Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Of Sasquatch and Giant Squids...

Cyptozoologists, such as they are, point to two great "success stories" in their field - the coelacanth and the giant squid. The existence of these creatures, many say, grants a certain respectability to their field and gives credence to their tales of the Sasquatch and El Chupacabra. You see, cryptos look for new animals, sometimes new animals get discovered, ergo all postulated new creature must exist. Man, I guess I'd better go back and remove all my posts bashing the cryptos...

Wait, no, the logic behind that argument is pure bollocks. Let's have a closer look at the discoveries of these two beasts and see if they really mean what the cryptos say they mean.

The coelacanth (as an order of fish rather than what we specifically call a coelacanth today) was known to science for years in the form of fossils. The surprise was not so much that the coelacanth existed at all, but rather that they still exist. The discovery of the coelacanth is then more akin to, say, the discovery of a live thylacine than the discovery of a dragon. The coelacanth represents not the discovery of a creature unknown to science, but rather that discovery of a known creature previously thought to be extinct.

Likewise the giant squid. Strong circumstantial evidence of the giant squid has long existed. While some (many? most?) historical sightings of the beasts are likely apocryphal, evidence such as battle scars observed on sperm whales and the occasional washed up bit on a beach constituted a much stronger case for the giant squid than, say, Bigfoot. That would be akin to a Bigfoot researcher coming out of the woods covered in Sasquatch bites and carrying the beast's severed arm. (Shades of Beowulf and Grendel.) Zoologists and biologists, that is to say folks that are actually trained in research methodology rather than self-proclaimed experts like these guys, have seriously entertained the possibility of giant squids for years. The confirmation of the existence of these creatures a few years ago by a Japanese research team was no bolt from the blue - it was the culmination of decades of serious investigation.

What this means, of course, is that while cryptozoologists would like to claim these two beasts as victories, they're actually just two more points for the other team. An uncomfortable majority of cryptozoologists, like the folks at the Center for Fortean Zoology, only like to say they're doing science. Real science is boring, difficult, methodologically rigorous, and completely lacking the Indiana Jones style romance that a lot of cryptos would prefer. Real science brings in real discoveries, like the coelacanth, giant squid, and the (relatively) giant elephant shrew. Cryptozoology only gives us grainy Bigfoot photos, out of focus Loch Ness Monster videos, and an endless library of books in which this insular pseudo-discipline expounds endlessly upon itself. Oh, and that old show "Sightings", too.

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