Wednesday, May 11, 2016

If it's not Zoology, it's not Cryptozoology

What is cryptozoology?

There has always been a troublesome subtopic bubbling through the already troublesome topic of cryptozoology.  Cryptozoology is described most famously as the search for hidden animals.  Does that, some ask, include animal like things which are clearly not animals at all?

Now, some zoologists (ok, most) look askance at the whole cryptozoological endeavor because of the focus on animals such as sasquatch which are perceived as highly unlikely, if not absurd.  I have no problems here: as long as the chance of finding an animal is not zero, people can look without making the field scientifically invalid.  In science, most long shots don't pay off, but some do.  The key is whether searching is being done in a scientific manner, proceeding from the evidence to gather more evidence and meeting Karl Popper's classic criteria of the falsifiable hypothesis.  (There can be disagreement on how much negative evidence, or how strong a logical case, is needed to falsify a given hypothesis, but the point is that a hypothesis like "There is a large unknown primate in North America" is scientific in the sense Popper described: falsifiable in theory even if not always in practice.  The fact that no one has the resources to search every possible chunk of forest habitat doesn't damage the reasoning. Sharon Hill and other smart people dispute me on this, but I have not been reasoned out this position. Not yet anyway.) 

Now, for the real issue: the allegedly paranormal/psychic/parapsychological nature proposed for some cases which, it is argued, are part of cryptozoology.   An example of a researcher/writer who thinks this way is Nick Redfern. Nick commendably goes out into the field, interviews people, and otherwise makes a good effort to research things, but his bookMonster Diary is one example of classing things that look like animals under cryptozoology, even if they are clearly not physical animals.  (Some of his older books, like  There's Something in the Woods, explore similar manifestations.)  Another example of conflating the two is Newsweek's generally awful Bigfoot special issue, where psychic abilities are discussed side by side with  things like tracks which can at least be scientifically examined.

I'm well aware that sane and sober people have reported apparitions, and I have no insight into what mix of causes is behind that phenomenon.  But considering apparitions of animals to be part of cryptozoology does not make sense to me.  It does to some people like Nick, who has written that cryptozoologists will not get results in many cases "unless the field of cryptozoology wakes up and realizes that there needs to be a new approach to the subject." I disagree.   

I wrote in Shadows of Existence back in 2006 that I was dismayed that a very good book by Healy and Cropper on Australian mystery animals spent a chapter on "zooform phenomena" after spending the rest of the book scientifically discussing unknown creatures. I feared that zoologists would dismiss the whole book because of this direction.  I can't find any record of someone taking a survey on this, and I've no idea how to take one, but I have no doubt I was right, and still am.  Cryptozoology will never get the respect of zoology if paranormal entities are part of it.  
The experiences of people who see a big cat seemingly dive into the ground and vanish, or a small herd of camels appearing where none can be, are not beneath our notice. They are simply part of another field of study.  I'm not disparaging any other people here, but this is my thinking (and my blog) and I believe this point is important. My advice to anyone trying to validate cryptozoology is to keep the focus where it belongs: on zoology.

Bill Rebsamen's depiction of a thoughtful-looking Sasquatch, as published in 2006 in Shadows of Existence

(A side note to the side note: some books by Ivan Sanderson, Dr. Karl Shuker, and others (like those enjoyable old card-file dumps by Frank Edwards) include both physical and paranormal beasties, although they don't actually make the argument that the latter also belongs in cryptozoology.  Ken Gerhard, in Encounters with Flying Humanoids, likewise mixes physical maybe-animals (although some of these are "physically" not possible - flying humanoids tend to have grossly inadequate wings) with the supernatural: he does not claim the latter are cryptozoology, but it always concerns me when both are in the same book. We get into personal preference here: I wish authors who wanted to write on these two areas would write separate books, although obviously that's up to them, to keep some distance between (to put it one way) beasts that leave footprints and those that don't.)
My position is that, if there is no physical animal, or no reasonable chance of one, the case no longer pertains to cryptozoology or any kind of zoology.  If someone believes they saw a sabretooth tiger that just disappeared, for example (this report appears in one of Nick's books), then the fact that the apparition was in the form of an animal doesn't put the event under the heading of cryptozoology.. It can be parapsychology or any other field one may think appropriate, but if it's not zoology, it's not cryptozoology.  People who think sasquatch is so elusive because it's not a material creature are welcome to hold that opinion, but they shouldn't call that topic part of cryptozoology.  It also, critically, is not a falsifiable hypothesis (you can never prove such a belief to be wrong) and therefore is not part of the physical sciences.  If a definitive search (in the cases where it's possible) fails to find an animal, then it's because the animal either did not exist in the area, has gone extinct, or has migrated elsewhere, but it didn't walk through a portal into another dimension.   
An animal is by definition a physical thing of flesh and blood. It's there or it's not.  I don't dismiss the possibility of a nonmaterial reality: as a Christian, I believe strongly that the material universe is not all that exists.  But an apparition is not an animal, any more than it can be a human being.  It may be reported sincerely to look like one, or even act or sound like one, but that's not the same thing.   (Yet another side note: believing in one thing doesn't require you to believe in another: that fact that I and many other people believe in a supernatural God doesn't logically mandate that we accept ghosts or curses or apparitions of apelike animals as "real.") 

My views on this and related topics are e further detailed in my second book on cryptozoology.

So to summarize: if anyone wants to have cryptozoology taken seriously, it's my opinion (not as a trained zoologist, but as a reader/researcher/writer going back 40+ years with good work in science and history under my belt) that a definition restricting it to physical zoology is a necessity.  It's hard enough to get zoology to consider as science a branch that includes implausible (even if not impossible) creatures like sasquatch: it's impossible if it also includes apparitions, ghosts, or whatever term you have for things outside zoology.

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