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August 24, 2009

Ears Are Ugly

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The punchline is the title of this posting.

Have you ever given human ears a good, hard look? They're oddly shaped. Skin curling, folding, even drooping. All this concentrated into areas a couple of inches high and about an inch and a half wide. Tacked on the side of a smooth part of the head. And sometimes sticking out like air brakes on the sides of a F-86 Sabre jet fighter.

I'll admit that some ears are less awful than most. Delicate ears that lie fairly flat against the head of a pert young woman can be tolerable -- especially in comparison to those of president Lyndon B. Johnson.

Still, from a purely sexual-aesthetic standpoint, how did the human race survive with everyone sporting such seeming deformities? We should have become extinct due to mutual gross-out.

I have a hypothesis: We tune them out.

That's when they aren't explicitly hidden by being covered over by hair, as many women's hairdos do.

When looking at someone's head we tend to focus on the eyes (especially), mouth, nose, chin and other features of the face itself. If one is within a couple of feet of the other person and focusing frontally on the face, features farther away, including the ears, fall slightly out of focus and therefore aren't being noticed.

Hmm. Depth-of-field as a survival mechanism. Interesting concept.



posted by Donald at August 24, 2009


Desmond Morris in "The Naked Ape" noted that chimpanzees don't have earlobes and thinks earlobes evolved for sexual purposes. Whatever truth there is in that, I think ears are cute.

Posted by: hello on August 24, 2009 9:01 PM

There are societies which deliberately distort the shapes of ears, typically by attaching stone weights (Easter Island) or elaborate hoops (Africa) or pendant jewels (USA), evidently with the idea of focusing attention on them. Apologies for the blow to your scientific career, but I don't think the "tune 'em out" hypothesis is going to work.

Posted by: mike shupp on August 25, 2009 12:21 AM

It's also odd that human eyes, mouths, and even noses all seem to have less variation in shape and proportion than ears. A result of selection pressure on the visually more important features?

Posted by: PapayaSF on August 25, 2009 1:20 AM

I have heard it said that human ears look wrong, but I never considered why that should be. If I, a layman, had to hazard a guess, it would probably be something silly like maximum surface area for cooling near the brain.

Posted by: Mark on August 25, 2009 2:15 AM

I'll say it: I like ears! My wife's are adorable, they stick out a bit like elf ears.

Posted by: JV on August 25, 2009 1:45 PM

I'd have to say I'm mildy pro-ear. They're a little gnarly, or maybe baroque is the right word. Or rococo. But you know, kind of cool and organic.

Posted by: Bhh on August 25, 2009 9:31 PM

I've always been a fan of baby ears.
Some are so exquisite they take my
breath away.

Posted by: James on August 26, 2009 12:57 PM

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