How would you like to pick up the daily paper to learn you have become an evolutionary throwback? I mean, even more primitive than a cave man.
My Wall Street Journal tossed this shocker at me, all because of a harmless little physical quirk I use to amuse and confound people at parties.
I can wiggle my ears. Not just a tiny wiggle, mind you. When I wiggle, my glasses climb up and down my nose. The sight convinces some partygoers they’ve had one drink too many.
The Journal article – about the body’s evolutionary changes – dubbed me a throwback to the days when our semi-human ancestors needed ears which could swivel to catch slight sounds of tasty prey or dangerous predators. Only 20 percent of today’s population retains this physical oddity.
I did escape inheriting another quirk of those far-off times: pointy ears caused by a little top peak called “Darwin’s point.” It survives in only 10 percent of modern humans who remind us of Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.
Genetic scientists say about 1,800 of our genes have been evolving rapidly the past 40,000 years, causing a host of changes as our bodies try to keep up with environmental alterations. These have bestowed on us greater height, thinner skulls, bigger feet, a shrinking little toe, and a vanishing appendix.
Some of these changes are downright bad. They say asthma and auto-immune diseases are increasing because the human immune system doesn’t have enough enemies in today’s cleaner world, and is picking fights with the body’s systems instead.
Thankfully, my ear-wiggle falls into a less-somber category. It took me years to develop it, frequently exercising the tiny muscles behind the ears which do the work. It began when I was a teenager. Every time I got cold I would shiver involuntarily, and when I did my ears would wiggle. For a couple of years I had to summon up a shiver to achieve this movement. Then one day they began to move when I just thought about them. From that point it was just a matter of exercise.
And it has become both an amusing and useful trait. If I am trapped by a gabby party bore, a slight (then increasing) wiggle will force him to talk more slowly as he concentrates on my ears while trying to keep the thread of his harangue. Invariably he will stop and ask: “Did you know your ears are wiggling?”
If the gregarious one is far gone in his cups, I reply: “No, you must be seeing things.” He looks quickly back at my ears which are perfectly still. But if he is still sober, I cheerfully confess, and then began boring him to tears with a long speech on ear anatomy.
The same game can be played with strangers in a crowded elevator, or at a street crossing. I begin a furious wiggling until someone notices. Then I stop the motion and make a quick eye contact with him. He looks away in embarrassment, then takes a sneaky peek at my ears when the elevator door opens or the light changes. No movement.
I have blue eyes and that involves me in another Darwinian oddity, It seems that everyone had brown eyes until about 10,000 years ago when a single gene mutation popped up in the Baltic. It spread until today more than 500 million share this change, mostly those living in northern climes. Its evolutionary advantage is unclear. Equally murky is the question of why many Swedes and Norwegians have blond hair so light it is almost white, plus skin so lacking in pigment they seem almost albino.
I share one gene variation which cropped up about 7,000 years ago and enables me to enjoy milk, butter, and cheese with no regrets. This gene makes it possible for us to digest lactose, an enzyme in dairy products. It provided a big survival advantage when people began herding and milking cattle. I belong to the 90 percent of folks of Northern European descent who can down a milkshake without bellyache.
One human gene variation gave me serious pause until I really thought about it. In the past 5,000 years the average human brain has shrunk 10 percent. Are we becoming dumber just when we appear to be waxing smarter? Then I recalled that experts declare no one uses all his brain cells during an average lifetime.
So it all comes out even.