman, D.E., The Evolution of the Human Head. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2011

[6] Bergman, J., Useless ear muscles are very useful, Journal of Creation 34(2):5-7, 2020.

[7] Pappas, Stephanie, Un-intelligent Design: No Purpose for Vestigial Ear-Wiggling Reflex, LiveScience, 21 October 2015. https://www.livescience.com/52544-vestigial-ear-muscles-try-to-wiggle.html

In this companion book, Dr Bergman evaluates claims that parts of the human body are poorly designed.

[8] Saarland University, 2020.

[9] Navarro, Joe and Marvin Karlins. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. New York: William Morrow.

[10] Lips, Hilary M. 2020. Sex and Gender: An Introduction, Seventh Edition. New York: Waveland Press, Inc. p. 171.

[11] Strauss, Daniel J., et al., Vestigial auriculomotor activity indicates the direction of auditory attention in humans, eLife, 3 July 2020. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.54536.

[12] Saarland University, 2020.

[13] Pease. Barbara. 2006. The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Hidden Meaning Behind People’s Gestures and Expressions. New York: Bantam.

[14] Saarland University, 2020.

[15] University of Missouri, Understanding ancient human ear-orienting system could yield clues to emotions, hearing deficits in infants, Medical Xpress, 13 October 2015.  https://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-10-ancient-human-ear-orienting-yield-clues.html

[16] Strauss, Daniel J., et al., 2020.

[17] Saarland University, 2020.

[18] Saarland University, 2020.

[19] Bergman, J. 2019. Useless Organs: The Rise and Fall of the Once Major Argument for Evolution. Tulsa, OK: Bartlett Publishing.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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