Dreaming of DNA: Review of Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the last Neanderthal

bigfoot sykesOriginally published in the UK as The Nature of the Beast, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the Last Neanderthal: A geneticist’s search for modern apemen is highly enjoyable and reveals a bunch of interesting tidbits as well as showing us some rather personal insights and new facts from the professor who attempted to bring credibility to the study of hairy hominids.

First, I’d say, all Bigfoot enthusiasts should read this book. I’m fairly certain the title was changed for the US distribution to add the word “Bigfoot” in order to appeal to the Finding Bigfoot-crazy Americans. Sykes viewpoint as a scientist and as a Yeti/Bigfoot cultural “newbie” is unique and provides an insightful look into the wacky world of Bigfootery. While that sort of makes the book charming, it also makes it problematic. Dr. Sykes apparently didn’t know the first thing about the subculture of the North American hairy man and he got taken for an exciting ride a few times. He got pulled into the belief, admittedly losing scientific objectivity at times.  To those of us who already knew the sordid history of Bigfoot seekers – Melba Ketchum, Derek Randles, and Justin Smeja or the collection of those who say they have a special relationship with the creature or believe it is a spiritual or supernatural being –  this book could, at times, be wince-inducing.

“…when I have found myself in the company of cryptozoologists, their sincerity and absolute belief in the existence of their quarry begins to rub off.”  – Dr. Bryan Sykes

Oh dear. Sykes has stepped in it, deep. But he manages to extract himself with grace.

The original proposed title for the book was The Yeti Enigma. By mistake, this title is used several times within the book.  (All these alternate titles are confusing. I’d wish they kept that particular title.) Sykes describes the enigma as the contrasting positions of the argument about the yeti. Those who actively seek the creatures (Bigfoot included) say they have plenty of evidence. Yet, there is indisputably no single piece of evidence that is accepted as genuine by all. The cryptozoologists say that science ignores their quest, that they KNOW the creatures are out there to find if a serious concerted effort would take place. Sykes explains the quests of Heuvelmans & Sanderson, Slick & Byrne, of the Russian scientists who formed the government-backed Snowman Commission, and of the various others who made tremendous effort to find this conclusive evidence. He considers himself one of these. He systematically collected and analyze samples across the world to see if that evidence was there. He argues that you couldn’t before, and you certainly can’t now, say that science hasn’t paid mystery animals any attention. Sykes explains two breakthroughs which allowed for this project to take place: the capability of a new DNA technique that eliminates human contamination and can obtain results from the hair itself (not needing the follicle), and the finding of a knowable percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern human populations that confirms interbreeding.

The Russian samples he obtained focused on this Neanderthal DNA remnant and the mystery of Zana. Sykes has some curious ideas about what may be going on there and continues to look into the origin of what may be an important find regarding Zana’s ancestry. In addition, he continued to work with famous mountaineer Reinold Messner on an expedition to find the yeti-bear (which was sadly postponed), a bear they think is different than the bear species already documented. The book makes no mention of the controversy and dispute his yeti-bear idea invoked.

Sykes also explores Bernard Heuvelmans’ archive of papers. While Sykes meets with many of those who collected samples he analyzed, his insights into Heuvelmans was probably the most interesting. As with Naish’s Hunting Monsters and other skeptical-minded assessments, Heuvelmans, the so called “father of cryptozoology,” does not come out smelling very sweet. Sykes is clear that Heuvelmans messed up plenty of times –  he was uncritical, careless in his pursuit, was constantly out of money, and ended up “clutching at straws” to legitimize his belief. Ivan Sanderson, his contemporary and sometimes collaborator, was a wreck in his own way, promoting adventurous monster stories in contrast to Heuvelmans’ need for scientific acceptance. The most riveting chapter in the book was the discussion of the relationship between these two. The Minnesota Iceman fiasco knocked out serious interest into cryptozoology for a while and put up a wall in their friendship as each blamed the other for how things went down. I get the impression Sykes intended to carry on Heuvelmans grand ideas, to do the job Bernard did not have the tools to do at the time. Sykes says at this point in his career he has more flexibility and ability to do as he wants. The book also shows the reader that having a good network of contacts and academic credentials is critical for gaining valuable insight and leads. But it also showed me the missteps that can occur if you don’t know the traps in the environment.

Sykes listened to all the stories from Bigfoot hunters. He eventually became invested in the story of the “Big Guy” living under a tree in a Washington park making knocks and growls to communicate. He visited the tree and heard it! He eventually admits to being too scared to visit the tree alone. He bought into the story that the Bigfoot was amorous towards the woman investigator. The story was so incredibly implausible and dramatic, I could not believe he took it seriously. Eventually, a park ranger had to reveal how the tree sounds were occurring. I heard “crickets”… if you know what I mean. It was embarrassing to read. Other examples include Sykes being fooled by fake journal articles, not noticing the eerie similarity of one of his sample collector’s tales to that of a scene from the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek, and that he reported two different but remarkably similar tales of a man being carried away in a sleeping bag to a family of bigfoots. Openness to any tale meant he did not dismiss the story of a guy who said Bigfoot landed against his car windshield and drooled all over it. Good money was spent on a sample result that came back as ‘cow’. Of course we already know that none of the North American samples showed anything anomalous, all definitively identifiable normal animals. (Justin Smeja’s bleeding baby bigfoot story didn’t pan out and readers got the explanation of the findings.) I found it odd that Sykes was wholly reliant on the physical DNA evidence in his quest but yet made an effort to listen to some outrageous stories without losing it. The best line in the book describes how the cryptozoologist sees evidence everywhere but he can’t:

“Everywhere we looked there were signs of sasquatch, if only you had the eyes to see them. Not being blessed with this facility, I clutched the evidence bag a little tighter.”

That, in a nutshell, is this book. That is the enigma. All belief, no bones.

I found something else in this book that was satisfying to me: a confirmation of the scientificalness of cryptozoologists. Sykes admits that they will talk about DNA findings but make egregious mistakes while doing so. They claim to be doing research and looking for proper scientific evidence “but no one had much of a clue how to go about it.” He notes the Ketchum study was fatally flawed and, though a good effort in obtaining samples, was ultimately a waste of this material and a lot of money as well as confusing to many hopeful participants. He writes a strange pseudo review letter for her paper, which I found weirdly out of place.

He was disappointed when Igor Burtsev in Russia considered it prejudiced that Ketchum’s results were not accepted, not understanding that it was crappy science that resulted in its rejection. Burtsev (and Bayanov) also only wanted a positive almasty DNA result released, not a negative one. (However, Burtsev’s hypothesis of the creature having supernatural powers means his stance is unfalsifiable.) The Russians did not translate to being scientifically credible. Sykes comes right out to say, “From what I have seen, Bigfootologists are not, on the whole, good researchers. They lack the necessary degree of self-criticism…” This is not news to me but it is good to hear a professional confirm it firsthand.

One insight I saw in this book is the essentialness of undertaking an interdisciplinary approach to cryptozoology. Sykes notes that today’s amateur cryptozoologists have “no chance of convincing the world of the validity of their claims on their own”. They needed a specialist like him for the DNA testing. But Sykes himself badly needed a anthropologist, a wildlife biologist, an anatomist or zoologist, folklorist, and probably a psychologist to set him straight in areas where he was way out of his knowledge zone. I contend that we aren’t dealing with a zoological enigma here, but a cultural one (or more than one) and this book strongly supports that claim. Various informed views should be consulted.

Sykes handed researchers a big letdown regarding their wing-and-a-prayer samples, but also provided a path forward for them. If there IS evidence out there, it can be collected and, if certified, convincing to the world. He expresses dismay that, previously, their precious samples were treated shabbily by other labs because they didn’t have monetary backing or it sounded ludicrous. They sure do give it a good try.

I can’t help but see this book as additional evidence that Bigfoot seekers are hopelessly romantic almost-zoologists. They will never find the creature they so desperately seek because I think it’s a dream, a cultural enigma, not a flesh and blood creature. I still hope someday that I’m proved wrong.

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Originally titled The Yeti Enigma, Sykes book was published in the UK as The Nature of the Beast and in the US as Bigfoot, Yeti and the Last Neanderthal. They should have stuck with the original title.
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5 thoughts on “Dreaming of DNA: Review of Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the last Neanderthal

  1. I’m going to comment on my own post because I didn’t know where to fit in the tidbit that Sykes was asked to test Rick Dyer’s “Hank” specimen but was not allowed. Hilarious!

  2. > “Everywhere we looked there were signs of sasquatch, if only you had the eyes to see them. Not being blessed with this facility, I clutched the evidence bag a little tighter.”

    Hilarious.

  3. Like Ufology, as I commented on Lance Moody’s blog ‘notaghost’, what really be-hooved me and taught me a lot more about the ‘craze’, was examining it through the words of the very first characters to stir the pot into public interest, which newer characters have carried the flag since then, and how the myth (including its earliest, most mentioned chapters) has evolved through this book or that and how foke-lore still sinks in to become a more common belief than it actually deserves to be, based on the evidence.

    Stay rational, all the best,
    Woody

  4. The folklore aspect was CERTAINLY not addressed in this book and it really should be. There isn’t much of that with regards to Bigfoot/cryptozoology, more so with UFOs and ghosts. But it’s heading that way.

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