Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids
Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero
Loxton and Prothero have written a very good book, which I reviewed on Amazon as a 4.5 star effort (I'll
explain why I had to downgrade it just a bit) that goes on the "must reading"
list for anyone interested in cryptozoology. I've been following this field for
decades now without seeing anything that fills this niche - that of the
scientific, skeptical (in the good sense of the word) consideration of the
entire field and its most spectacular maybe-creatures.
Prothero, a geologist
and paleontologist, and Loxton, a skeptical science writer (and a superb
illustrator, as the reader of this book will discover), start with the question
of whether cryptozoology is a science or pseudoscience. They come down mainly on
the latter side, arguing that cryptozoology as often practiced includes some of
the sketchiest "science" being written today. They do nod to the recent
discoveries in the animal world as evidence of what real field zoologists are
accomplishing. (I do wish to note that "the beaked whale" (they mean the pygmy
beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) is only one of several cetaceans described
in the last two decades.) The existence of a reported creature is a perfectly
valid subject for science, but, in the instant-analysis age of the Internet, the
science is often poorly done at best. The authors also point out there's a
tendency in much cryptozoological writing to place too heavy a reliance on the
details reported by eyewitnesses.
I argue, as I always have, that cryptozoology is a science because it deals in falsifiable hypotheses, but it's hard to argue against the claims of sloppiness in the execution of it.
Then it's on to the creatures, a chapter
each for Bigfoot, the yeti, Nessie, the sea serpent, and mokele-mbembe. I accept
the point, reinforced in the authors' much-appreciated response to a couple of
queries from me, that a single book can only cover the most pivotal cases and
must leave out many details even then. However, while I agree with the thrust of
the argument in all cases save perhaps the sea serpent, there are some nits to
pick amid the generally excellent text.
The authors ask good questions about
sasquatch, including why wildlife biologists never come across it and why one of
the foundational reports, William Roe's seemingly sincere declaration, was never
actually investigated. They agree with Greg Long's debunking of the Patterson
film, although they should have mentioned that Long's book presents two
contradictory accounts of the suit (a modified theatrical costume vs. a heavy
horsehide suit)without reconciling them. They class the most famous sasquatch
prints, the Bossburg "Cripplefoot" tracks, as a hoax by the notorious Ivan Marx,
while acknowledging forthrightly that eminent primatologist John Napier had a
different opinion. They argue that it's not true we don't find bones of other
animals, like bears (even some sasquatch hunters have found dead bears) and that
saying Bigfoot buries its dead is special pleading unsupported by even the
The authors dismiss the yeti, pointing out correctly that
it's very hard to find good evidence for an unknown animal in the jumble of
differing reports and folktales. They suggest the Shipton footprints were a
hoax, although there's only the most indirect hint of this. They deserve kudos
for not suggesting the clear print shot in closeup was a product of
melting/refreezing: skeptics like Joe Nickell who argue this have apparently
never experimented. (I have, and it doesn't wash: as Loxton and Prothero point
out, though, this IS the explanation for some "yeti" trackways.) I have another
nitpick here: one shouldn't cite climber Reinhold Messner's belief that the yeti
is a brown bear and not mention he thought it was a bizarre bipedal whistling
species, not an ordinary Ursus arctos.
The Nessie chapter won't surprise
anyone who's read prior skeptical analyses of this much-discussed subject.
Suffice to say the authors consider it a mixture of hoaxes, claims made for
tourists' benefit, and misidentifications. They are certain all the photographic
evidence, including the Dinsdale film and the Rines photographs, can be safely
On to the sea serpent, the authors correctly report the saga began
as a compendium of now-known creatures and heroic myths. Whether there's a core
of unexplained fact in the hundreds of recorded sightings is the question, and
the authors argue strongly that, if you can technically never disprove the sea
serpent, you can still safely dismiss it. Two of the omissions here, though, are
startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting
of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent.
While they analyze and reject two other "touchstone" cases, the Daedalus
sighting and the Cadborosuarus events, they ignore the other two. Loxton
explained they meant to include the New England case but it just got lost in the
crunch of writing a book that was 200 pages over the specified length and two
years behind the original deadline: I can sympathize, but the New Englander
still needed more than a passing mention. On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) advised me that they
left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other
words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other
than the classic sea serpent. I can see the logic, though I disagree with
On to the African dinosaur, mokele-mbembe. The authors pretty much shred
the case for this animal, and I agree on every count: the images could be
anything, the contamination of local witnesses is long since a forgone
conclusion, and the ecology and paleontology don't work. Loxton and Prothero win
this round pretty convincingly.
The authors conclude with their somewhat
differing views on whether cryptozoology is a harmless diversion or contributes
to the problem they see in general rejection of science and the willingness to
believe the unscientific, even the irrational. While treading cautiously on
religion (although the previous chapter discussed the creationist motive behind
some mokele-mbembe activities), they make a strong case that, in areas which we
can all agree should be about science, there is in fact a lot of bad science and
a lot of irrationality.
There are 56 pages of endnotes and citations tacked
onto this book: the authors clearly gave it their all. If I've pointed out some
flaws, I want to come back around to the main point of how good and how
important this book is. Even cryptozoologists who think the authors are flat-out
wrong on one or more major animals need to read this skeptical but not
closed-minded work. It's a superb contribution.
UPDATE: Veteran Bigfoot hunter Danny Perez has found that William Roe, while there is no audio or film recording of him, did talk to the newspaper and to his family members about his event, and Perez found a photo of him. This evidence by itself doesn't prove Roe was truthful or correct, but it does ground the story in some reality.