In Search of Monsters? A defence of cryptozoology Charles Paxton The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 15, Issue 3, from 2002.

Loch Ness Monster – bunkum; yeti – a Himalayan bear; Bigfoot – a man in a monkey suit. In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer compiled a little list of “popular ideas” without scientific support and included amongst other things “Bermuda Triangles, Astrology, ghosts … UFOs, monsters… cryptozoology … Bigfoot”.

Well, Shermer may well be right about many of the things on that list but as there are people who call themselves cryptozoologists, it would seem that the empirical existence of cryptozoology (no self-styled cryptozoologist uses a hyphen) cannot be in doubt. Of course Shermer meant that some of the claims of cryptozoology can be called into question, but even that does not necessarily mean the methods of cryptozoology are unscientific or invalid.

But what actually is cryptozoology? This is a bit of problem, as different people seem to have conflicting views. Cryptozoology does have an “official” definition. Unfortunately it is not very useful. The term was first coined by the “father of cryptozoology” Bernard Heuvelmans (author of such exhaustively researched massive tomes as In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents and On the Track of Unknown Animals) and he translated it loosely from the Greek to mean “the science of hidden animals”.

However, by hidden he didn’t mean either too small to see or that the animals buried themselves; no, Heuvelmans meant the animals were unknown to science. This, as any cryptozoologist would point out, is very different from unknown per se. In 1988, Heuvelmans elaborated on the point; cryptozoology is:

the scientific study of hidden animals, i.e. of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some.

Obviously the latter statement of Heuvelmans implies that cryptozoologists are always going to disagree with someone, by definition! This disagreement might not only be about the physical existence of an animal. Heuvelmans also suggested that “hidden” could mean that the species might be recognised but its range both in space and time might not be fully known to science.

So cryptozoologists are interested in the indirect evidence for the existence of unknown animals. Of course, this is not an end in itself. The ultimate goal of any cryptozoologist is to obtain unequivocal evidence (mostly, but not always, a corpse), to allow formal scientific description and recognition. Once a corpse has been formally described then the animal should cease to be of cryptozoological interest, although strangely, as we shall see, this is not always the case.

The cryptozoologist’s interest and use of indirect evidence can be similar to that of those who believe in visiting alien spacecraft and non-corporeal supernatural entities. Cryptozoologists rely primarily on eyewitness testimony. Furthermore, just as general disproof of ghosts and aliens is impossible, it is difficult to disprove the existence of Nessie or Bigfoot (although in the former case you can get damn close to undermining its existence on ecological grounds).

Cryptozoology often, like many pseudosciences, appeals to myth and folklore as evidence. It also has advocates that tend to ignore evidence against the existence of a particular mystery animal or cryptid, to use the jargon.

There is however an important distinction between cryptozoology and, for example, ufology. The basic assumption underlying cryptozoology is neither irrational nor improbable; the list of the world’s fauna is not complete. Discoveries of new animals are still being made – and these new animals are not just microbes or insects; they can be ever so slightly larger things like whales (described in 1991 and 1995), giant stingrays (1990) and sharks (1981).

The probability of the imminent discovery of further large animals, especially in the marine environment, is not minuscule; given a number of (potentially dubious) caveats and extrapolations about human knowledge it may even be calculable.

Unknown species are being seen by zoologically qualified observers. For example, scientists on whale surveys in the eastern Pacific have observed a beaked whale (Mesoplodon species B) which differs from the existing known species and may represent an unknown species of whale; or it could be a living specimen of the little-known beaked whale Mesoplodon bahamondi which was only described in 1995.

So cryptozoology does have an empirical footing firmer than most other fringe topics based upon eyewitness testimony. Unlike the potential existence of homeopathic remedies, ghosts or astrological influences on mankind, the existence of unknown animals does not undermine or even tweak the fundamentals of physics, chemistry or biology.

In my experience, most cryptozoologists do not believe and never have believed that cryptids are supernatural in origin. They are open to the idea of observer error and misidentification, although they probably have a higher view of observer accuracy than the average reader of The Skeptic. There is a fringe which believes in supernatural origins of Bigfoot, Nessie and the Great Sea Serpent but these individuals are avoided by mainstream cryptozoologists and increasingly they give their own subject its own title, the delightful neologism “para-cryptozoology”.

Cryptozoology may use eyewitness testimony but this is not by any means its sole source of data. Several cryptozoologists have argued that any deductive technique that could be used to predict the existence of animals would be cryptozoological. The French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal presents the prediction and subsequent discovery of the Madagascan subspecies of the moth Xanthopan morgani as a triumph of the cryptozoological method.

In 1862, Charles Darwin predicted in On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects the existence of a long-tongued moth in Madagascar. Something had to be availing itself of the nectaries of the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale because otherwise there would have been no fertilisation and the plant would have become extinct. The nectaries were 28.6 cm long, with only the lower 3.6 cm filled with nectar. Later authors speculated that the mystery moth would have affinities with the mainland African X. morgani as this group of moths was characterised by long tongues. In 1903, forty-one years after the original prediction, the subspecies praedicta was found in Madagascar.

If such a prediction is cryptozoological, then this would cover all cases where the existence of a new zoological species may have been inferred prior to the discovery of actual physical remains.

If cryptozoology was based solely on studies such as these it would have a high claim as a scientific sub-discipline of zoology, or at the very least, if not strictly scientific in the experimental sense, to be at least scientific in the sense of the rigorous systematic collection of data. The problem with this argument is that the people who actually discovered the moth published their work as zoology and might, if anything like most present-day zoologists I know, have run a mile rather than describe themselves as cryptozoologists. This case of course occurred before Heuvelmans had coined the term “cryptozoology”. A more pertinent example would be the recent observations of another unknown species of beaked whale from the eastern Pacific. This species had been seen at least as far back as 1983 and referred to in the marine mammal scientific literature as Mesoplodon species A.

Separately there was physical evidence of a new species of whale in the form of various body parts that had appeared in the Peru region since 1976. Finally in 1991, Julio Reyes and his colleagues described a new species of toothed whale Mesoplodon peruvianus. Only recently has M. peruvianus become well enough known for Robert Pitman and his co-workers to argue convincingly that M. peruvianus actually is Mesoplodon species A. However, none of those involved in this story have, as far as I am aware, described themselves as cryptozoologists.

Furthermore, by Heuvelmans’ extended definition of cryptozoology outlined above, any extension of the geographical range of any recognised animal could be considered cryptozoological. Thus even more conventional zoologists would find themselves described as cryptozoologists. There would be no distinction between the predictive zoology of discovery and cryptozoology.

The trouble is the formal definition of cryptozoology (and its extension above) doesn’t accurately describe what most self-styled cryptozoologists actually study. The few journals and magazines of cryptozoology are not crammed full of discoveries of just any old new species of beetle or even (my own personal favourites) fish. Only news of new species of slightly odd or large animals seems to make it. Giant geckos get in, new species of small lizard do not. An out-of-place mammal might get a mention, kangaroos in Scotland for example, and any news of certain known animals (e.g. the giant squid Architeuthis sp.) will almost certainly be reported on, although not others, cattle or dogs for example.

Of course much of cryptozoology concerns evaluation of evidence prior to the discovery stage. Some cryptozoologists go out and actively hunt for Bigfoots, Nessies and the Mokele-Mbembes (allegedly, a large reptilian inhabitant of the swamps of central Africa). The more bookish sort peruse ancient tomes, artefacts, or even buildings for evidence of unknown animals known to the ancients. Some analyse travellers’ tales and the traditions of indigenous peoples. Most commonly of all, there are those who seek to collate, interpret and analyse testimonial evidence from observers who have claimed to have seen, and sometimes filmed, monstrous creatures as yet unknown to science.

So does any definition link those that claim the all-inclusive scientific basis of cryptozoology and the sometimes more unsystematic collectors of information? In my view there is one definition of cryptozoology that does take in this wide church and does reflect the interests of the cryptozoologists. It relies on looking at not only what cryptozoologists do but also what attracts their attention.

The animals have to be weird (like the coelacanth Latimeria sp.), perhaps on a once prolific but now pruned branch of the tree of life, or they have to be odd for their type (giant squid etc.). So perhaps cryptozoology is the study of weird (misshapen, ugly?) little-known but potentially exciting (and often big for their type) animals. This isn’t a great definition, but it is accurate. Of course there is a shorthand for this: cryptozoology is the study of monsters.

Just as some skeptics would take delight in my definition, some cryptozoologists would be horrified. Both groups would feel that such a subject of study is perhaps improper and intellectually dubious. I disagree; I don’t use the word “monster” pejoratively at all. The validity of cryptozoology rests on its methods, not on the subject of enquiry. How rigorous is cryptozoology? This varies.

Clearly cryptozoologists collect a lot of data from a variety of different sources, but it is often not systematic nor is it normally collected in the light of an hypothesis and hence it may not constitute “scientific study”. This is not necessarily a problem. Data unsystematically collected can still be amenable to scientific scrutiny by other workers, and the journals of cryptozoology do contain a little quantitative analysis of photographic and testimonial evidence.

For example the 1987 edition of Cryptozoology, the irregularly-appearing but peer-reviewed journal of the International Society of Cryptozoology, contained a quantitative analysis of the famous Wilson Nessie photograph (although admittedly the analysis was subsequently criticised by British skeptic Stuart Campbell and the photo itself has been subsequently revealed as a hoax).

Of course sometimes cryptozoologists collect data sloppily, or more commonly interpret their data without any critical evaluation or any consideration of Occam’s razor. What this normally means is that the unassignable, be it sightings or sounds or even I suppose smells, can be taken as evidence for unknown species rather than simply incomplete information. However, what the very best cryptozoologists do very well is dig up and evaluate very obscure information from very obscure sources. This could include newspaper reports from the far corners of the world or obscure references in ancient travel books.

In this way cryptozoology has more in common with history than zoology. The Canadian (crypto)zoologist Ben Roesch has compared it to Natural History. It also has similarity to an historical science like palaeontology. Odd specimens/accounts/artefacts turn up that have to be interpreted in context and are often subject to re-evaluation.

Cryptozoology, as actually done by the most methodically rigorous cryptozoologists, is an intellectually valid and exciting area of study. But often there is little quantification and data are not always interpreted in the most parsimonious manner. A cryptozoologist will pay lip service to the idea that alternative simpler hypotheses should be considered when evaluating eyewitness claims of encounters with unknown animals, but will not always accept them. For example, in his epic book on sea serpents Heuvelmans gave the following quotation concerning a strange animal washed up on the Norwegian coast:

Anno 1744 one Dogfind Korsbeck catched (sic), in the parish of Sundelvems on Sundmoer, a monstrous fish, which many people saw at his house. Its head was almost like that of a cat; it had four paws, and about the body was a hard shell like a lobster’s: it purred like a cat, and when they put a stick at it, it would snap at it. The peasants looked upon it as a Trold, or ominous fish, and were afraid to keep it; and consequently, a few hours later, they threw it into the sea again.

IN THE WAKE OF THE SEA-SERPENTS, HEUVELMANS, P.418

Heuvelmans seemed puzzled by this account and speculated that it may have been a (presumably juvenile) giant marine otter but it seems to me, rather obviously, to have been a turtle.

Another problem that cryptozoology has is that  many of the assumptions of its data acquisition have not been put to rigorous test. Is there any reason to believe the ancients would have known about still living species that are unknown to us today? Are secondary sources for eyewitness testimony reliable? In primary accounts, are observers accurately recollecting an anomalous (to them) animal? How good are people at recognising whether an animal is unknown to science? Are cryptids only seen under certain conditions? Is it possible to predict when and where unknown animals may be seen? It is on these sorts of questions on which the validity of cryptozoology as a method rests.

Cryptozoology isn’t a science but that doesn’t make it an invalid form of study. History is not science but it is still a rigorous form of intellectual endeavour. Nor does the fact that cryptozoology is not currently a science mean it won’t be in the future. Cryptozoology is slowly becoming self-critical. Cryptozoology was full of criticisms of published studies. Other recent articles have even criticised the conclusions of the “Father of Cryptozoology” himself. A new generation of (crypto)zoologists is suggesting that more attention be paid to pertinent psychological and palaeontological literature. People lie. Hoaxes happen. Eyewitness testimony is often flawed. Large unknown predators don’t generally exist where there is no food to support them. Sixty-five million year old fossil species really are unlikely to be alive today.

Skeptical criticism can only be a good thing for any discipline, including cryptozoology. With a few notable exceptions there has not been a sustained look at monster accounts by sceptics; easier targets seem to be preferred. The plausible (but not necessarily probable) nature of many of the claims of cryptozoology means that a dismissive, dry sceptical approach simply will not work. More than any other fringe subject, there really is the chance of some startling discoveries and some of these may well be anticipated by cryptozoologists. In the future there will be monsters…

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From the archive, Charles Paxton argues that cryptozoology is far from an unscientific field, even if the monsters it studies don’t actually exist
The post In Search of Monsters? A defence of cryptozoology appeared first on The Skeptic.

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