1.11.13

ABOMINABLE SCIENCE

Daniel Loxton and Donald R Prothero. Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press, 2013.

In this book Daniel Loxton, a long time and now sceptical crytozoologist, and geologist and palaeontologist Donald Prothero take a detailed sceptical look at the most famous cryptids. These are Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Sea Serpent and Mokele Mbembe, which are dealt with in turn. The uniting factor between all of these is that traditional lore is used as a template, which is extensively modified to suit new cultural concerns. What were once supernatural creatures of uncertain appearance and nature, are transformed into modern western notions of flesh and blood animals.
 
Starting with Bigfoot/Sasquatch, the authors argue that what were once tales of ogres and other supernatural beings, which we might see as personification of natural forces, become transformed into tales of  Wild Men, warnings of what happens to people who fall out of the path of community and culture, and then into early-mid twentieth century notions of ape-men. They note, but could perhaps have expanded on, how these views represented old and now abandoned notions of human evolution, some of which were popular when many of the cryptozoologists were young. It is as if they have really not been able to assimilate any new knowledge since their teens.
 
Loxton and Prothero  show that the beginnings of the bigfoot legend are suspect, the story of William Roe, a guy who was about to shoot a female Bigfoot but desisted because she looked too human, is rather less impressive when you realise that not one cryptozoologist ever actually met the guy. Having seen a story in a newspaper, the Canadian Bigfoot hunter John Green wrote to him and got a notarised statement back (which proves?). The Patterson-Gimlin film is too suspiciously based on the Roe story (complete with female Bigfoot), Patterson was a dubious character, the guy who found the famous Bossburg “cripple foot” tracks that so impressed John Napier (see Peter Rogerson's review)  also produced a crudely faked ufo photograph and so on.
 
They point out that no-one has ever produced a Bigfoot body and part of one, unlike other animals however rare, and Bigfoot (at least by the “eyewitness testimony”) seems to be pretty ubiquitous, reported in all US states (even Hawaii) to say nothing of Australia (or now Britain). They complain that Bigfoot hunters try to assimilate everything (even Grendel out of Beowulf) (or they may have added the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui) into their menagerie.
 
Cryptozoologists might argue that the origins of Bigfoot are more complex than presented here, that’s true, but many of the other early stories actually harm rather than support the idea of Bigfoot as a paws and pelt animal, as several of them have a distinctly supernatural flavour. I am convinced they are right, there is no realistic possibility of some kind of real flesh and blood, paws and pelt animal that has produced not a single bone. If this was a real beast, then I am sure it would be well known, not least from when it came into town to scavenge through the bins, as bears do. There would be Bigfoot road kill and little orphan baby Bigfoots taken as pets and given to the zoo when they grow too big.
 
The origins of the yeti lie further back in time, but took on a new significance with the development of the idea of the ape-man. Here again Loxton and Prothero are able to show the essential weakness of the evidence; yeti scales are invariably manufactured items, much of the lore of the yeti is based on that of the brown bear, the Tilman footprint photographs are dubious etc. Once again there is a legend based on various different creatures and petty supernaturals all mangled up together. The yeti story was also influence by the discovery of the Gigantopithecus teeth in China. The idea of Gigantopithecus as a giant biped (probably wrong as far as the biped goes) and an early human (certainly wrong) gripped the imagination and made the yeti seem like some plausible creature, even a missing link when such ideas were popular and the discoveries of the African origins of humankind had not yet been made. Today it is an anachronism of worst sort.
 
The authors then go on to examine the origins of the Loch Ness Monster and point out that there is no persuasive contemporaneous evidence of a monster in Loch Ness before 1933. Again we have no bodies or parts thereof and the various popular theories as to its nature are all equally implausible to put it no milder. They raise the interesting point that the coming of the Loch Ness Monster was in the same year as the film King Kong, and that the Spicer story of a monster crossing the road ahead with a lamb in its mouth was heavily influenced if not made up from a scene in Kong., which the Spicer’s admitted to having seen. They surely could also have made a case for Kong influencing the development of the Bigfoot and Yeti legends. They also examine the history of the various dubious photographs taken at the Loch and raise the suspicion (by no means for the first time) that the Dinsdale film shows a boat.
 
They also note that despite its presentation as a some kind of real animal, Monster has an aura of the supernatural about it , including dowsing to discover where to find the beastie, to the alleged ominous atmosphere claimed by Tim Dinsdale and the claimed exorcism of the Loch by the Reverend Dr Ormond (which the authors are too polite to mention).
 
There seems little doubt that the Loch Ness creature is in fact lots of different things, animals ranging from otters to seals and porpoises with the occasion sturgeon thrown in, to say nothing of cormorants, swimming dear and loads more, plus mats of vegetation brought up by gas, seiche waves, boat wakes, mirages to say nothing of hoaxes, false memories, dreams and visionary experiences.
 
In contrast to these modern monsters, the sea serpent has roots going back into antiquity, and the book suggest that at least one of its origins was within classical art, the merhorse or hippocampus. This was not an actually mythical animal but an artistic convention, perhaps representing the waves as a steed. This image can be seen in a fair number of modern sea serpent and lake monster sightings. They also argue that the Scandinavian origins of the sea serpent lie in the tradition of the lindworm and the Midgard serpent, and again they show how these traditional motifs are shoehorned into modern notions, in this case the discovery of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles. Again it is likely that the sea serpent is actually all sorts of different things.
 
The discovery of the dinosaurs and the realisation that there were many creatures that once existed but don’t now posed difficulties for those who took the Bible literally, the idea that the creator would large numbers of his creatures disappear, so there was an idea that these creatures were actually living on in some remote part of the world. This had secular expression in works like Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. These religious concerns animate several in the cryptozoological community, such as the Christian fundamentalist creationist William Gibbons, who is one of those searching for and Mokele Mbembe. This search, I think from the accounts given here, was cryptozoology at its nastiest, with a good deal of bullying of 'witnesses' and more than a hint of racist condescension. Some of these people really do see themselves as Big White Bwana dealing with “simple savages” who know nothing of the outside world.
 
Of course people in these supposedly 'remote' African locations have been part of the French or British imperial and intellectual world for generations, and will indeed have seen and read about dinosaurs in school textbooks or seen them in TV programmes (or now read about them on the internet, or for all I know of such things, on their mobile phone apps). I would imagine that news of stupid white guys coming from America looking for dinosaurs would get round the grapevine pretty quickly, in plenty of time for local to gen up on them so they can tell them what they want to hear and get as much needed cash from them as possible.
 
Figures quoted by Prothero, it seems that American’s may less about the world than West African villagers, with allegedly up to 18% not knowing the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, and other indications of lack of scientific knowledge. Whether that is due to the popularity of pseudo-science as Prothero seems to believe or to religious fundamentalism, is a moot point. Unlike Loxton, who sees cryptozoology, with all its faults, as a positive good, even it is just getting people out of doors and taking an interest in the natural world and in a human community, Prothero seems to see it in rather dire, and to me very overwrought terms as threatening the future of American civilisation. It is this kind of puritanical scepticism that puts people off both scepticism and science in general. Better perhaps to use interest in cryptozoology to suggest that while you are unlikely to find a monster in the mere or a bigfoot in the woods, you might just find a new species of insect in your back yard, which is just as important. - Peter Rogerson.
 



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