Imagineering cryptids: The Cryptozoologicon (Book review)

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It’s not been the best year for the fans of real live cryptids. Not only did we NOT find Bigfoot again, we had a better explanation for the Yeti, and Sasquatch DNA samples that were a bust (Sykes) or a joke (Ketchum). The book Abominable Science inserted itself as the premier scholarly book on the topic. Unfortunately for the “knowers,” who have an indestructible belief that the mysterious creatures are out there, their evidence and conviction clearly suggests otherwise. Serious scholarly researchers are happy to have that excellent resource and now we have another lovely skeptical and highly entertaining book to add to our collection. The Cryptozoologicon by Naish, Conway and Kosmen. It is unique with brand-new original artwork and imaginative writing. I loved it. But then again, I would…

cover“Cryptozoologicon” means the Book of Names of Hidden Animals. This is Volume One. More volumes are possibly on the way (at least one more). The authors seemed to have great fun with this one.

The introduction is cryptozoology in a nutshell, with a smart, skeptical, scholarly point of view – the kind I prefer. Each entry is a summary of what is known or conjectured about the cryptid. Then the authors crank up the fictional biology to 11 and even push the limits of popular cryptozoo-ers (1), while remaining generally within the confines of zoology, to indulge in descriptions and illustrations of the proposed animals.

There is no “belief” or religiously fed need by these authors to PROVE this or that animal is real. It’s straight zoology blended with art, folklore and a creativity fueled by love of this topic.

Cited frequently in the book are a few prolific authors that popularized the topic of cryptozoology: Heuvelmans, Sanderson, Mackal and Coleman. None of these men come out looking all that great. That will go over like a lead balloon with the cryptid crowd. Bernard Heuvelmans, especially, as the “father of cryptozoology,” is characterized as too gullible in assessing eyewitness account, haphazard in combining accounts and descriptions, not diligent in seeking primary sources but passing on retellings, and using out of date ideas in his bizarre interpretation of what little evidence existed – just an overall sloppy scholar when he could have done much better. Still, he was enormously influential. The authors are poking the dragon by dissing Heuvelmans but they aren’t making it up. They are correct.

Roy Mackal is known for his penchant of identifying cryptids as prehistoric survivors, adopting what the authors call the PSP – the prehistoric survivor paradigm. I personally cringe every time I see Nessie proposed as a plesiosaur or basilosaurus, or Mokele-Mbembe described as a sauropod dinosaur. But the worst are claims of living pterosaurs. HOW CAN YOU HIDE HUGE FLYING THINGS? It’s a ridiculous proposal. The authors call it lazy and uninventive. Demolishing the PSP is one of the most important things in this book and these are the right people to do it. (Naish is a vertebrate paleontologist.)

The second notion that is run over by this rationality bus is the habit of cryptid experts in using zoological literalism – treating these cryptids as a real animal and connecting their explanation solely to a new (or previously extinct) organism while failing to account for very important factors in the story that render that explanation untenable.

Those who treat cryptids with zoological literacy are naive. Naish, et al. state bluntly: the “purely zoological approach of cryptozoological literalists has to die”. (Actually, I’m pretty sure it was Darren who wrote this, since I’ve heard him say it.) Indeed. The biological evidence has not materialized for these speculative cryptids. Most popular writers who rally round the flag of cryptozoology fail to take into consideration various aspects of cryptids that make them implausible and very unlikely to be a new species – vague, poor descriptions, ecological implausibility, basic biological function, the need for people to tell cultural stories using well-known archetypes (the wild man or vampire, for example). The roles of psychology, sociology and ethnology is extremely important to cryptozoology. That is what makes it a multidisciplinary field unto itself. It’s a grave mistake to ignore those facets (like modern television portrayals or non-scholarly books do across the board).

The self-styled cryptozoologist type will dislike this book, the authors admit, while they still hope it can be enjoyed for what it is, an indulgence. But, since it’s also a bit of satire, I predict modern monster hunters will be dismissive. In fact, some are so overly serious and humorless that they won’t even read it. Their loss. These were the same head-in-the-sand unbudgables who refused to even read through Abominable Science. They don’t seem to like them long-haired scholarly books. They certainly won’t get what this one is about.

There are those who won’t get the language and jargon in here either – “phylogenetic,”, “convergent evolution,” and zoological terms such as “testudinid,” “diprotodontian marsupials,” “anuran,” and other labels that roll of the tongue of the tiny crowd who read scientific journals and write about tetrapod zoology. Therefore, this book is a few reading levels above your average pop cryptid book, which is good, I think. There is nothing bad about raising the bar.

Like Abominable ScienceThe Cryptozoologicon picks at the foundation of the field and finds it rather holey. They advocate a new approach to the subject – a more rigorous, rational, less ridiculous approach. However…parts of The Cryptozoologicon are very very silly. That was clearly the intent (2). The hoop snake makes an appearance. The chupacabra becomes a very large opossum called “Deinoroo”; only a matter of time, they say, until it graduates from attacking livestock to targeting humans. I enjoyed the treatment of “rods” as the most ridiculous of all proposed cryptids; the resulting speculative animal turns out to be gloriously preposterous. This is speculative zoology at its finest.

To touch on the missing pieces of the book, I think some of the best sources go unmentioned (like Radford’s on the chupacabra and Smith on the Beast of Gevaudan). The occasional snark can be off-putting for those not versed in the geek-out “inside baseball” stuff of  vertebrate zoology. And, darn it if I didn’t want the book to really look like a grimoire, but money, I know. Maybe when the multi-volumes are completed…

Those without a sense of humor or a modicum of knowledge about zoology will not get this book. (3) Thankfully, I have both so I did. I loved it. If you want to appear smart and witty, get it and chuckle knowingly.

——-

1. I don’t feel comfortable calling people “-ologists” unless they have a degree in something. Scientific knowledge and respect as well as titles are earned not self-bestowed as too many so-called cryptozoologists are wont to do.

2. Listen to the podcast Tetrapod Zoology with Naish and Conway to get a feel for this book and its degree of joviality.

3. It’s a niche market.

Extras
Darren’s talk from the launch event. He talks about attitudes and habits of today’s cryptozoologists and that of the majorly contributing skeptical voices. This is important stuff that the Bigfooters and the Nessie aficionados will not get. They will keep on doing their same old stuff and get nowhere. I far prefer the big picture understanding of the field as it advances with a multi-disciplinary approach. But hey, if they get out there and find a body, good for everyone. That’s probably not the most reasonable or feasible approach considering the evidence and track record so far.

Memo’s talk from the launch event touches on the reputation of the field and popular proponents (as kind of “shady”), and why that’s a shame considering the great interest in monsters by the public. He spells out the new approach. Very entertaining!

Venn diagram of new cryptozoology from C.M. Kosemen talk

Venn diagram of new cryptozoology from C.M. Kosemen talk

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One thought on “Imagineering cryptids: The Cryptozoologicon (Book review)

  1. spookyparadigm

    Not sure the second video link is working, though I found it on Youtube. I love a lot of the content in the second video, but the tone is a textbook way to turn off a big chunk of the audience, IMO. I go to ridicule sometimes, but I use it less than some speakers, and it felt very preaching to the choir in that New Atheism sort of way. Though of course, I again agree that if anyone deserves ridicule, it is some of the cryptozoologists. I’ve never devoured Heuvelmanns, so while I’ve seen some of the suggested cryptids in the first talk, some of them were a surprise, a crazy surprise that made me a little less critical of more recent cryptozoological catalogers because they’re just doing what their spiritual founder did.

    I can offer a likely suggestion, and not one that I cooked up entirely independently, to the Congo issue. I don’t think there is a direct relation to the red rubber horrors of Leopold’s Free State, but the ideology that supported the one supports the other. Cryptozoology is inherently of the late Victorian ecstatic scientific push after evolution, as demonstrated in both talks. It doesn’t exist back then, but it is nostalgic for that time, to the point that I have taken to thinking of it as steampunk zoology (all pseudosciences are retro, and many of them are retro to that time period, precisely because they are entangled with the larger populace coming to grips with science). Anyway, evolutionary thinking dominated the era, including in how to think about people and society. Congo, as the heart of “Darkest Africa” was cast as extremely primitive. At that time that was literally seen as being at the bottom of a ladder or great chain of being, with the British Empire at the top. All of the fantasies of ancient Lost Worlds being in such places are symbolic reflections of this notion, that these places and people are living fossils. I think it is no accident that the people most associated with such cryptids like Mokele Mbembe today are missionaries on a dual mission to disprove Darwinism, and of course to missionize (often involving “developing” locals), one of the most stereotypical aspects of European colonialism.

    Almost every non-demonological non-marine cryptid I can think of involves crossing a social and often class/ethnic barrier. Sasquatch was cobbled out of a mix of Native and early non-native settler folklore and then seized upon by urban non-natives. It was inspired in part by the Yeti, one of the most classic of the colonial cryptids (how many discussions of the Yeti don’t eventually involve sherpas, and the complicated relationship sherpa guides have with affluent visitors?). Nessie may be a symbol of Scotland, but it was blown up by English papers and reporters. The older Ogopogo is a sticking point to this day regarding appropriation of indigenous culture. Much of the appeal of the chupacabra to Anglo audiences is that it is funny to say, and is a new stereotype about Latin America. And so on.

    Just as ufology preserves the periods its influences come from (paranoia and conspiracy from the 1950s for much of the nuts and bolts, pulp and Spiritualism for the more esoteric), cryptozoology is steampunk because it reflects the Victorian era’s burgeoning science (and because it has the individual genius against the system ethos found in the steampunk subculture) and it doesn’t eject the colonialist baggage.

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