Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sykes' The Nature of the Beast, revisited

The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times
Coronet Books, 2015. 336 pp.

While I write about cryptozoology, I rarely have anything to say about sasquatch: it’s not my area of concentration, and it seems so ridiculous that we’ve missed a huge species in North America that I’d like to write the whole thing off. I can’t quite do that to my satisfaction, though, because intelligent normal humans are still reporting – well, something. This book, though, is so compelling I’m going to analyze it in more depth than I did in my first posting on this subject.

In a field rife with ambiguity, Oxford genetics professor Bryan Sykes tried to do something definitive. He invited sasquatch, yeti, almas, and other assorted unknown-primate hunters to send him their best samples of hair, saliva, blood, etc. (mostly hair), and (using techniques in which he was recognized worldwide as an innovator) he would extract DNA and identify the species. After throwing out obvious known species and samples of doubtful provenance, he had 37 to test and got 30 good results: every one a known species. There was bear, horse, wolf, and human hair (and a raccoon sample from Russia: apparently there was once a release of captured raccoons into this country), but nothing to indicate a nonhuman primate.

Sykes is strongly critical concerning the tendency of cryptozoologists to seize on hair samples that are not identifiable or ignore evidence of contamination, as with the orang-pendek reports that got some people (including me) genuinely excited. The orang-pendek sample was claimed to be halfway between human and ape, an unsupportable and indeed meaningless statement. He finds the work of Dr. Melba Ketchum to be a mess of sloppy amateurism and impossible conclusions. Along the way we learn a lot about genetics and a little about the odd corners of said science: surprisingly, Sykes thinks fabled human-chimpanzee crosses would be infertile but not quite 100% impossible, even though his description of a region called 2T implies strongly that they are. Sykes identified the Russian “ape-woman” Zana as fully human, of southern African descent, apparently almost mute and horribly ill-used. He does wonder if such an exceptionally tall and healthy woman (apparently she was almost 2m tall and extraordinarily athletic) might be descended from an unrecorded African migration tens of thousands of years ago, rather than being a recently escaped slave or the daughter of such (slaves normally being poorly nourished and unhealthy). Such a radical idea, though, needs much more support than Sykes can offer to get any consideration by the larger scientific community.

When it comes to anecdotal evidence, Sykes starts off telling eyewitness stories as fairly as possible, from the viewpoint of the teller. He doesn’t even throw Justin Smeja’s “Sierra Kills” story into the “absurdity” pile, even though most sasquatch-hunters do. He tells of some interesting fieldwork alongside my friend Lori Simmons (of which more later). But when it comes to hard, cold science, he’s adamant: no one sent him a sample of any kind of nonhuman primate, even though he clearly WANTS there to be something incredible behind all this hominid-hunting. Sykes may be stern in his insistence on better science, but he is a friend to cryptozoologists. He did turn up some samples that seemed to be of a very odd bear (a polar bear or brown-polar hybrid in the Himalayas, to be exact), which set off a furor of its own (also discussed below).

Now, back to his work with Lori Simmons, which I use here to highlight what a fascinating, multifaceted cultural phenomenon sasquatch is. Lori takes him to a tree whose roots apparently cover an underground den used by a sasquatch she calls the Big Guy, who her late father discovered. While she has barely glimpsed the Big Guy, she believes she’s communicated with him by leaving food, by stamping her foot (which draws sharp knocks and sometimes growls) and by accustoming him to the sound of her voice: she talks soothingly, as one might to a nervous horse. Sykes is quite taken by all this and wonders if he’s in real danger.

Sykes sets sticky-tape traps around the site but gets only a sample of Lori’s own hair. He visits the tree again with a ranger named Sage Bohme who suggests that a spot about 50 feet up where a big branch on one trunk knocks against another in a way that could send knocking noises down the trunk and mislead people about their place of origin. He wrote to Lori that this seemed plausible but that he was still puzzled by two aspects of the case, the reported growls and the apparent response to Lori stamping her foot are puzzling.

Sykes doesn’t believe Lori’s making things up (nor do I: I don’t know how to interpret some things Lori reports, but I’ve gone on record as denying she’s a hoaxer. Lori has invited me out to try the stomp-and-knock communication in person, and I’ll take her up on that when I can. Definitely not hoaxer behavior). Still, as Sykes notes, it’s easy to ascribe woodland sounds and activities to a creature you think is there, even when you can’t be certain.

Lori, commenting on the book for me, is steadfast, noting Sykes agreed there are still some problems and adding, “I thought Sage's theory was going to be dismissed. The food we left out was taken and consumed on the site. Also in some instances, by the creature having to unwrap chocolate, etc., in order to do it. In one experiment (cryptozoologist) Adam Davies did, it had to unwrap an egg from tissue paper. The egg was consumed, the paper intact. It does not explain the growling, the knocks on the ground, or the increase in intensity in response to our behavior. Also, the frequency of the growls is not dependent on the weather. There was even a time back in March of 2013 at dusk I saw what I believe to be a Bigfoot/Sasquatch only yards from the den.” Lori’s next book, Tracking Bigfoot: the Journey Continues, will tell her side of the adventure.

A comment Lori adds from her dad is worth mentioning: “October 2008: A very deep, guttural sound came from off to my right and near the creek. It kind of resembled an irate brahma bull only with a deeper sound. This sounded very dangerous-what a horrible change after it had been so quiet and peaceful earlier. I stayed still for a few minutes-no sound- so I decided to go against my better judgment and walk slowly towards where I had heard it. I only got about halfway to the creek when I heard a knock sound back and below where I'd just come from: so I did an about-face and headed in that direction, slowly. I went over a small ridge and into a mini valley. It's expertise in camouflage, hiding and superb stealth in the forest or elsewhere, and possible (in my opinion) great strength. Seeing some hardwood trees broken off about twelve feet high convinced me. But, even more impressive was how the big guy jarred the ground I was standing on and could actually make the ground tremble.” You can attribute this to a mix of natural events like storms damaging trees and maybe a bear, but it kind of raises the hackles on your neck.

To go back to Sykes, he published his theory about bears and came under immediate skeptical fire. Writing in Skeptical Inquirer, taxonomists Ron Pine and Eliecer Guiterrez strongly dismissed this work, arguing Sykes was relying on a short DNA sequence that was within the variability of modern brown bears. Sykes took a shot in reply at the overuse of statistics and bioinformatics, and I’m not going to try to work out those arguments, but suffice to say that interest in a potential hybrid bear as the Yeti seems to have dropped off.

Some cryptozoologists have complained that Sykes tested only about a third of the “good” samples (those that were not immediately ruled out on the grounds of unverifiable provenance, obvious artificiality, etc.), but Sykes is on solid ground here: he chose the samples that seemed most likely to represent an unknown primate. He wanted to find such an animal. He did not.

Despite the flaws, this book is an important one. Sykes has taken the best evidence offered by unknown-primate hunters worldwide and shown that it is, without exception, not up to snuff. That doesn’t mean Bigfoot cannot exist, but it means the bar has been raised. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Sykes’ work shows we don’t have it.

In addition to Sykes’ book, sources consulted include:

Personal communications with Lori Simmons: personal communications between Bryan Sykes and Lori Simmons, shared with permission; FaceBook posts by Pine and Sykes: Sharon Hill, “Sykes’ reputation and his Yeti project get slammed,” Doubtful News, April 5, 2015: and Pine and Guiterrez, “No Reason to Believe That Sykes’ Yeti-Bear Cryptid Exists,” Skeptical Inquirer v.39#4, July/August 2015.

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