Sunday, April 23, 2006

On those pesky prehistoric survivors: a call to arms

With a week left to go, I’m getting panicky about the thesis, yet at the same time still moderately confident. Pretty much all that’s needed is editorial tidying of the various chapters, plus a bit of work on two of the parsimony analyses. Everything else of interest is being untouched until thesis completion, which is frustrating as there’s so much to post about, so many papers to write. Oscine phylogeny, the discovery of the Odedi, the resurrection of Mecistops, Steep Holm and the biggest slow worm ever, rhinogradentians. It’ll have to wait, alas.

Meanwhile… given that I’ve now produced several posts on cryptozoology I’m hoping that I don’t seem obsessed with the subject (I was also getting concerned a while back that I was coming across as someone obsessed with death, which I why I delayed the much-awaited text ‘when animals die in trees’). But here’s another cryptozoology post. It has a long back-story that I won’t cover here, but I’ll come straight to the point and say that I have found it impossible to get it published. So, in the end, I figured I may as well post it.

Introduction

There are times when I wonder if it’s really worth bothering with the field of cryptozoology at all. Indeed most (but not all) of my colleagues in the world of academic zoology largely dismiss cryptozoology as an area dominated by wishful thinking and the lunatic fringe and, as someone trying to earn both a Ph.D. and a reputation as a credible scientist, I have certainly not done myself any favours by alerting my academic colleagues to my interest in cryptids*. Conversely, I am frequently accused by those within the cryptozoological community of dismissing cryptozoology in its entirety, simply because I have tried to advocate a critical, sceptical perspective**.

I will maintain my genuine interest, however, because - unlike my more dismissive colleagues - I know that the existence of a fair number of cryptids is supported by at least some reasonable evidence, and I know this because I have gone to the trouble of obtaining and reading the literature on the subject. I also know that, contrary to uninformed criticisms, cryptozoology is not per se based on wishful thinking, on personal belief, or on a lack of critical thought, and there is absolutely and unquestionably no contradiction between pursuing an interest in cryptids and employing scientific methodology (Arment 2004). Heuvelmans (1982) wrote that ‘Cryptozoology aspires to a true skepticism [sic], that which opposes both an a priori incredulity, and a naïve willingness to believe’ (p. 12), so this has always been true. Furthermore, despite the rampant speculation rife in cryptozoology and the reliance in the field on anecdotal evidence, it is not a pseudoscience given that it involves the formulation of testable hypotheses that could, theoretically, be subjected to empirical testing. While it is certainly true that few people involved in cryptozoological research are collating and analysing their data in a manner comparable with that of other branches of science (indeed most cryptozoological research is manifested as popular or semi-technical writing), this does not mean that such potential does not exist, as demonstrated by empirical studies on cryptozoological data (e.g. Fahrenbach 1998, Daegling & Schmitt 2000, Heinselman 2001).

However, it is unfortunate that cryptozoological writing continues to be plagued with naivety, sloppy thinking and an almost total absence of self-correction and internal criticism. A recent debate, played out in the letters pages of Fortean Times (Naish 2005, Shuker 2005a-b), has prompted me to revisit several areas that still seem to require clarification, or at least restating.

Accuracy and self-correction in cryptozoological writing

It is entirely appropriate that I have been accused of being pedantic when reviewing certain cryptozoological works. This is because I feel strongly that cryptozoologists should go to great trouble to ensure that their writings are technically accurate and up to date with the rest of zoology. While some may regard this perspective as elitist, unsympathetic or simply arrogant, I remain dismayed that so many clumsy and misleading errors clutter the cryptozoological literature. Despite evasive comments to the contrary, the pointing out of such errors is directly relevant to cryptozoology as a whole, and for several reasons.

Science proceeds by self-correction. It is clear that our current understanding of the universe is plagued with errors and that an untold number of ideas and theories are confused, flawed or wrong. As new data comes along, we can update and correct these problems and thus proceed to an improved understanding. This internal self-correction, practised virtually every time a new experiment or study or observation is published, is an integral part of the scientific process, and scientists continually argue among themselves as to how data should be interpreted. While it’s certainly true that cryptozoology can proceed via self-correction as much as any other science (Arment 2004, pp. 139-140), it’s notable that (in my opinion) there is not as much of this going on as there should be. Accordingly I have often been critical of some writers when reviewing their published works because, quite simply, few others seem to do this. We desperately need more internal criticism within cryptozoology: more pedantry, more nit-picking, less tolerance of poorly supported theories and proposals, and a lot more arguing about the interpretation of data. Cryptozoology needs extensive self-correction if it is to survive and thrive, and cryptozoologists should quit being so nice to each other and start engaging in spirited discussions about the data.

Furthermore, cryptozoology suffers from an image problem, being unfairly regarded by many in academia as the haunt of poorly informed amateurs, rather than of anyone who might actually know what they’re talking about. The problem is that the former opinion is endorsed by many cryptozoological articles and books where the number of factual errors is high and the application of critical thought is low. While we can’t all be experts in every area we express an interest in, we as researchers have a responsibility to ensure an appropriate level of scholarship, and cryptozoologists have a duty to employ rigour and accuracy in their publications. The profile and standing of cryptozoology in the zoological community, and the significance of its results and areas of research, would be improved if cryptozoological writings were more technically proficient and less cluttered with errors.

The ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’

In my published cryptozoological writings (Naish 1996c, 1998, 2000, 2001a, 2003a), I have argued, for various reasons, that ostensible prehistoric survivors such as sauropods, basilosaurids and plesiosaurs almost certainly do not lie at the bottom of cryptid reports, nor is there any good reason to think that they might. Conversely, others (e.g., Shuker 1995) have argued that these fossil animals are the only ones that correspond to the relevant cryptids. While the evidence from the fossil record is clearly at odds with the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ (PSP from hereon), it should be noted that the raw cryptozoological data (viz, eyewitness testimony) does not support the PSP either. On this matter I have been accused of two major failings: (1) refusing to acknowledge the possibility of evolutionary modification of fossil groups that might have survived to the present, and (2) of ‘failing to replace the discounted interpretations with hypotheses of [my] own’ (Shuker 2005b, p. 76).

Regarding the first point, the idea that certain cryptids might be the highly modified descendants of known fossil forms is, while of course not impossible, highly improbable and strikingly like special pleading. It is highly suspicious that the modern ‘evolved’ descendants of these fossil forms closely recall historical representations of these groups (e.g., those from Victorian times), rather than the representations supported by contemporary evidence. It should also be noted that some fossil groups argued by the PSP to have undergone a significant amount of hypothetical evolution were in fact highly conservative during their known geological range (Naish 2003a), making the idea of modern ‘evolved’ forms unlikely from the point of view of the evidence.

Perhaps most importantly, rather than imagine that hypothetical modern descendants of fossil taxa have evolved a whole suite of physiological and morphological features not present in their fossil ancestors, it should be noted that the relevant cryptids more recall other possible identities. A review of long-necked aquatic cryptid sightings (the very same cryptids regarded by some authors as representing possible ‘evolved’ plesiosaurs) shows that all the features reported by witnesses are seen in pinnipeds (Naish 2000, p. 43), some of which are, or were, large enough and long-necked enough to correspond to the relevant cryptids. Unsurprisingly, I feel that the notion of peculiar pinnipeds is more likely than the idea of modern plesiosaurs.

Where are the replacements?

On several occasions it has been asserted that, given my rejection of the PSP, the onus is on me to provide replacement hypotheses. It has been stated, for example, that I have ‘[Failed] to replace the discounted interpretations with hypotheses of [my] own’ and that ‘Replacing one model with another is the basis of scientific advancement, so where, for example, are Naish’s proposed identities for cryptids that he dismisses as living archaeocetes, plesiosaurs, sauropods, etc?’ (Shuker 2005b, p. 76). This is naïve, as it is entirely appropriate – given the lack of good evidence for the aquatic cryptids relevant here – to conclude that a satisfactory answer cannot presently be provided. I have stated exactly this before when challenged with the exact same criticism from the exact same worker (Naish 2000, p. 44; 2001a, pp. 78-79) and I am not the only author to have expressed this opinion (Burton 1960, p. 775; Scott & Rines 1975, pp. 466-467; LeBlond & Bousfield 1995, pp. 81-83; Bauer 2002, p. 235).

In any case, I have proposed replacements. As discussed above, I have noted on several occasions that large long-necked pinnipeds better explain sightings of long-necked aquatic cryptids than do hypothetical extant plesiosaurs, and I have also noted that long-bodied delphinidans or other odontocetes might explain some sightings of serpentine aquatic cryptids (Naish 2000, 2001a, 2003a).

However, I am also of the opinion that far fewer aquatic cryptid reports really describe unknown species than has classically been thought. A comprehensive review of reported sea serpent carcasses (Roesch 1997, 1998a-b, 1999) left its author wondering where all the real sea serpent carcasses were; virtually all the photographic evidence purporting to show certain aquatic cryptids can be satisfactorily explained away (Raynor 2001); and Paxton (2004) and Paxton et al. (2004) have highlighted the point that too few identities have been considered when reports of aquatic cryptids have been examined. While it seems likely that at least some unknown species of large aquatic vertebrate await discovery, we can now doubt the idea that they will match the creatures cryptozoologists have been writing about.

A call to arms

Cryptozoologists should not feel upset or insulted by the assertion that their writings often lack an appropriate level of scholarship. Rather, it should be regarded as an admonition encouraging them to combine their often laudable field and literature research with improved access to contemporary information. In an age where more information, and more individual specialists and experts, are more easily accessible than ever before, there is little excuse for a lack of fact-checking. I strongly urge all cryptozoological writers and researchers to consider getting their writings checked prior to publication.

Despite its long history and advocation by many of the most important researchers in the field, cryptozoology has matured enough for us to be able to reject the prehistoric survivor paradigm as a reasonable interpretation of what evidence we have for the relevant cryptids. Increasingly, it seems anachronistic to interpret cryptids as late-surviving relicts of well-known fossil groups and I note that few recent writers have endorsed the PSP. Not only is the PSP contrary to most lines of evidence, it is also the least likely option when the eyewitness data is critically examined. Needless to say, this doesn’t negate the evidence for the relevant cryptids nor, in my opinion, does it make cryptozoology any less interesting.

Notes

* To those unaware of my cryptozoological research: during the 1990s I engaged in amateur analysis of poorly known and cryptic whales and dolphins (Naish 1995, 1996a-c, 1997a-c, 1998b), published analyses of various photographic pieces of evidence purporting to show sea or lake monsters (Naish 1996d, 1997d-e), and produced articles on some controversial areas of British mammalogy (Naish 1997f-g). More recently I have published articles advocating a sceptical (but not dismissive) approach to the study of aquatic cryptids (Naish 2000, 2001a). Today, as a researching palaeozoologist busy with Lower Cretaceous dinosaurs, I continue to publish articles of cryptozoological interest when this is possible (Naish 2001b, 2003b-c, 2004). I try to maintain an active role in the cryptozoological community, participating in conferences, online discussions and fieldwork.

** Following the publication of my Fortean Times article on aquatic cryptids (Naish 2000) several responses appeared accusing me of ‘[dismissing] the whole cryptozoology field and sea serpents in particular’ (pers. comm. from a correspondent).

PS - in the photo above, spot the panda and the ABC skull.

Acknowledgements

For discussion on various of the points covered here, I thank Richard Freeman, Charles Paxton, Karl Shuker, Ben Speers-Roesch and Anthony Russell. I thank Loren Coleman and Chad Arment: their interest in my ideas resulted in the publication of Naish (2003a). Jeff Liston and Ben Speers-Roesch provided comments that improved the manuscript.

Refs - -

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Daegling, D. J. & Schmitt, D. O. 1999. Bigfoot’s screen test. Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1999, 20-25.

Fahrenbach, W. H. 1988. Sasquatch: size, scaling and statistics. Cryptozoology 13, 47-75.

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