I’m an unashamed fan of cryptozoology – this being (for the two of you that don’t know) the field of study that revolves around those creatures thought to exist by some, but which remain unrecognised by mainstream science in general. These are the cryptids*: entities like Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, sea-serpents, and so on.
What all too many people fail to appreciate or understand is that an interest in cryptozoology is in no way in contradiction to a position of absolute scepticism. Hey, a sceptical scientist or investigator might not accept or believe any of the claims made about cryptids or those of any other fringe subject, but that doesn’t mean that said phenomena aren’t still interesting or worthy of study. Indeed, one might argue that an involvement in cryptozoology does not necessarily translate to an involvement in first-hand research on the alleged cryptids themselves, but – instead – to an involvement in research on the people who claim to have seen such creatures, and on the cultural, historical, phenomenological or psychological background to cryptid encounters. In other word, ‘cryptozoological research’ might not be research on cryptids at all.
The vast majority of books written about cryptids more or less view them from a favourable or even overly-favourable or credulous angle – the idea being that the bulk of evidence supports their existence, it being only a matter of time before we acquire the elusive evidence we need to bring --insert favoured cryptid-- into the hallowed halls of scientific officialdom. But there are a few books that endorse a sceptical perspective: some, because they advocate responsible treatment of the evidence (Napier 1974, Conway et al. 2013); others, because the case for a given cryptid is a bit of a joke and deserves appropriate deconstruction (Binns 1984, Regal 2013).
* Disclaimer: I fully accept Charles Paxton’s argument that the endorsement of the concept of ‘cryptids’ move us away from the fact that we’re dealing with anecdotes and individual eyetwitness accounts and towards the naive view that we’re dealing with actual, specific kinds of creatures. Nevertheless, I find it a useful term for shorthand reasons.
Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s 2013 book Abominable Science! is an epic sceptical review of cryptozoology in general, and a detailed analysis of certain of the more famous of cryptids. Chapters are devoted to Sasquatch, the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, Cadborosaurus and other serpentine sea monsters, and Mokele-Mbembe (Loxton & Prothero 2013). At this point I have to say that I’ve never much liked the sceptical approach endorsed by some ‘branded sceptics/skeptics’ when it comes to cryptozoology, partly because it feels more like naysaying or debunking in which people make such statements as “The idea of Bigfoot is ridiculous, we know it can’t exist”. Furthermore, the scepticism involved comes from people who aren’t really aware of what cryptozoologists think, or say in their books or articles. Bigfoot might well be ridiculous, but I can’t help but remain unsatisfied with the contention that we can reject phenomena on the basis of intuition or incredulity.
Abominable Science! is – as should be blindingly obvious from the title alone – all about the idea that superstar cryptids do not withstand scrutiny when examined in detail, and that hypotheses about them and their ecology, biology, evolution and identity predominantly represent the outcome of unreasonable credulity, wishful thinking, and a sometimes biased agenda. Nobody’s ever compiled this much sceptical review of cryptids in a single book before, meaning that – whatever you think of it – Abominable Science! has to be regarded as one of the most important books ever written on cryptozoology, as well as one of the most meticulously researched and checked (the manuscript was reviewed by six experts on monsters and cryptozoology).
Disclaimer: I was one of those reviewers (that is, I was employed by the publisher to read and critique it) and made suggestions and criticisms that affected the text. I also wrote a bit of blurb that appears on the back. And... I'm one of several people listed in the book's 'dedication' section.
The book is attractive, compact, glossy, and extremely well designed. Its neat-looking cover partially mimics pulp-esque books of the 1960s. It’s also well illustrated, with graphs, colour illustrations and diagrams appearing throughout. Full-colour CG reconstructions of the select cryptids covered in the book appear at the start of each of the chapters. I have to say that I very much dislike the boxed-off areas of text used in several parts of the book: they completely destroy the flow of a narrative when you’re reading the book and should have been placed less obtrusively.
We’ll start with the inevitable bit about Bigfoot
There is, frankly, so much good discussion and so many good points in all of the chapters that I'll try very hard to limit my commentary here to the bits I enjoyed or appreciated the most. The chapter on sasquatch reviews the origin of the ‘modern’ view of bigfoot while also covering the tradition and culture of hoaxing, long known to have been present right from the start of bigfoot lore (Coleman 1995). Part of this chapter is devoted to an investigation of the Patterson film of 1967, a piece of evidence regarded by some bigfooters as one of the best in existence (e.g., Krantz 1999, Meldrum 2006), and by others as a near-irrelevance given the opinion of some that neither its authenticity nor fraudulence can ever be determined with absolute confidence.
Greg Long’s 2004 book – The Making of Bigfoot: the Inside Story (Long 2004) – made a by-now infamous case against the footage, most of it involving character assassination of Roger Patterson. Loxton & Prothero (2013) exploit many of Long’s arguments, focusing most memorably on the important fact that Patterson’s bigfoot (known affectionately as ‘Patty’ to some in the bigfoot community) is strikingly similar to the one reported by William Roe a few years earlier. Patterson wrote about Roe’s female bigfoot in 1966 and even drew a scene just about identical to the one he captured on film in 1967 (Loxton & Prothero 2013). Some of you will know that John Conway, Memo Kosemen and myself covered the same idea in our book Cryptozoologicon: Book One (Conway et al. 2013).
It’s irresponsible to ignore this bizarre ‘coincidence’ when considering the Patterson film: the circumstantial case against Patterson is so strong that I’ve given up on the idea that the footage might be genuine. Meanwhile, over the last few years, the several other bits of evidence that might once have looked reasonably good as goes the possible validity of bigfoot (dermal ridges, the Skookum cast, alleged bigfoot hairs and DNA) have fallen away... let's not talk about the Ketchum and Erickson projects, or Sylvanic... meaning that there isn’t much left beyond the body of eyewitness accounts.
And, for those of you thinking “what about the vocalisations?”... the vocalisations are all over the place, displaying startlingly little consistency and being horribly tainted by the fact that people go out into the woods and deliberately make sasquatch calls. Oh yes they do; watch Finding Bigfoot.
Loxton & Prothero (2013) finish their chapter on bigfoot with the confirmed, irrefutable ubiquity of hoaxing; a problem so pervasive that it taints every corner of the field. Despite promises, we still haven’t seen anything coming out of alleged bigfoot DNA or hair microstructure studies that provides support for the reality of bigfoot – on the contrary, in fact (Sykes et al. 2014). Linking back to what I said above about ‘cryptozoological research’ not really being research on cryptids at all, we’re left with a phenomenon that seems to tell us more about psychology than primate diversity. It remains fascinating, of course... to my wife’s chagrin, I continue to watch Finding Bigfoot, hoping each time that Bobo, Cliff, Ranae and Matt might actually find something...
Yetis and Reinold Messner revisited
After dealing with bigfoot, we move on to the Yeti, the fabled Abominable Snowman. Fans of the cryptozoological literature will know that the beast endorsed by cryptozoologists is not the snow-white monster of Hollywood that haunts the Himalayan mountain-tops, but a dark-furred ape of forested valleys and ravines, (arguably) not all that different in concept from real hominids like mountain gorillas. As appealing as this idea might be, evidence for yetis has singularly failed to appear, and even the reasonable concept of a shaggy-furred, strongly bipedal, big-bodied, temperate member of the orangutan lineage remains speculative and not supported by a robust set of accounts. The yeti story is made messy by claims that several or many mystery primates are involved, an idea mooted in the ‘mainstream’ cryptozoology literature (e.g., Heuvelmans 1995) but taken to an extreme by some (Coleman & Huyghe 1999). Trackways, ‘scalps’, hairs and alleged yeti bones have all failed to stand up as useful bits of evidence.
Loxton & Prothero (2013) lean heavily in this chapter on Reinhold Messner’s idea that tales of the yeti actually describe encounters with Tibetan bears (Messner 1998). There’s something worth saying here about our approach to Messner and what he’s said about yetis. In the same way that ‘true believers’ are often all too keen to accept as canon those anecdotes that are actually highly or wholly suspect, sceptics are often all too keen to jump on stories or pronouncements that purport to debunk or destroy a case when, actually, those stories or pronouncements need to be considered more sceptically themselves.
My concern about Messner has long been that he seemed to have changed his mind after his initial bear-based claims of 1998, apparently saying post-1998 that he obtained one or two or more actual yeti carcasses, a few good photos, and even had an up-close-and-personal encounter with a yeti that was very much a hominid. What does this mean: that’s he’s given up on the bear idea? Those of you who saw the 2013 Mark Evans TV series that involved Brian Sykes’s quest for DNA evidence will have seen Messner talking about his yeti ideas again. I’m confused, but conclude that those stories about Messner’s change-of-heart – which come second- and third-hand* – don’t represent Messner’s views after all.
Whatever, Loxton & Prothero’s (2013) overall conclusion on the yeti – that it represents a combination of hoaxing, tall tales, and mistaken views and jumbled anecdotes about bears – has only been bolstered since their book appeared in print (Sykes et al. 2014).
* Brian Blessed (the actor, also a mountaineer) stated in a 1999 interview “[Messner] walked round a corner, quite literally INTO a yeti. It had a domed head, was eight to eight and a half feet tall, and was covered with hair. It had green eyes. I asked him if it could have been an ape or a bear, and he said it was much more like a giant man with mongoloid features and hairy skin”. The interviewer (British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman) said “I thought Messner believed that the yeti was a bipedal bear?”; Blessed replied “No, not since he got the close-up film of it” (Freeman 1999).
Of Nessie, Mokele-Mbembe and Cadborosaurus
Nessie also gets a chapter. Like the others, it does a brilliant job of combining our understanding of the mythical landscape that surrounds the Loch Ness phenomenon with discussion of the mistakes, hoaxes and wishful thinking that have resulted in the emergence of the creature as it’s imagined today. The authors also deconstruct some classic cases like Saint Columba’s ‘encounter’ of 563 AD (or thereabouts) and the Spicer’s report of August 1933 (Loxton & Prothero 2013).
I can only agree with their approach. As has been said before (here on Tet Zoo, and elsewhere), the gargantuan expectation that people might really ‘see a monster’ at Loch Ness means that waterbirds, swimming deer, waves, wakes, buoys and boats all get misinterpreted. All the reported Nessie photos are hoaxes (the Wilson photo, the Lachlan Stuart photo, the MacNab photo), misinterpretations or embellishments (the Dinsdale film, the Rines underwater photos), or indeterminate images of nothingness (the Hugh Gray photo).
An especially interesting angle to Loxton & Prothero’s (2013) investigation is their proposal that the Loch Ness Monster idea got off the ground as a direct consequence of the movie King Kong, released in April 1933, and seen by George Spicer and his wife (does she have a name? She’s always just “his wife”) at some point, presumably before they made their Nessie sighting. This idea is not novel, having been mentioned by veteran Loch Ness investigators Adrian Shine and Dick Raynor and even alluded to by Rupert Gould when he spoke to the Spicers in 1933 (Loxton & Prothero 2013). TV presenter Steve Leonard also put the idea out there in a 2003 documentary called Steve Leonard’s Search for the Loch Ness Monster. What I hadn’t realised before reading Abominable Science! is how many similarities there are between the relevant scene of King Kong and the Spicer’s sighting. It should be noted that the Spicers proved to be tremendously unreliable witnesses, repeatedly changing the details of the story and embellishing it over time, so much so that Gould wished that he hadn’t included their account in his famous book of 1934 (Mike Dash, pers. comm.); an incredible admission given that this is one of the most famous Nessie sightings.
The sea serpent chapter focuses on Cadborosaurus – the alleged long-bodied, horse-headed water monster of the north-west Pacific – while also discussing Bernard Heuvelmans’s ideas about sea serpents. Famous ‘sea monster carcasses’ like the Stronsay Beast of northern Scotland and the Zuiyo Maru carcass of 1977 are also discussed. The most innovative aspect of the chapter concerns Loxton & Prothero's (2013) coverage of the previously scarcely-discussed idea that Cadborosaurus and similar beasts are the direct descendants of the mythical hippocamp: the half-fish, half-horse sea monster of ancient bestiaries and artwork.
And this isn’t – as Heuvelmans and his followers might have us believe – because the hippocamp ‘merely’ represents an ancient interpretation of the exact same flesh-and-blood cryptid, since there are good reasons for thinking that the hippocamp partly had its origins in stories about land serpents. All in all, this chapter – like others in the book, it could stand alone as a technical paper – fits well with other recent studies on the ‘sea serpents’ of the cryptozoological literature: classification schemes and evolutionary hypotheses that assume that these creatures are real animals rely entirely on the artificial compartmentalisation of accounts (Magin 1996) and collapse when scrutinised. I was pleased to see citation and discussion of some of the technical articles I’ve published on sea monsters (Woodley et al. 2008, 2011).
Are there really large animals that await discovery in the world’s oceans? Almost certainly. Will they match the anachronistic fossil whales, Mesozoic marine reptiles, long-necked pinnipeds and gigantic eels of the cryptozoological literature? Almost certainly not.
Remaining on the topic of long-necked water beasts, mokele-mbembe – the alleged ‘living dinosaur’ of the Congolese swamps so beloved of creationists – is up next. The case for the mokele-mbembe has always been a complete joke, awash with hoaxes, forays about the Congo that involve horrendous bias and the leading of witnesses, and a set of categorically unconvincing stories and other alleged bits of evidence. Most people who have read the cryptozoological literature will know that an early hoax was one of the key cases that made ‘surviving sauropods’ synonymous with the Congolese region.
But – prior to this case – stories about such creatures weren’t really associated with the Congo, but with Rhodesia. As with several other famous cryptids, the ‘modern’ version of the mokele-mbembe is a recent invention that arose following the picking and choosing of certain descriptions and the ignoring of others: cryptozoologists and creationists have developed the idea of distinct sauropod-like, ceratopsian-like, stegosaur-like and mega-crocodile-like cryptids in the Congo, but all blur together in the different accounts. Roy Mackal and his colleagues don’t come out of this at all well. Especially shocking is the case where Mackal and colleagues were surprised by people who claimed not to have ever seen mokele-mbembe, and threatened them to stop withholding information (Mackal 1987, Loxton & Prothero 2013).
The reaction to Abominable Science!
You might be curious as to how Abominable Science! has been received by the cryptozoological community (after all, the book has been out for about a year by now). There’s been a little bit of fuss about the Loch Ness Monster stuff, but it’s nothing compared to the furore that’s surrounded the bigfoot chapter. In an extraordinary display that basically involved baying for blood and the suggested worldwide recall and pulping of all copies of Abominable Science!, bigfoot researchers took issue with Loxton & Prothero’s (2013) sceptical stance on the topic, in particular on what they said about the Patterson footage. None of this will be any surprise to those who are even vaguely aware of the bigfoot research community, since battles, epic disagreement and weirdly aggressive behaviour (example: book burning) seem par for the course, and it sure didn’t do much to counter whatever preconceptions you might have about bigfooters and the way they respond to criticism.
An especially bizarre criticism levelled at the book is that it doesn’t review cryptozoology in entirety, nor discuss every piece of supposed evidence pertaining to the cryptids that receive coverage. This is so dumb that I don’t think I need to discuss it further. Personally, I think that all of the chapters are very well-rounded, focused, and good at showing how one, or a few, core aspects of the case for a given cryptid don’t amount to much when analysed properly. As should be clear from this over-long review (and even clearer from the book itself), the authors worked incredibly hard to collect, read and analyse the actual literature and data – they don’t reach conclusions based on their own incredulity or scepticism but, rather, have both compiled a meticulous case against the cryptids they focus on, and have shown how flimsy the very idea of their existence really is.
Cryptozoology: good or bad or what?
In the last part of the book, Abominable Science! focuses on an important question: how should we feel about cryptozoology as an endeavour? Is it an honest scientific movement that we should tolerate, embrace or even encourage? Or it is a sorry pseudoscience that we should discourage and even endeavour to stamp out? As is clear (I hope) from this review, Loxton & Prothero (2013) go for the proverbial jugular, showing – time and time again – that ideas about cryptozoological superstars are flawed, not only for reasons relating to biological plausibility and standards of evidence, but also because there’s a good paper-trail showing that ideas about the cryptids concerned evolved from an origin in mythology, fiction or confusion.
But does this mean that those involved in cryptozoology are wrong-headed and uncritical dunderheads, the antithesis of evidence-led scepticism? Some are, sure, but the sheer diversity of people allied with, or involved in, cryptozoology is impressive such that the subject is – as some of those involved have specifically stated – a broad church, involving people who fit everywhere on the believer-sceptic spectrum. Some are kooks who are attracted to crazy ideas and link their views on cryptids to ESP, chem-trails and 9/11 conspiracies, and others are ‘true believers’ that have decided that a given cryptid exists on the basis of their own personally developed worldview.
But others regard some mystery animals as likely or plausible because they’ve weighed up the evidence (such as it is), and only choose to endorse those alleged creatures that they think appear to have evidential support, rejecting those that don’t. Having corresponded with, spoken to, and worked with card-carrying cryptozoologists on many occasions, I think that this is where the majority of cryptozoologists lie on that believer-sceptic spectrum: that is, they make decisions about cryptids based on interpretations of perceived evidence, involve self-correction and falsification in the development of their views, and are not ‘belief-based’ in terms of their approach to the subject (see Arment 2004 for more on this). Their decisions about which evidence serves as ‘acceptable’ might be naive or even erroneous, but the processes and conclusions involved show that – contra arguments sometimes made by sceptics – their approach is not pseudoscientific, nor motivated by a desire to embrace what most of society rejects, nor believe in the unbelievable.
And things go further, because there are also cryptozoologists who, while they consider a wide variety of alleged mystery animals to be ‘plausible’, ultimately regard them as existing more in the human mind than anywhere else. And yet others – remember here that I’m talking about people who can be identified as cryptozoologists and have even published work in the cryptozoological literature – seek to test the observational and data-recalling abilities of people in order to see which non-biological explanations might explain the monster sightings they claim to make.
In fact, if you read enough of what we generally term ‘the cryptozoological literature’, you’ll end up being confused as to what, if anything, unites those people that we call, or who call themselves, ‘cryptozoologists’. Yes, there are plenty of books and published articles that endorse a more credulous, non-sceptical approach to mystery animal accounts than we might consider acceptable for the sciences, but there are also a large number of articles that endorse or employ scepticism. In view of this diversity of opinions and approaches, I think we should be uneasy with the idea that cryptozoology is a troublesome pseudoscience that should be considered alongside undisputed ‘paranormal’ beliefs.
Loxton & Prothero (2013) do note this diversity and give fair credit to the idea that cryptozoology is not wholly composed of kooks, cranks and true-believers; the complexity of the issue is such that the book ends with both authors giving somewhat conflicting takehomes. Loxton regards cryptozoology as “mostly harmless” and points out that those inspired to investigate cryptozoological data may benefit from an exposure to science literacy and critical thinking that they might otherwise not enjoy: in other words, cryptozoology may serve as a ‘gateway drug’ that ultimately serves for good.
In contrast, Prothero points to associations that feed off in the opposite direction: a belief in cryptids is demonstrably linked to low levels of science literacy and acceptance of pseudoscience. At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that there are different kinds of ‘cryptozoologist’ and that they range from true, sceptical scientists to pseudoscientists and credulous ‘true believers’. This all makes it very difficult to know what, if anything, can and should be done. Also worth noting is that 'cryptozoologists' and 'people who believe in cryptids' are not the same thing.
Whatever you think about cryptids and cryptozoology, and wherever you find yourself on that ‘believer-sceptic’ spectrum, you really have to read this book. Abominable Science! is a crucial analysis and it does an excellent job of showing how thorough investigators should be in evaluating cryptids. I may not agree with every aspect of Loxton & Prothero's (2013) conclusions, but the book certainly endorses the kind of intelligent, informed scepticism that I can get behind. We may be entering a new phase in the history of cryptozoological literature - a phase that some have termed 'post-cryptid cryptozoology' - and one that moves beyond both the naive, uninformed falsification and the uncritical credulity of the past. Join us.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on cryptozoology, see...
- Cryptozoology at the Zoological Society of London. Cryptozoology: time to come in from the cold? Or, Cryptozoology: avoid at all costs?
- Dear Telegraph: no, I did not say that about the Loch Ness monster
- A baby sea-serpent no more: reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile Cadborosaurus
- The Cadborosaurus Wars
- The inaugural issue of The Journal of Cryptozoology
- Photos of the Loch Ness Monster, revisited
- Tales from the Cryptozoologicon: the Yeti
- Tales from the Cryptozoologicon: Megalodon!
- The amazing Hook Island sea monster photos, revisited
- The Cryptozoologicon (Volume I): here, at last
Refs - -
Coleman, L. 1995. Was the first “bigfoot” a hoax? Cryptozoology’s original sin. The Anomalist 2, 8-27.
Freeman, R. 1999. The quest interview with Brian Blessed. Quest Magazine 2 (5), 18-20.
Magin, U. 1996. St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent. In Moore, S. (ed) Fortean Studies Volume 3. John Brown Publishing (London), pp. 223-234.
Sykes, B. C., Rhettman A. Mullis, R. A., Christophe Hagenmuller, C., Melton T. W. & Sartori, M. 2014. Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0161