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Show Me the Body

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Abominable Science!abominable science

By Daniel Loxton & Donald R. Prothero
Columbia 2013

“I want to believe” is a tag-line from The X-Files, delivered earnestly by FBI agent Fox Mulder. It boasts his unflagging credulity regarding paranormal phenomena like extraterrestrials, mutant serial killers, and hidden shape-changers. Whispering to us from that enchanted wood known as the 1990s, when Mulder and partner Dana Scully’s adventures couldn’t be missed, the line is a nostalgic siren song.

Wanting to believe–in creatures too elusive for science to confirm–is the bedrock of cryptozoology. Amateur enthusiasts, primarily in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have kept cryptids like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster alive for decades, despite embarrassing rafts of non-evidence (blurry photos, goofy film footage) that actual scientists have studied and dismissed.

Hunting monsters, of course, is one of humanity’s oldest fascinations; there’s the epic Sumerian poem Gilgamesh (18th century B.C.), which sees its hero battle Humbaba, and the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf ( 10th century) featuring the savage Grendel. Surprising creatures have been creeping through modern cultures far and wide, and a trophy room of the most famous would also include sea serpents, yetis, and even a Congo dinosaur called Mokele Mbembe.

Though Beowulf’s adventures are more eloquent, those of Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton and paleontologist Donald R. Prothero are no less enthralling. The pair’s new book, Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, is an exhaustively-researched, color-illustrated volume that details the cultural forces (and often individual people) responsible for shaping these beasts in the public’s imagination.

The pulpy cover to Abominable Science! features a yeti, perhaps shocked to find himself adorning a book categorized as science. Loxton and Prothero’s book is, in fact, the fairest shake given to paranormal phenomena since Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995). They present the supposed evidence for cryptids with limited editorializing, and discuss it respectfully while remaining within the circle of working science (which involves DNA testing and peer review). Still, from their introductory chapter on whether or not cryptozoology is a genuine field of study, they remind us that,

The modern television and Internet news are so hungry for anything to fill their airtime and Web space that they are much more likely to accept and report dubious stories from questionable sources without adequate (or in some cases, any) journalistic due diligence. With twenty-four hour cable television such a story may run many times before anyone has a chance to check it. Even more to blame is the huge number of “documentaries” of pseudoscience on cable television, including those on stations that used to broadcast actual science documentaries. These stations promote pseudoscientific ideas just to draw audiences, earn high ratings, and justify their existence.

By the end of this passage, rage has begun coiling. Yet Loxton and Prothero remain professional, never explicitly (and justifiably) complaining that scientists, despite devoting their lives to the mental rigors of complex disciplines, must routinely humor those who couldn’t find Scotland’s Loch Ness on a map. At the end of the book, they do summarize the problems inherent with the cryptozoological mindset, which confirms Abominable Science! as not just a Fortean deconstruction, but also a psychological study. Before that elucidating segment, the authors drag several cryptids, one-by-one, into the sunlight for a closer look. Reading the studies in sequence, a few dire similarities become apparent, not the least of which being that hoaxes are damn lucrative.

First up is the sasquatch (or Bigfoot), which perfectly fits the cryptid definition offered by Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, one of the founders of the International Society of Cryptozoology; the iconic ape-man is “truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, or emotionally upsetting.” Bigfoot’s legend springs from a more believable one native to 1920s British Columbia, that of large hairy Indians who shun the trappings of civilization. From there, a 1957 publicity stunt in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia–to celebrate the province’s centennial–launched the modern myth in the form of a sasquatch hunt. Worldwide attention quickly followed, and the situation only got thornier when the British Columbia Centennial Committee offered five thousand dollars for a living specimen.

Now, it’s tempting to categorize hoaxers as insane, greedy, or malicious, when many are simply playful. Commanding the attention of others can be seductive, and carving out one’s own niche in popular culture is thrilling. For their part, Loxton and Prothero introduce William Roe, the man whose brilliant opportunism created the modern Bigfoot legend, with the patience of forensic examiners:

In a sworn statement, Roe claimed that he had been hiking one afternoon in 1955 when he came across a large animal at the edge of a clearing. As he sat down to watch, “It came to the edge of the bush I was hiding in, within twenty feet of me…close enough to see that its teeth were white and even.” The creature squatted down in the open to eat leaves.

They go on to quote Roe’s full description, which is packed with precise details like “dark brown silver-tipped hair” and “the grey-brown skin or hide on the soles of its feet.” The broad facial features, elongated limbs, and neglected posture are there too, evoking for the first time a creature we’ve come to know in film (Harry and the Hendersons) and television (The Simpsons). Roe’s creature, though, was female–it had hair-covered breasts. Is this one fanciful detail too many? Not if he wanted to imply that sasquatch had a family, and perhaps discourage a shooting spree among hunters.

But once more, remember the world before Roe came forward. As media hype surrounding the sasquatch hunt crested, thousands of people expected to eventually see evidence of oversized humans, living rough in the Canadian wilderness. Logically, Roe took the public’s measure, saw a vaguely Bigfoot-shaped hole forming in the cultural landscape, and one-upped everyone.

Loxton and Prothero also present tangled, ludicrous tales typical of cryptid hunting; one explains how construction workers in Bluff Creek, California created Bigfoot tracks using wooden props (1958). More infamously, there’s the Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin film footage (1967), in which Bigfoot is seen casually taking leave of her stalkers in a woodland setting. That’s right, her. This creature matches the one first described by Roe, right down to the breasts.

However, Abominable Science! is at its most revealing (and entertaining) when delineating a creature’s furthest logical boundaries. It’s one thing, in other words, for Bigfoot to be a living fossil, a throwback, or a splinter species–but quite another for the creature to be an alien:

Eyewitness reports are variable and diverge often from the popular, canonical Bigfoot. Some accounts feature Sasquatches with huge pointed ears, complex markings, or heights over 12 feet tall. Bigfoot is reported in many colors, at many sizes, with many diverging anatomies. In some reports, Bigfoot can speak human languages. And, although this is systematically downplayed in the mainstream Bigfoot literature, it is very common for witnesses to claim that Bigfoot has paranormal features and abilities, such as eyes that literally glow, psychic powers, or flying saucer-type vehicles.

The chapter closes soberly, with a straightforward request that we be shown the body. Even a toe, a tooth, or patch of gristle would help, especially since sasquatches have been hunted for over sixty years now. But this is when the special pleading begins, by “Bigfooters” like Ivan Sanderson, who claim that after a natural death, sasquatch carcasses decompose out of sight and leave no trace–just like bears.

Er, bears? Sure, according to pro-sasquatch anthropologist Grover Krantz: “We should expect to find a dead sasquatch about as easily as we find a dead bear (assuming they occurred in the same numbers and had similar life spans)…and dead bears are almost never found.” Nice guys that they are, Loxton and Prothero actually waste a few paragraphs countering such gibberish with personal anecdotes and this sparkling rationale:

Let’s imagine that Bigfoot is as rare as a wolverine, as stealthy as a cougar, and as powerful as a grizzly. What of it? People see wolverines, photograph cougars, and shoot grizzlies. As [anthropologist David] Daegling notes, “Wolverines are scarce animals, but we do know what their skeletons look like for the simple reason that we have them.”

The search for the vicious yeti echoes many of the cautionary tales heard while hunting the sasquatch. The Western legend began when explorer Lieutenant Colonel Charles Howard-Bury (of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition) reached Darjeeling, India, and reported to journalist Henry Newman strange tales of tracks in the snow. The tracks, found past 20,000 feet and appearing human, were almost certainly made by grey wolves, which place their back paws where their front paws have already stepped.

Finding this explanation dull, Newman instead ran with what Howard-Bury’s Tibetan porters called Metoh Kangmi; according to his translation, this meant “abominable snow men,” savages, he soon learned, with feet “turned backward to enable them to climb easily” and hair that “was so long and matted that, when going downhill, it fell over their eyes.”

With the meeting of Eastern and Western minds, our authors turn up fresh scat on their trail: the culture clash. Himalayan Sherpas, guiding superbly-outfitted hunters and explorers (like Edmund Hillary, the invincible Reinhold yeti scalpMessner, and Nazi biologist Ernst Schafer), were eager to please, and encouraged belief in the yeti’s existence. When asked about the beast, they went out of their way to find evidence of it. Sightings of brown bears, capable of briefly walking on their hind legs, also fueled the mythology.

Today, Messner and Schafer’s thorough testimonies rule out the presence of a Himalayan monstrosity unknown to science. Likewise, hair samples and even a supposed yeti scalp have been DNA tested and found to belong to hoofed animals native to the region. Nevertheless, television producers spend money on mountain expeditions, where crews lamely record fodder for MonsterQuest and Destination Truth. But what if more regular people could tour the exotic locale? Perhaps see the legendary creature for themselves? Why, we’d have a situation just like the one at Scotland’s Loch Ness lake!

As the United Kingdom’s largest body of freshwater, Loch Ness has been a thriving vacation spot since the early Victorian era. Scotland’s already bustling mythological stable, including “the boobrie (a giant carnivorous waterfowl), the buarach-bhaoi (a nine-eyed eel that twists its body into a shackle around the feet of prey), [and] the biasd na sraogaig (a clumsy one-horned water beast with vast legs),” proves that the Scots are an imaginative people. Much like British Columbia, Loch Ness had been waiting for a cryptid with more mass appeal.

But before setting Nessie in our sights, lets get the presence of seals out of the way. They were (and are) able to visit the lake from both a river and a canal connected to the North Sea. On the Loch’s normally placid surface, their frolicking will indeed seem like some great disturbance. Ditto for salmon. By the early 1930s, however, newspapers were competitively chumming the water. Here’s a Lovecraftian account by reporter Alex Campbell in 1933, for the Inverness Courier:

The lady was the first to notice the disturbance, which occurred fully three-quarters of a mile from the shore, and it was her sudden cries to stop [the car] that drew her husband’s attention to the water. There, the creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.

Then Nessie received a boost not from an individual, but from cinema. King Kong opened in London during the spring of 1933, and sent a bulky, long-necked dinosaur up against its titular beast. In August, London resident George Spicer revealed to the Inverness Courier that he’d seen virtually the same long-necked creature as it lumbered across a coastal road near Loch Ness–in daylight, no less, carrying dead prey in its jaws.

Loxton and Prothero acknowledge that other researchers, like Rick Raynor and Ronald Binns, have already suggested that King Kong encouraged “monster fever.” But our authors say that the film launched the idea of a sauropod directly into the lake, where once only waves had roamed. This expectant atmosphere, naturally, resulted in the famous Surgeon’s Photograph of 1934, which is cropped closely enough to hide the fact we’re seeing a model.

Let’s pause a moment to remember that Bernard Heuvelmans, father of cryptozoology, said that true cryptids are, among other things, singular. This description can’t possibly mean unique, since most cryptids, in haunting the public’s psychic landscape, often borrow signature traits from already familiar creatures.

And even to take singular literally is to sever cryptozoology’s head (and mount it on the wall next to phrenology). Basic biology says there can’t be just one–of any animal. Unless, of course, it’s the last one. A breeding population is required, along with physical barriers and time, to splinter a species. From there, the new species will enter the food chain, interact unmistakably with its environs–and leave plenty of evidence.

These cornerstone facts of biology are why the most recent cryptids are mere cultural icons, sustained to help the credulous lighten their wallets. But these facts also support the possibility of a truly enduring cryptid: the sea serpent.

Earth’s oceans, which are a vast evolutionary laboratory, promise to reveal more secrets than even other planets in this solar system. Relatively recently, the bony fish known as the coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period–until one was caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938.

In discussing sea serpents, Loxton and Prothero sift through endless beaches of cultural references, from Ancient Greece up through 18th century Norway. They discuss various slithering creatures such as the Hippocamp, Cadborosaurus, and the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology. Visually aiding this sprawling segment is a graph, which clarifies that sea serpents became much more “common” after the brainy clergyman Erich Pontopiddan wrote The Natural History of Norway in 1755. His book argued convincingly (at the time) for biologically real krakens, mermaids, and a great sea snake.

sea serpent
And because our oceans do indeed wash up lots of dead organic nastiness, supposed evidence for sea serpents has been pawed over for centuries. A basking shark’s corpse, in particular, is quite convincing as a totally different animal simply because of how it decays. When the filter feeding jaws fall away, along with the gills and much of the lower body, what’s left has the contour of a slimmer, long-necked beast.

For this most likely cryptid, Loxton grows a bit misty-eyed; his own parents claim, when he was still a child, to have seen Cadborosaurus (the Cabdoro Bay, Victoria version of Nessie, created on a slow news day). Yet, the anecdote’s mention leads pointedly to the least likely cryptid in Abominable Science!: Mokele Mbembe. Prothero begins with a revelatory take-down of the show MonsterQuest, on which he consulted:

I was handed a wrapped package and asked to unwrap it and interpret the contents as the camera rolled. In the package, I found a fist-sized lump of plaster that looked like absolutely nothing. Hoping for a “gotcha” moment, the crew tried it again, showing me photographs of where the plaster cast had been taken and trying to get me to admit that it looked like a dinosaur footprint.

To critical thinkers, an episode of MonsterQuest sits about as well as a dinner plate on which no food is ever served. Prothero’s guest appearance helps set the mood, cut with creepy music and elaborate hunting scenes involving explorers and crew. William Gibbons, leader of the hunt, and Robert Mullin (his second), are not scientists. They have no training in field biology, not that the show’s producers would dare say so. Unsurprisingly, Gibbons’ degrees in religious education help him not at all as the crew pokes sticks into a muddy embankment, hoping to flush Mokele Mbembe out of a hidden chamber. They conclude the episode by saying,

We were aware that the animal had moved on long ago, we knew when we set out on this particular expedition that it was really more of an opportunity to make a television episode raising awareness of the animal itself than it was a full-fledged expedition.

MonsterQuest‘s asinine, infuriating presentation is the natural extension of the hoaxing that’s made Bigfoot and Nessie so profitable. When fake physical evidence proves unconvincing (and disillusioning), a step back must be taken. With photography and film, there’s a once-removed mystique that will always win over some percentage of viewers, no matter how soundly the debunking.

Seriously, though–a Congo dinosaur? Every stripe of insanity that has marked other cryptid hunts applies to this beast: pricy trips by eccentrics to the region, leading questions presented to the natives, who are intent on impressing and/or toying with Western explorers, etc. But Mokele Mbembe is special for the attention that fundamentalist creationists give it. They believe that finding a living dinosaur will cause Darwinian evolution to flip over and die, one twitching principle at a time.

Ironically, evolution penalizes that which harms an organism. In humanity’s case, cryptids are the remnant of a different set of circumstances, like nipples on men. They come from a time when tactical sweeps of the woods and Loch Ness hadn’t yet ruled out their existence. Compared to literal interpretations of religious texts, the ideas of Bigfoot and Nessie do no real damage–so here they are.

Small consolation. Today, with only fifteen percent of Americans accepting genuine, god-free evolution, “I want to believe” also feels like the wretched flip-side to “I want to understand.” Loxton and Prothero end Abominable Science! highlighting the division in their core beliefs about cryptozoology. The former appreciates the cultural romance involved, while the latter sees entertaining such imaginary creatures as dangerous. Their final paragraph quotes The Demon-Haunted World, time magnificently fortifying Sagan’s words, as usual:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most critical elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.

Still, what if? What if the upper-middle class white men who attend Bigfoot conferences actually find their muse? Chances are, Bigfoot will go down swinging, and his fans will say what humans have always said shortly after finding a new animal. “Pass the salt.”

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.