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Posts Tagged ‘cryptozoology’

What to do when you see a… WINGED THING

If you see a ‘big bird’, it is likely to be in the sky. Note as many details as possible, and try to photograph it, including some recognisable object in the picture if you can, to help determine the bird’s size. Do not get too close any ‘big bird’ on the ground. Their reaction is unpredictable, and it might want to kidnap you. Try and take a picture, if in a safe place. A Mothman- or Owlman-type creature is somewhat different, its intentions towards us being completely unknown, so if you do see one, keep your distance and your nerve, and observe keenly. Try and take a photograph, and also try speaking to it. No one has tried this yet, and the creature might just answer. If it does, ask it where it comes from and what it wants.

One of the pleasures of a really high-quality second hand bookshop is finding an unexpected treasure, a book you’d perhaps heard of twenty or thirty years ago but lost all hope of ever seeing with your own eyes. I came across such a discovery the other day, in the form of Janet and Colin Bord’s Alien Animals (first published in 1980), which (amongst many other wonderful treats) contains the above (presented quite in earnest) as part of its first appendix, entitled ‘A few hints for monster watchers’.

The cover and title make it pretty clear what the Bords (a veteran pair of investigators into all things odd, especially in the UK) are dealing with: what some people would call cryptids, or mysterious and unexplained large animals. There they all are on the front cover, eyes a-glowing one and all – Bigfoot, a black dog, a big cat, the Loch Ness Monster, and a flying God-knows-what.

Now, the last serious book I read on the subject of cryptozoology was Loxton and Prothero’s Abominable Science, a fairly ruthless debunking of the notion that any of these large unknown creatures has any objective existence, on the grounds that most of them are known only from anecdotal (and therefore highly unreliable) evidence, and further that they are relatively recent creations rooted in the popular culture of the modern world.

The charming thing about Alien Animals is that while it is obviously the work of a couple of dyed-in-the-wool believers, they are also intelligent ones who are at least aware of the difficulties involved in asserting that the sightings all relate to conventional biological organisms. You get a sense of the Bords’ worldview, perhaps, when they offer such observations as ‘…the problem is that the subject we are dealing with has no place in our materialistic twentieth-century existence. It has no connection with wars, with politics, with the state of the economy… or any of the other trivia with which so many people occupy themselves. Man is so conditioned to see the world as those in authority want him to see it that it comes as a shock to learn of a hidden undercurrent of activity which includes creatures which are completely alien to us…’ Let’s put it this way, it’s a fairly safe bet that the Bords don’t belong to their local golf club.

The consequences of this are twofold. First of all, rather than adopting a more traditionally scientific posture and weighing the evidence on its own merits, the Bords start from a position of belief (primarily based, it seems, on the ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ principle, to which Loxton and Prothero gave such short shrift). So the first chapter, on lake (and a few sea) monsters, includes such curiously indicative statements as ‘It would be remarkable if in the vastness of Russia’s Siberia there were not also mysterious denizens in isolated lakes…’, ‘[Lake Labynkyr] for size stands midway between the small loughs of Ireland and the huge inland seas of the American continent, examples of all of which contain water monsters‘ (emphasis mine), and ‘There are probably thousands of other experiences like these in Scandinavian lakes which are never reported.’

There is, I think it fair to say, a degree of presumption here, but quite how much becomes clear when the Bords attempt to tackle what they see as the central mystery of the water monster phenomenon – not, as you might have expected, the question of what it is that is causing people to believe they are seeing monsters (which, I feel obliged to make clear, includes the possibility that they genuinely are seeing monsters), but a greater mystery: namely, given that water monsters so obviously exist, why does conventional science refuse to investigate them more thoroughly?

This essentially recurs throughout the book, most of which follows the same pattern: most chapters start with a large number of accounts of sightings of weird wildlife being presented (often at exhausting length). The Bords are, to be honest, fairly credulous and seem to accept most things at face value (they are given to pronounce that some accounts are ‘true’ even if the evidence is far from conclusive or even just anecdotal). Those occasions where they suddenly evince scepticism are startling – one report of a man seeing a mysterious ‘big black bird’ is dismissed as being suspect for undisclosed reasons, and the writers briskly move on to what they consider a much more credible account: that of a pteranodon being spotted in Texas in 1976. The testimony of Doc Shiels, these days a noted hoaxer, is also taken at face value (the Bords are very impressed by Shiels’ ‘Loch Ness Muppet’ photo, which no-one seriously accepts as genuine these days).

Oh, come ON…

 

The listing of selected stories is usually followed by a few tentative theories as to what may actually be going on here. These latter sections are by far the most interesting parts of the book, and come across as relatively less dogmatic. One other major difference between Loxton and Prothero and the Bords is that the authors of the more recent book limit their area of expertise to conventional biology; it is on the grounds of a lack of physical evidence that they declare Bigfoot, etc, to be non-existent as an actual living specimen. What’s interesting about the Bords is the second consequence of their desire to believe (come to think of it, I bet Fox Mulder had this book on the shelf in his basement), which is that they go beyond simple biology (or cryptobiology) and consider what I suppose we must call either the paranormal or the paraphysical aspect of many of these accounts.

After a while the ‘no smoke without fire’ principle becomes untenable, especially when the amount of smoke becomes absurd: if you believe all the stories, there are Bigfoot-like creatures not just living in the American and Siberian wildernesses, but in Florida, in Australia, in Japan, even in England. Some of these tell of bullet-proof monsters vanishing in flashes of light, or emerging from UFOs. Uncanny materialisations and disappearances are a routine part of the standard narrative of black dog encounters. Lake monsters are seen in bodies of water totally incapable of supporting their existence (the lakes dry out and refill, for instance, thus begging the question of what the monsters do in the dry season).

Suffice to say that if you’re inclined to dismiss meat-and-potatoes cryptozoology as being basically just pseudoscience, much of what’s discussed here will have you snorting contemptuously. The first chapter takes the existence of psychic powers for granted (the noted tendency to jam of cameras pointed at lake monsters is attributed to some kind of telekinetic effect), and by the end of the book the writers have touched repeatedly upon the theory of ley lines and Earth power, repeatedly mentioned UFOs, ghosts, and spiritualism, and even touched on the mythology of vampires and werewolves. You can picture reputable cryptozoologists, wedded to the biological thesis, rolling their eyes scornfully at the notion that the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot is really some kind of apparition.

The problem is that the strictly biological thesis just isn’t tenable any more – well, I suppose it’s just possible there are a few big cats living wild in the UK out of their natural territory, but there is no scientific basis for belief in the existence of Bigfoot or Nessie. And yet people keep seeing something. The question is whether this is merely a social and cultural phenomenon or something more esoteric. To their credit, the Bords do point out the large number of commonalities between the different kinds of exotic cryptids – glowing eyes, occasionally indeterminate size and shape, sudden appearances and disappearances – and also sightings of them – people do behave extremely oddly, forgetting to use their cameras, hardly reacting at all in the manner you’d expect, and many do report a ‘timeless’ or ‘dreamlike’ quality to the whole experience.

In the end the Bords conclude that alien animals do not have a simple or single explanation, though they do offer the notion that many of the different types of cryptid are really different manifestations of the same phenomenon, whereby some interaction of forms of energy and the witness create either the impression that an entity of some kind exists, or a full-blown creature with an objective, though temporary, reality of its own. That last bit is probably a step too far for many, including me, though I am reminded of scientific research carried out since 1980 which has suggested that vibrational and electromagnetic effects can cause hallucinatory experiences in test subject.

In the end the Bords quite wisely leave it all up to the reader to decide. The book is obviously aimed at believers, or at least agnostics, and even some of these might find themselves skimming through some of the many pages of monster sightings. But it has a definite, innocent charm about it (I really am trying not to sound too patronising towards the authors) and some of the thinking here strikes me as entirely sound, even if the premises and conclusions are a bit too way out there. Entertaining and thought-provoking in the right measures, and mostly for the reasons the authors intended.

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In late 1985 or 1986, I had the great pleasure to see a lecture by Sir David Attenborough, during which he shared a variety of anecdotes concerning his career – even then, as distinguished as could be. At the end he took questions from the audience, of which the first concerned a somewhat surprising topic: in all his travels, had he ever seen anything to convince him of the existence of large, unknown animals? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer was a definite yes – ‘It’s not abominable and it isn’t a snowman, but the Yeti exists,’ declared Sir David.

The idea of creatures like the Yeti holds a powerful romantic appeal. I was a believer myself, as a young person at least – not just in the Yeti, but in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and every other cryptid you cared to mention. I spent three years as a teenager collecting a massive partwork entitled The Unexplained, which built up into a thirteen-volume survey of everything paranormal and scientifically marginal. These days I am rather less credulous and more sceptical, but part of me would still love it if one of these fabulous creatures turned out to be real.

abom sci

Both the allure of cryptozoology (the study of creatures unknown to conventional science) and the shaky foundations on which it is built are treated with rigour, some sympathy, and – ultimately, I would say – fairness, in Abominable Science, a review of the subject by Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton. As well as looking in some detail at five of the best-known cryptids – Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Great Sea Serpent, and Mokele-Mbembe (aka the Congo brontosaur) – the authors take a hard look at cryptozoology itself, asking whether it is or can ever be genuinely scientific, and also ask just why it is that people want to believe in the existence of monsters.

If you think that makes it sound like the authors find the evidence wanting, then you’d be right. Though they quite properly admit that it’s extremely difficult to definitively prove something doesn’t exist, the book’s conclusion is fairly unequivocal – ‘there is no solid evidence that any of the cryptids discussed in this book exist and much evidence that their existence is extremely unlikely’ (they go further and suggest the ‘popular legend’ of the Loch Ness Monster ‘can be definitively rejected as untrue’), mainly on the grounds that anecdotal testimony proves nothing and the total lack of hard physical evidence is, by this point, very indicative.

The closest they come to granting the benefit of the doubt comes in Loxton’s contribution on sea monsters, in which he grants that the existence of a cultural tradition concerning the existence of large marine reptiles does not preclude the actual existence of similar creatures. Nevertheless, his concern remains with the cultural evolution of the concept, which he traces from antiquity through to the present day: once again, the correlation between the increase in alleged sea-serpent sightings and the popular dissemination of the idea of some kind of relict marine saurian is indicative.

This is the central contention of the book: that cryptids are not so much a zoological phenomenon as an anthropological and even pop-cultural one. The authors argue, quite convincingly to my mind, that the Yeti, Bigfoot, and Nessie stories originated in the early-to-mid 20th century, those of sea-serpents and the Congo dinosaur not very much earlier, and all achieved sufficient traction in the public consciousness to create an expectation, or at least credulousness: thus all strange noises in the forest could be Bigfoot, any peculiar object in the water a lake-monster, and so on. The stories become self-perpetuating, driven by people’s own expectations and the peculiar glamour of monsters.

The chapters vary a little in their length and detail – Loxton’s piece on the cultural history of sea-serpents is impressively thorough, while Prothero devotes less space to the Congo dinosaur, mainly due – one suspects – to the sheer lack of evidence in this particular case. He is particularly scathing, however, not least because this cryptid has been adopted by creationists in the belief that a living sauropod would somehow negate evolutionary ideas and send people back to scriptural literalism. (The Loch Ness chapter is somewhere between the two, though it offers up the striking coincidence – or not – that modern conceptions and sightings of the monster began very shortly after the release of King Kong, with its own lake-dwelling horror.)

The parallel with creationism seems to be well-made as, inevitably, advocates of all these creatures have essentially adopted faith positions with regard to their reality. In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that this book has received reviews from within the cryptozoological community which start as venomous and grow only more passionately negative. One gets the impression with these that the Nessie supporters have only read the Loch Ness chapter, the Bigfooters have only read the one on the Sasquatch, and so on, and have then proceeded to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal without looking at or attempting to engage with the book’s more general ideas or suggestions as to how cryptozoology might acquire a bit more respectability.

‘Skeptics make the easy assumption that everyone is either a hoaxer or an idiot who can’t tell what he’s looking at’ is the essential objection of the believers, which is basically the inverse of ‘so many people claim to have seen something that some of them must be a) honest and b) correct in their description of what they say they saw’. You can even reformulate this still further, along the lines of ‘people have seen something – it must have been a monster – we know there is a monster – because people have seen something’. The effects of cultural influence and witness expectation, especially in the case of a cryptid tied to a specific location like Loch Ness, only seem to figure in the believers’ reckoning as an occasion for handwaving. ‘Of course there are some hoaxes and misidentifications, but you can’t dismiss all the sightings like that,’ runs the line. But why not?

‘All witnesses are hoaxers or idiots’ misrepresents the book’s line, anyway. Case after case is cited of the unreliability of perception (particularly in moments of stress and excitement) and the mutability of memory. You don’t have to be an idiot to make a mistake, especially in an environment where you are predisposed to expect to see a monster – this, I think, is why the authors place such stress on the cultural aspect of these creatures.

(Then again, what is one to make of such a bizarre phenomenon as the ‘British Bigfoot’ – surely no rational person would seriously argue for the existence of a hominid creature in the UK, but reports of a four-foot primate in Epping Forest (‘jumping over the wall into the garden of the pub’, apparently) have made the national media in the UK. What light this sheds on the American Bigfoot phenomenon inevitably depends on which side of the debate you stand – either it’s testimony to the ubiquity of these creatures or proof that we’re dealing with phenomena untroubled by basic material concerns such as physical remains, breeding populations or habitats.)

If nothing else this book and the response it has drawn proves that here we are not strictly, or at least not exclusively, dealing with matters scientific: I suspect it would be literally impossible to convince a Bigfooter that the balance of probabilities overwhelmingly indicates the creature is a fiction – Bigfoot’s existence is such a critical element of their worldview and identity. This is not just a study of monsters, but a study of belief in them – how these beliefs grow, and why they persist. True believers may not find much to sustain them here, but for anyone interested in the idea of fabulous creatures and the strange grip they exert on the popular imagination, this is an excellent book.

 

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