Cryptozoology: False Cattle | Nature
Daniel Cressey delves into the skeptical history of monster hunters and their legendary career.
Abominable science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids
Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero. Columbia University Press: 2013.
animals playing in Abominable science! will be familiar to most children. Unfortunately, none of them exist. Daniel Loxton, journalist for Skeptical Science magazine and paleontologist Donald Prothero dedicate their gripping book to chronicling how we’ve come to a point where, despite a huge lack of evidence, people still believe in cryptids such as the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster. , sea serpents and the ‘Congo dinosaur’ (Mokele Mbembe), a supposedly living sauropod.
What emerges is an ever less than rigorous examination of the evidence and a cultural history of cryptozoology. Loxton and Prothero, who take turns writing chapters, have a grudging respect for some of the characters that populate this bizarre world of monster hunters, more for their stubbornness than their scientific accuracy. They point out that a number of real animals, such as the okapi and the mountain gorilla, were discovered after scientists investigated the stories of locals and vague reports of sightings. “The distinction between cryptozoology and conventional biology is not necessarily very great,” they write, before exhaustively documenting that “necessarily” is a key caveat.
A purported yeti footprint from the Menlung Basin in Nepal.
1 credit: POPPERFOTO/GETTY
Some hunters of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, the gigantic primate that supposedly stalks the forests of North America, seem to behave like biologists. A less kind interpretation would be that they embrace the pitfalls of science, but ignore its philosophy. As Loxton and Prothero demonstrate, hunter behavior would appall most sane field researchers. The title of the book says it all.
Each chapter follows a similar pattern, beginning with an early pioneer combining some folk tales with a vague sighting of something in the distance. This is usually followed by other people faking evidence, until a self-reinforcing legend is established. As more monster hunters flock to find the beast, more dubious evidence is generated. Before you know it, there is a souvenir shop selling t-shirts.
“What emerges is a never less than rigorous examination of the evidence.”
Yet it’s the hunters – ranging from outright thieves to serious, if misguided, searchers – who make for compelling reading. For example, Bernard Heuvelmans, credited as the founder of modern cryptozoology, earned a doctorate studying aardvark teeth, worked as a jazz musician and comedian, escaped the Nazis, and befriended with Tintin creator Georges Prosper Remi (known as “Hergé”) before producing his work on cryptids of all kinds.
During a 1958 expedition to Tibet in search of the yeti (a kind of Himalayan Bigfoot), led by Texas oil baron Tom Slick, some members of the group allegedly performed sleight of hand on a relic sacred, exchanging human finger bones for pretend yeti bones. The stolen bones were reportedly smuggled out of the country in actor James Stewart’s luggage.
Going through these and other anecdotes in Abominable science! – like people attaching fake wooden feet to create “Sasquatch” tunes – the book could have justly been a compilation of mockery and humor. In fact, it is a sensitive but devastating dismantling of an entire subculture. It culminates in a final chapter that asks a puzzling question: why do people believe in monsters, a world watched over by satellites and hikers with cameras? No credible photograph of any of these creatures has ever been captured.
Rather unsatisfactorily, Loxton and Prothero fail to pinpoint the answer to this question. Instead, they end up detailing the damage pseudoscience can cause and suggest how cryptid hunting could become real science, contributing to “a world a little less ignorant and anti-scientific than the one we grew up in.” . Based on the information they present, however, it seems likely that the true believers in such grand stories will always be with us. Evidence – or lack thereof – is never enough to sabotage a good story. At least Abominable science! proves that a proper examination of it can produce an equally compelling narrative.
Loxton admits that as a child he believed in the things he now debunks. His passion eventually led him to question what he was being told and co-write this book. Hopefully this will encourage others to take a similar journey.
Related links in Nature Research
Scientific journals: Cryptozoology
Taxonomy: how many unknown species remain to be discovered?
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Cressey, D. Cryptozoology: False Cattle.
Nature 499, 406 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/499406a