Daniel Loxton is co-author (along with Donald R. Prothero) of Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, a book that’s getting rave reviews among science fans and monster enthusiasts alike. I recently spoke with Loxton about Bigfoot, monster lore and other “hairy” subjects.
What’s Abominable Science all about?
Abominable Science! is a critical, science-based exploration of “cryptids” (legendary creatures as yet unknown to science) and of (the proto- or fringe-science field that pursues cryptids, called “cryptozoology” (meaning “the study of hidden animals”). It presents detailed historical case studies of the origins and evolution of several well-known legends, including Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and the Great Sea Serpent.
Why did you feel compelled to write the book? What did you hope to accomplish?
We intended Abominable Science! to work on several levels: as enjoyable weird history reading for a general audience; as an in-depth primer for monster enthusiasts; and as a corrective critical analysis for serious students of cryptozoology — proponents and critics alike. We wanted Abominable Science! to cut through the scoffing vs believing dichotomy and instead inform people on a topic where reliable information is usually difficult to find.
My co-author and I are both involved in a field of niche scholarship and science outreach activism with that goal, called “scientific skepticism.” My primary gig is Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids critical thinking publication bound inside Skeptic magazine. I delve into a lot of monster mysteries there, both because they’re kid-friendly stories and because I’m a lifelong fan of monster yarns.
My co-author, paleontologist Don Prothero, is a long-time veteran of the American creationism wars—a defender of sound science education against faith-based challenges from religious fundamentalists. Bigfoot may be a strange bedfellow for Adam and Eve, but it turns here is a connection between creationism and cryptozoology which has been little-discussed in the monster literature — systematically downplayed by what you might call “mainstream” cryptozoology, and also unknown to many critics.
Abominable Science! was an opportunity for us to undertake a general critical overview of the field of cryptozoology, as a way of sharpening the focus for scholarship. We wished to show the state of the scholarship so far (very often dismal), gather together key information that had been scattered across decades of literature, and identify areas for further development. We also wished to advance the literature on this topic ourselves: unravelling fictive history, exposing little-publicized connections (between monsters and the paranormal, for example, or between monsters and Biblical literalism), proposing some novel explanations, and digging deeper into explanations proposed by other researchers but not previously explored in the detail they deserved (such as the likelihood that the Loch Ness monster was inspired by the original King Kong).
What do you think the breakdown is on people promoting belief in Bigfoot between hoaxers and people who really do believe?
When cultural commentators reach for a go-to example of a kooky, far out, tinfoil-hat-wearing belief, Bigfoot is right up there with alien abductions. But this fringe reputation obscures the reality that belief in cryptids is actually very common. For example, a 2012 Angus Reid poll found that three out of every ten Americans and about one in five Canadians think Bigfoot “definitely” or “probably” is real.
That’s a fairly typical sort of result. Usually something like two or three percent of respondents will affirm that a cryptid definitely exists, and another 15 or so percent will strongly suspect that it does. That adds up to millions of committed American Bigfoot believers, and tens of millions who are more than half-way convinced.
By contrast, the hard core of people interested in cryptozoology—the hoaxers, the bloggers, the talking heads who appear on mystery-mongering monster documentaries—is small. Some interesting demographic artifacts emerge when you compare general believers with the hard core, too, which we explore in the book. For example, women are as likely as men to affirm a belief in cryptids, but men are massively over-represented among Bigfoot authors and conference attendees.
Some of those who believe say that they have compelling evidence: Dermal ridges, etc. Are these things being “ignored” by the scientific community as I often hear them complain?
This is an extremely common complaint, because it so conveniently explains away the fact that most qualified scholars and scientific experts do not find cryptozoological lore or evidence at all compelling. But it’s really complete baloney. Monster proponents should stop saying this.
The truth is that while scientists have their own stuff to do, many have nonetheless invested the time to take a serious, good-faith look at the various forms of evidence put forward by proponents. Some proponents themselves are scientists. Some serious critics are scientists, including my co-author. Many other scientists have taken time to examine photographs and films, analyze hair and DNA samples, examine unusual carcasses, and so on. Scientists have written papers on cryptids, even entire books. I can’t begin to imagine the number of scientific person-hours that have been dedicated to cryptid claims. The problem is not that no one has looked—in many cases people have looked hard for decades—but that there’s no there there.
This is all discussed in Abominable Science!, but it’s important to realize that many cryptids went through a period of relative scientific respectability, including Nessie, the Yeti, and the Great Sea Serpent. Scientists, naturalists, and explorers from Louis Agassiz to Richard Owen to Philip Henry Gosse to Willy Ley to John Napier to Grover Krantz to Edmund Hillary have spent time on these questions.
It’s not looking that’s in short supply, but finding.
When it comes to weird stuff like Bigfoot and other cryptids, is the case ever closed as far as science goes? Is it appropriate at some point to say “These things definitely don’t exist.”?
It’s hard to prove a negative, but there probably is a point where we can definitively close the door on certain versions of certain cryptids. For example, there is not an extant population of relict plesiosaurs in Loch Ness. I love the idea every bit as much as anyone else, but I’m sorry: we looked, and they’re not there. They just aren’t.
Could Nessie exist as a psychic manifestation, a ghost, or a supernatural shape-shifter? Could we all be living in virtual reality right now, and Nessie a program left over from some previous version of the Matrix? Sure. Why not. But at some point the ad hoc speculation needed to rescue the possibility of a cryptid moves that creature out of the realm of open scientific questions and into the realm of fantasy, science fiction, or faith.
Other cryptids remain more plausible. For example, my favorite, Cadborosaurus—the best-known modern iteration of the Great Sea Serpent—is supposed to be a large sea creature. Well, there’s a lot of sea. We know for a fact that many marine species remain unknown to science. Cadborosaurus may be a long shot, but it’s not at all impossible.
Can open-minded and curious people learn anything useful from reading about Bigfoot and other “weird” topics?
I certainly think so! I use monsters and other paranormal claims as hooks all the time when trying to teach smart, curious young readers about science and evidence and critical thinking.
But I also think cryptozoological mysteries are interesting in themselves, even in a world that has no living biological cryptids. Much of the most interesting, most passionate work in cryptozoology is done by people who love cryptozoology but have little or no expectation that any cryptid legends reflect actual undiscovered animals. Work by folks like Darren Naish, Adrienne Mayor, Ben Radford, Blake Smith, Michel Meurger, and even myself seems to me to point to a kind of post-cryptid cryptozoology—scholarly research into the history, lore, and cultural phenomena surrounding monsters, freed from the tyranny of belief.
It seems to me natural that such a thing should emerge. The scientific search can’t go on forever (though the pseudoscientific search certainly can, and likely will) but the stories are in themselves phenomena worthy of scholarly attention. We study English Literature even if Orwell invented the creatures in Animal Farm; we study folklore even if tales of choking dobermans and vanishing hitchhikers are not literally “true.” They’re part of who we are. Monster lore is as old and as important as human storytelling. Attempts to study, demythologize, and get to the bottom of monster tales goes back at least to classical antiquity. Cryptids in particular played a role in defining the borders between science and pseudoscience. And, cryptids are a deep, continuing part of popular culture and popular belief to this day. That means something.
Can you tell me about some of the other work you do? Didn’t you write a children’s book about an ankylosaur?
My main ongoing project is Junior Skeptic, which is included with digital or print subscriptions to Skeptic magazine.
My books for children include Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be (based upon Junior Skeptic) Ankylosaur Attack, Pterosaur Trouble, and the upcoming Plesiosaur Peril (all from Kids Can Press).
Don’s a ferociously productive writer. His dozens of pop science books and textbooks include Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, and Catastrophes!: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters.