Un-intelligent Design: No Purpose for Vestigial Ear-Wiggling Reflex

by Stephanie Pappas

Around the human ear are tiny, weak muscles that once would have let 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. However, humans may be able to repurpose these useless muscles for their own uses, according to Steven Hackley, a psychologist at the University of Missouri and author of a new review of research on the forgotten muscles in the journal Psychophysiology. For one, these muscles activate in response to positive emotions, for reasons nobody truly understands. This odd fact creates a handy tool for psychologists seeking an objective way to measure emotion.

And then there are the educational implications: This muscle reflex is new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design, Hackley said.

“According to intelligent design and creationism, our body was designed by a being with perfect intelligence,” he said. “If that were the case, why would he put circuits in our brains that don’t work? Why would you put circuits in our brain which are useful for lemurs that are useless for humans?”

Mysterious muscles

Another question: Why study these useless muscles at all?

The use of tiny muscle responses to study emotions goes way back, Hackley said. Researchers have found that people have an elevated “startle” response — measured by the twitching of muscles below the eye — when they’re experiencing a negative mood rather than a positive mood. This makes sense, he said, if you think about watching a horror movie late at night and hearing a sudden crash from outside. You’re likely to be far more spooked than if you’d been watching a romantic comedy.

About a decade ago, psychologists tried to find this same response in the vestigial auricularis posterior muscle, which sits right behind the ear and attaches at the ear’s base. Unexpectedly, the auricularis posterior doesn’t respond more strongly when a person is in a bad mood; instead, its response is strongest when people are at their happiest.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Hackley said. “There’s nothing intuitive about it.”

Even in people capable of wiggling their ears, the auricularis posterior reflex is too weak to actually move the ear. At first, Hackley said, researchers thought this muscle’s engagement during happiness had to do with nursing: Perhaps some ancestor’s infants learned to pull their ears back and out of the way while suckling, thus associating the muscle movement with the pleasure of food.


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24 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – And then there are the educational implications: This muscle reflex is new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design, Hackley said.

    “According to intelligent design and creationism, our body was designed by a being with perfect intelligence,” he said. “If that were the case, why would he put circuits in our brains that don’t work? Why would you put circuits in our brain which are useful for lemurs that are useless for humans?”

    I don’t think this is much use as an example of “unintelligent design”. It is too obscure to have much impact on the average creationist grasp of the workings of biology!

    Vestigial organs – especially re-purposed ones, are of interest to biologists, but it is greatly overestimating the scientific abilities and comprehension levels of the average creationist – (especially YECS) to think they have the focus to understand these sorts of issues!

    They usually get as far as:- “It’s complex and therefore ‘irreducible’ and beyond human (or at least YEC?) understanding!”

  2. Stafford Gordon
    Oct 28, 2015 at 4:38 am

    How do Creationists get round the awkward fact of vestigial organs?

    Ignorance, denial, self-delusion, and gods that work in mysterious ways!!!

  3. Hmmm…I can wiggle my ears and it does make kids laugh. Both move up and down about 1/4″ and the right one moves on it’s own…that’s good for another laugh! My scalp moves back and forth and there’s another laugh as it appears that I have a wig on when pulling it from back and front. Vestigial or not they get laughs!

    Can’t read creationist pseudoscience…Ken Ham Bwahahaha….makes me laugh and then makes me sick as some people believe his crap. Here’s why people laugh at creationists. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loPHYsLHb5Q

  4. Ann Gauger of the Discovery Institute said this: “This is another case of an evolutionary argument that depends on knowing how an intelligent designer ought to act. I personally don’t know the mind of the designer but apparently some biologists (and psychologists) do.”

  5. In the Brothers Karamazov, Doestevsky dealt with a similar argument. The characters were discussing an incident in which a feudal lord had unleashed a pack of vicious guard dogs to chase and kill a peasant boy who had offended him. The character agreed that one cannot know the mind of God, whose intelligence is perfect. However, we humans are not stupid. We can see that no purpose whatsoever, even the construction of a majestic and harmonious paradise, would justify the torture and death of that innocent boy.

  6. Thanks Bonnie.

    There’s just no answer to all that tripe.

    My old dad used to say that if you ask a silly question you get a silly answer; in that vein, senseless statements can only be answered senselessly.

    That’s why Dawkins won’t debate with creationists.

  7. bonnie
    Oct 28, 2015 at 7:20 am

    @AIG link – How Can We Be Certain an Organ Is Useless?

    The problem with declaring any organ to be without function is discriminating between truly functionless organs and those that have functions that are simply unknown. Indeed, over the years nearly all of the organs once thought to be useless have been found to be functional.

    Or as I put it in my earlier comment:-

    Vestigial organs – especially re-purposed ones, are of interest to biologists, but it is greatly overestimating the scientific abilities and comprehension levels of the average creationist – (especially YECS) to think they have the focus to understand these sorts of issues!

    They also deny the connection between the progression of the embryo in its development and the evolutionary history – pretending they are unrelated issues!

    YEC circular thinking requires this!

  8. I have a cat. When I watch her constantly rotate her ears and then I try to tense those same vestigial muscles behind my ears I feel that sense of awe in relation to all life’s shared history.
    There is so much awe and wonder to be experienced in the understanding of evolution.

  9. I fail to see the purpose and need to prove creationists wrong. Anyone who researches the origin of Christianity and the Bible will see this “man made” BS was developed to give slaves a reason to keep working, when they were eventually worked to death; their was purpose so their owners got better value for their investment in floggers and the small amount of food they consumed….over and above this it is just a money tree for the “Religions” who have tailored their own “flavor of coffee” to get the money flow in different directions…or have I missed something!

  10. Desmond
    Oct 28, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    I fail to see the purpose and need to prove creationists wrong.

    The problem is in the need to confront them (particularly in certain parts of the USA) when they interfere, or try to interfere, in the teaching of science, or in key political decisions (on matters such as climate change).
    Ignorance in some isolated nutter is regrettable but of little consequence.
    Asserted ignorance by people in positions of power, can affect us all!

  11. When very young, before I forgot how to be bored, I used to waggle my ears instead. Clearly some adult skill I needed to master. It made a funny crumpling noise.

  12. Dislodging ear wax maybe?

    Seems when activated these muscles indicate you are happy. These are the same muscles that ache when I laugh too much.

  13. Is your meaning Doug, that an ‘is’ can’t be changed to an ‘aught’; or vice versa?

    The fundamental fault lines running through religions are their oughts; or, wishful thinking.

    I think that’s why creationists find it impossible to come to terms with reality.

    I find it weird that individuals as brilliant as Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, and the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, an outstanding economist, believe, without a scintilla of evidence, that the universe was created by a supreme being; it goes without saying, that were that to be found to be true, it would, indeed, have to have been a supreme being indeed that brought it about.

    But what are the chances?

  14. Steve
    Oct 28, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Ann Gauger of the Discovery Institute said this: “This is another case of an evolutionary argument that depends on knowing how an intelligent designer ought to act. I personally don’t know the mind of the designer but apparently some biologists (and psychologists) do.”

    . . . . A beautiful example of psychological projection from AIG’s chief pseudo-scientist!

    I personally don’t know the mind of the designer

    But that does not stop her from persistently claiming various examples of biology must have been “intelligently designed”!

    don’t know the mind of the designer but apparently some biologists (and psychologists) do.”

    . . .. but only if they are creationists – and particularly if they think god-did-it, having somehow acquired some scientific qualifications, when they have no understanding of evolutionary mechanisms!

  15. Is your meaning…

    As an intelligent designer myself (like most other humans), I know (and others remind me) that there are often (usually) cases in which I do not do what I “ought” to do, or, to put it another way, I make mistakes.

    So far, none fatal.

  16. For one, these muscles activate in response to positive emotions, for
    reasons nobody truly understands. This odd fact creates a handy tool
    for psychologists seeking an objective way to measure emotion.

    And then there are the educational implications: This muscle reflex is
    new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design,
    Hackley said.

    “According to intelligent design and creationism, our body was
    designed by a being with perfect intelligence,” he said. “If that were
    the case, why would he put circuits in our brains that don’t work? Why
    would you put circuits in our brain which are useful for lemurs that
    are useless for humans?”

    Interesting logic. On the one hand there is the admission that “nobody truly understands” a certain aspect of this particular subject, but, on the other hand, we can confidently state that this is “new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design”. Apparently this “new evidence” (which some people even have the audacity to refer to as a ‘proof’) is based on the rather naive question as to why a designer would design something that apparently doesn’t work and is therefore ‘useless’.

    Hmm. So can I take it that those who have drawn this conclusion about the fundamental nature of reality are completely omniscient and have a perfect understanding of every function or apparent function within nature? If this is not the case, then clearly no aspect of biology can be judged to be ‘useless’ (because a function could at some future point be discovered), and if it is the case, then clearly such people cannot admit that “nobody truly understands” a certain mechanism within the human body (or any other body, for that matter).

    Atheism cannot have it both ways. If atheists are rational (as they so often claim to be) then it is not a lot to ask that they adhere to the rules of basic logic. But then again… I suppose if reason itself derived from absolute non-intelligence (as atheism implies), then I suppose you can make ‘reason’ whatever you want it to be!

  17. inoma_ilala
    Nov 3, 2015 at 11:04 am

    On the one hand there is the admission that “nobody truly understands” a certain aspect of this particular subject, but, on the other hand, we can confidently state that this is “new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design”.

    Indeed, – as I pointed out in my earlier comment, (https://richarddawkins.net/2015/10/un-intelligent-design-no-purpose-for-vestigial-ear-wiggling-reflex/#li-comment-189146), this is not a sufficiently simple or clear cut example to effectively illustrate “unintelligent design”.
    There are many much better illustrations in evolutionary biology of cobbled together systems, improvised by evolution from earlier features, and of vestigial organs which have abandoned or re-purposed functions.: – often at a variety of levels disuse or re-purposing in related species.

  18. My original argument (I’m the author) was that if a reflex is too weak to actually cause a movement and is, therefore, invisible, it is unlikely to have a function. The quotation cited by the journalist comprises rhetorical questions to creationists. Scientists are limited to making probabilistic statements. Only people of faith can have “certain” knowledge, based on revealed “truth.”

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