Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: 'Abominable Science!: Origins of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids'


Multiple choice question: 80 years ago this month, a fellow named George Spicer published a letter in the Inverness Courier in which he described a bizarre and terrifying encounter. He and his wife had been motoring around Loch Ness when he suddenly encountered a:

A)   chicken
B)   man-eating robot
C)   dinosaur
D)   man-eating chicken

If your head is at least halfway out of your ass, you will know the answer is c), because if you know one thing about Loch Ness, you know that it is home to the last living dinosaur, the monster her closest friends call “Nessie.” Regardless of whether you take it as fact or fiction, Spicer’s story and others like it have helped spread the Loch Ness Monster’s fame throughout the world. They’ve been reprinted in countless books and repeated in countless documentaries and have fueled more than a monster’s share of speculation, debate, and transcendent wonder.

That last part—transcendent wonder—is why some folks may think Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero’s new book Abominable Science!: Origins of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids is going to be an abominable drag. The authors are men of science and avowed skeptics: Loxton edits Junior Skeptic magazine and Prothero is a paleontologist. So don’t be fooled by their book’s Weekly World News-style cover; their mission is to debunk a select quintet of cryptids: Sasquatch, Yeti, the sea serpent (including the hippocamp and the cadborosaurus), Mokele Mbembe (a diplodocus-like dinosaur living near the Congo), and of course, Nessie. Loxton and Prothero have found zero evidence supporting the existence of any of these creatures and bat down every oft-told tale with well-reasoned, scientifically sound, and culturally savvy retorts.

So, boo-hoo. Monsters don’t exist. Spicer didn’t really see a dinosaur (which means the multiple-choice question above should have included choice E: none of the above). The cryptozoological parade has been effectively rained on. Right? Not quite.

Actually, you couldn’t hope for a sunnier skeptical exposé than Abominable Science! Despite their academic backgrounds, Loxton and Prothero are lively writers who never talk over their audiences’ heads. These monsters’ origin stories remain great fun to read, and in case their systematic debunking leaves you itching for some legit weirdness, there’s still lots of that to be enjoyed among the hoaxers, monster-spotters, and explorers who populate these pages. A creationist monster hunter claims Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger funded his expedition. A group of 100 jackasses go in search of the Yeti while wearing blackface. Hollywood legends Jimmy Stewart and Gloria Swanson allegedly play roles in the theft of Yeti bones. King Kong may be responsible for creating more monsters than a mere giant ape.

For those who still insist on mourning the monsters, Loxton’s wonderful photorealistic illustrations bring all these debunked beasts back to life and highlight the fact that even though he can’t honestly give us hope that monsters really do exist, he still professes to love them (Prothero is much more hardcore in his belief that romanticizing monsters does more damage than good). That may sound self-contradictory or hypocritical, but speaking as someone who loves the Loch Ness monster, vampires, werewolves, and all the other hokum I write about on this site, and as someone who will always bow to legitimate scientific findings no matter how unromantic they may be, I know where he’s coming from. His and Prothero’s book deserves a place on the bookshelf of every critical thinking class.

Get Abominable Science!: Origins of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids at Amazon.com here:

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