Abominable Science! – Daniel Loxton & Donald R. Prothero (New York, 2013).
After a brief-to-intermediate interlude, in which I officially became a doctor and got to wear some very snazzy robes, I am back. Since in the interim only one person asked me where the blog had gone (thanks, love) I can only presume most/all of you did not miss me. Well now I’m back, like a Christmas gift that you never knew you wanted #topical.
There has been a bit of a break from Pelicans of late but I have been doing plenty of reading. I’ve spent a lot of time on Patrick Rothfuss’ amazing (and enormous) Kingkiller Chronicles series – The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, and the novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things. These are amazing epic fantasy books which I cannot recommend highly enough. It probably says a lot that I was too busy engrossed in them to be writing notes up for a review on here. If you like that sort of thing go and buy them or ask for them for Christmas, you will not be disappointed. Also my girlfriend’s brother has a dog called “Patrick Ruffus” (geddit?), which is not relevant to this blog but is cool and I thought I would share it with you.
I also read two other books, David Mitchell’s Slade House and Graham Macrae Burnett’s Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project. These were both pretty short books that I finished in a couple of days, and I really enjoyed both. However, in the interest of reviewing shortly after reading, I have skipped all of these in the interests of going straight onto a subject I am fascinated by (cryptozoology) and a book I finished last night (Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero).
I won’t lie, cryptozoology (the study of undiscovered animals) has fascinated me for a long time. When we were 15, my friend and I even engaged in an intense cryptid hunt ourselves: the search for the San Andreas Bigfoot. Rumour had it that an elusive Bigfoot was prowling around the Mount Chiliad area of my favourite Grand Theft Auto game and so during the mock exam revision period for our GCSEs in January 2005, we meticulously pored over the free map that was provided with the game, scoured internet forums for visual clues, and spent hours combing the wilderness. In the end, it turned out to be a dud – there was no San Andreas Bigfoot (except on the PC version, where it was modded in) – and the game’s developers – Rockstar – gave knowing nods to the phenomenon in subsequent games Red Dead Redemption and GTA V. Thus, in a (thankfully) very limited sense, I have a sense of what it means to obsessively search for something that simply doesn’t exist.
Loxton and Prothero take this theme and run with it, and Abominable Science! – as the excellent title suggests – is a skeptical exploration of both the field and some of the most popular subjects of cryptozoology (“cryptids” for those in the know). It is a generously illustrated, often highly amusing, and very rigorous examination of what is clearly not a very rigorously practised “science” (or pseudo-science if you want to be more accurate). Rather than simply sneer at the sheer barmyness of it all, the authors take something that seems absurd and ridiculous at face value, and throw down the gauntlet to cryptozoologists, challenging them to practice the scientific method and consider their “evidence” – which is often highly unreliable witness testimony – with greater objectivity.
I wanted to believe: the San Andreas Bigfoot – did it deny me an “A” in GCSE Spanish?
Chapter-writing responsibilities are shared out between Loxton and Prothero, and Loxton is first up to bat exploring the king of cryptids – Bigfoot. It becomes clear in this chapter that this isn’t just a pop science debunking book but also a fascinating cultural history of the study of cryptozoology which is a surprisingly young field. In this chapter Loxton illustrates how the ‘Sasquatch’ mythology of some native American tribes evolved beyond all recognition (Sasquatches were by-and-large, a sort of giant, primitive human, not a mysterious lost ape). The modern bigfoot as we know it actually emerged from a proposed British Columbian ‘Sasquatch hunt’, which was pitched as a draw for tourists in an (unsuccessful) attempt to win government funding in the 1950s. The first known witness testimony came from a man name William Roe who Loxton finds, incredibly, was never contacted by any of the cryptozoologists who went on to use his story in order to corroborate where, when, and what he had seen – even today we have no idea who Roe was or what he looked like.
There followed several instances of footprints appearing, many of which turned up on construction sites associated with a man named Ray Wallace. After his death, Wallace’s family revealed he was a serial Bigfoot hoaxer who used wooden feet strapped to his boots to make the impressions in the earth, even releasing a set of these wooden feet to prove their claim. Then came further proven hoaxes and the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967 (see below). While scientists have failed to conclusively agree on what the film shows (though many experts say it’s a man in an ape suit), Loxton digs into Patterson’s shady past to show that he was something of a money-grubbing huckster, bringing the veracity of his film into question.
All of this is fascinating and allows Loxton to sketch out some of the general themes of the book and problems for cryptozoologists: not least their over-reliance on what is clearly shaky eyewitness testimony, the abject lack of any Bigfoot bodies or other physical evidence, and the huge number of hoaxes involved in the hunt for Bigfoot (some of which, despite confessions by the hoaxers themselves) cryptozoologists have refused to discount as evidence of an actual Bigfoot.
A funky .gif of the Patterson-Gimlin Film, shot in 1967. Source.
The third chapter explores Bigfoot’s Asian cousin, the Yeti – or Abominable Snowman (apparently a faulty western mistranslation). The change in tone is noticeable as we shift from skeptical writer Loxton to paleontologist Prothero, but the chapter remains a fascinating exploration of Himalayan mythology and the history of western mountaineering. Much to my delight, the existence of a Yeti was quite conclusively disproved by no less than Edmund Hillary (I love the fact that after Everest he went to go and find out if yetis were real…) and Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest climbers ever who truly wanted to believe in the Yeti but found the evidence stacked against it. Time and again, westerners found that “Yetis” were nothing more than Himalayan Snow Bears, and the supposed ‘yeti scalps’ kept in Tibetan monasteries were simply reshaped hides of serows, a local goat-like animal. If even the most die-hard cryptozoologist could continue to argue for Bigfoot’s existence, this chapter pretty much puts paid to the Yeti – though of course that hasn’t stopped some people still searching…
We return, with Loxton, to the Loch Ness monster, one of his boyhood obsessions, and I think this is what infuses his chapters with a bit more vivacity. Loxton wants to believe, but after a peculiar childhood (he was raised by hippies in the forests of British Columbia) in which he fully believed in cryptids, he has grown (very) skeptical. Whereas Prothero is a more traditional scientist who has never entertained such silly notions as cryptids, I felt a lot more affinity with Loxton – both of us are highly skeptical about cryptids but both of us would be happy to be proved wrong.
Opening with a fascinating outline of the history of Scottish water-spirits (kelpies, water-horses) which felt Newt Scamander-esque, Loxton offers an intriguing potential explanation for the rise of the Loch Ness monster: King Kong. The film, he argues, brought monsters back into the popular consciousness. Indeed, the first eyewitness account to describe Nessie appeared only days after the film’s release and consisted of a description of the Monster that was almost a shot-for-shot retelling of the appearance of a dinosaur in the film.
Loxton then recounts the history of the hunt for the monster, which predictably includes many hoaxes, not least the “surgeon’s photograph”, perhaps the most famous picture of Nessie in existence. Loxton explains patiently why a Loch Ness monster is unlikely for many reasons. Not least because the loch isn’t big enough to support a viable population of Nessies (there couldn’t just be one if it is the relic plesiosaur that cryptozoologists think it is – a problem common to many cryptids). Also, it is relatively easy to search the entire loch via a boat-based sonar ‘dragnet’ (something that has been done repeatedly), as well as submarine dives and round-the-clock camera monitoring which took place for several years. Predictably, not one of these attempts found anything remotely Nessie-like.
So what’s in the Loch? It’s probably a seal, concludes Loxton. So did that bastion of British bigotry – the Daily Mail – in an hilarious headline which surprisingly wasn’t about immigrants or complaining about the judiciary doing its job:
the Daily Mail concluded its investigation of the Loch Ness monster with the screaming headline “There is a Seal in Loch Ness.”… this headline – at least in general terms, and at least some of the time – is completely correct. [p.164]
After Nessie Loxton keeps the reins to take us on a fascinating journey through time studying the history of sea serpents. This is by far the longest chapter in the book, at nearly 100 pages long (almost a third of the book’s length). Unlike the preceding three cryptids, sea serpents have a much older pedigree going back to the “Hippocampus” of Greek mythology. This curious blend of horse and serpent evolved in the sixteenth century into the more recognisable humpy long snake-like thing that we would recognise as a sea serpent today.
The sea serpent, unlike most of the other cryptids, has enjoyed unprecedented serious scientific attention, fuelled largely by the nineteenth-century discovery of fossils that proved the prior existence of huge lifeforms in the sea. Because of this, of all the creatures in the book, here we find Loxton’s open mind coming through a little more than previously. Sometimes this jars with what he has said before but, given the fact that it would be a hell of a lot easier for a population of sea serpents to survive in the still-relatively undiscovered depths of the ocean than it would be for any of the other cryptids under review here, you can perhaps forgive him that, and in any case he still manages to demonstrate how pretty much every sightings on record is in some way dubious. As he explains at the chapter’s end:
In this chapter I have tried to present not only the negative evidence, but also a positive historical case for the sea serpent. The sea serpent can be shown, in my opinion, to be a cultural creation: a concept rather than an animal. It arose out of art, and then evolved and spread with changing fashions, popular media, and the happenstance of fossil discoveries. Yet even now, knowing all that, I must admit: that does not mean that there could not also be a sea serpent. [p.257]
The final cryptid explored is the Mokele Mbembe – a supposed dinosaur that lives in deepest, darkest Africa (playing heavily on Western presumptions about the continent). In a chapter that reads a bit like an academic journal article (albeit a very readable one) Prothero notes how a series of particularly wacky attempts to find this enormous beast have fizzled out like damp squibs, and also how the cryptid seems to have inexplicably jumped locations from somewhere in Zambia to the Congo river basin. A number of expensive expeditions to find Mokele Mbembe, including one financed by the BBC no less, have come up with no evidence of the creature and – bizarrely – often given up prematurely despite the expense taken to get to Africa. They have yielded some bizarre assertions, such as the fact that Mokele Mbembe (a huge dinosaur remember), lives in riverside burrows (which no explorer has yet dug into in order to investigate).
While the Congo rainforest is relatively untouched by man (compared to the supposed habitat of bigfoot), there are a series of holes roughly the size of a Mokele Mbembe in the stories about the cryptid. They include:
- The fact that the area it is supposed to live in is regularly surveyed by air sweeps tracking large wildlife (which have never picked it up).
- The behaviour of Mokele as a swamp-dwelling dino is actually based on old, now disproved research about how sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) behaved.
- Many locals claim never to have heard of Mokele Mbembe and those that do supply wildly inconsistent accounts which are often the result of leading questions by western cryptozoologists.
- (In common with all cryptids) Where are the damn bodies?
Another interesting fact that Prothero brings into this chapter is that many of those seeking Mokele are creationists or missionaries, hoping that the existence of a dinosaur will disprove the theory of evolution. From the point of view of objective scientific practice, this is naturally rather concerning, not least because we have already discovered species which were thought to have been long extinct – perhaps most famously Coelacanth, a fish – and that has done nothing to shift the huge mountain of evidence supporting evolutionary theory.
The final chapter is an overview of the psychology of cryptozoology, asking why we want to believe in monsters, and using some interesting survey data to illustrate that belief in the paranormal is, actually, rather normal. It turns out that most Americans believe in one or two ‘supernatural’ entities; though, as the authors point out, cryptids aren’t really supernatural, they might be fake, but by their very nature they conform broadly to the laws of the universe as we currently accept them. The chapter also provides an overview of the field of cryptozoology and presents the authors’ conclusions, which are surprisingly divergent.
For Loxton, crytozoology is another geeky, but harmless hobby. It’s a way for people to come together and share a sense of community, like any other hobby and – Loxton argues, using his own experience, it can be a gateway to skeptcism and serious scientific interest. Prothero disagrees, boy does Prothero disagree:
Rather than merely wasting time and resources, the widespread acceptance of the reality of cryptids may feed into the general culture of ignorance, pseudoscience, [p.333] and anti-science. The more the paranormal is touted by the media as acceptable and scientifically credible – rather than subject to the harsh scrutiny of the scientific method, the rigor of critical thinking, and the demand for real evidence – the more people are made vulnerable to the predations of con artists, gurus, and cult leaders. The more the creationist cryptozoologists manage to damage the understanding of science, the worse off we all are.
Blimey. So, for Prothero, rather than a harmless pursuit, crytozoology is symptomatic of a wider scientific ignorance in America. He then really goes for it, expending a few pages on a plea for better scientific education in America freed of religious constraints, and warning that continued ignorance will spell America’s global decline. This is heavy-handed stuff, and a bit jarring compared to the tone of the rest of the book – though it’s a worthy clarion call. This book was written in 2013 and here at the end of a year where we seem to have entered the ‘post-factual’ era, I wonder how this will impact upon cryptozoology and belief in cryptids.
Abominable Science! was a great read. Fun, well-illustrated, and informative without being too heavy-handed or sneering. It introduced me to a whole new level of cryptozoology. I was already a sucker for tales about Bigfoot and co, but who knew the stories of the people who hunted it could be as interesting, if not more so? The book provides what is clearly a much needed challenge to cryptozoologists to up their game if they want to be taken seriously by the scientific community, which can only be a good thing. As the authors point out, scientists aren’t necessarily pompously biased against the idea of cryptids in principle, they just want some evidence – which the cryptozoologists have singularly failed to provide. The book left me wanting to know much more about the cryptozoologists themselves, as well as the cryptids, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. For its precise and well-reasoned debunking of cryptozoology I give it five “logical and”s ∧∧∧∧∧.