Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Review of The First Chapter of Abominable Science!

In July 2013, a book called Abominable Science! was released. Written by prominent skeptics Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero, it contained a critical treatment of cryptozoology. Several cryptids, including the Loch Ness Monster, Sea Serpents, Mokele-Mbembe, Bigfoot, and the Yeti were examined.
After the book was published, the authors challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and respond to it. On the SkepticBlog website, the authors pointed out that several cryptozoologists wrote one-star reviews on Amazon that apparently focused on insignificant details, while failing to address the wider issues raised by the book.
Well, call me crazy, but I have decided to take on the authors' challenge. I am going to give an honest, judicial review of Abominable Science! Before I start my review, I feel compelled to note that I did not read the entire book; I only read the introduction and the first chapter. So, since it would be dishonest of me to review the portions that I haven't read yet, I am only going to review those two parts.

The introduction, "Show Me The Body", was written by Michael Shermer. It stated that the discovery of new species is plausible, but a body is required to prove their existence. I had no problem at all with the introduction; in fact, I completely agree with it.

The first chapter, however, is a very different story. I detected many significant flaws in it. First of all, the authors noted that cryptozoology is not accepted by the scientific community, and then proceeded to list some exceptions: Roy Mackal, Darren Naish, Jeff Meldrum, etc. The entire premise struck me as flawed; it doesn't really matter whether or not something is accepted by the majority of the scientific community. Using the scientific community's approval to determine whether a field is acceptable or not is appealing to authority, which is a logical fallacy. It is also worth noting that several ideas, such as plate tectonics and the existence of meteorites, were not accepted by the scientific community in the past, but are common knowledge now. Now, I am not saying that cryptozoology is destined to become widely-accepted in the future; I'm just using these two examples to show that the appeal to authority is fatally flawed.

The authors then discuss discovery curves in large marine animals, and cite a study by Woodley, Naish, and Shanahan that estimated the number of pinnipeds remaining to be discovered. They stated that, while the authors initially estimated a relatively high number of around 47 or so, they later retracted their estimates, and found that only a few species of pinnipeds remain to be discovered. While this is true, it is also worth noting that at least one of the authors of the study actually used this argument to support cryptozoology! 
On Darren Naish's blog, Tetrapod Zoology, he stated that there might perhaps be one or two pinniped species remaining to be discovered, and that this -- surprisingly -- matched up with the cryptozoological literature on "Sea Serpents", which predicted that only one or two long-necked "Sea Serpent" species existed. (I am aware that Naish has now changed his opinion, but he supported it at the time that he participated in this particular study). So at least one of the authors felt that this study actually supported cryptozoology.
So Abominable Science! apparently took this particular study out of context, and used it against cryptozoology.

Another thing that caught my attention was when the authors claimed that the discovery of cryptids is implausible because all of the recently-discovered large species are similar to known species, are not radically different from most other animals, and are not very spectacular or striking. The authors claimed that the last spectacular, striking discoveries were the okapi, Komodo dragon, and mountain gorilla, and that these discoveries occurred more than 100 years ago, and in remote wilderness regions, not highly-populated regions like the Pacific Northwest and Loch Ness. They also point out that the aforementioned three creatures were eventually found and described, unlike cryptids such as Sasquatch and Nessie, which continue to elude detection after decades of searching.

I have to concede that the authors do bring up a good point here; it is true that the majority of undiscovered species are probably going to end up being similar to already-discovered ones. However, this does not preclude the existence of a few radical unknown species.

However, it is not true that the okapi, Komodo dragon, and mountain gorilla were the last large, spectacular discoveries. Since the 1990s, various large mammals have been discovered in Vu Quang, Vietnam. These include the Saola or Vu Quang Ox, discovered in 1992, and the Giant Muntjac, discovered in 1994. It is worth noting here that the Saola is actually a unique and specialized ungulate that displays characteristics of both antelopes and cattle. It is therefore placed in its own monotypic genus. Various other large, distinctive, and unusual mammals have also been reported from Vu Quang.
I also found it rather strange that the Komodo dragon was used as an example of an unusual, spectacular species outside the normal range of zoological diversity, while the Saola wasn't mentioned at all.
The dragon belongs to the genus Varanus, which numerous smaller lizards belong to, and all varanids are believed to be genetically very similar. Apart from size, the Komodo dragon isn't really unique at all.
Meanwhile, the Saola is so unique that it is classified in its own monotypic genus, and, as I said, it shares characteristics of both bovines and antelopes.
And it was discovered 80 years after the Komodo dragon.

In addition to the Vu Quang animals, there are also numerous other examples of substantially-sized animals that have been discovered recently. Since I can't possibly list them all here, I recommend that readers should peruse other resources for more information. The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, published by Dr. Karl Shuker in 2012, is an excellent book about this topic. It contains information about practically all of the large, spectacular species that have been discovered in recent years.

The time discrepancy of 100 years is somewhat of a red herring. As pointed out in an article on the Tetrapod Zoology blog, the vast majority of recently-discovered large mammals have been discovered using old-fashioned methods; in only a select few cases did modern technology play a significant role in their discovery. The same techniques that were used to discover large animals in the early 20th century are still being used today. It is true that the world's population has vastly increased over the past 100 years, but there is still plenty of unexplored wilderness left in the world. So the time difference doesn't even really matter as much as the authors think. But in any case, even if the time span did make a difference, we still have the various Vu Quang discoveries from the 1990s, as stated above.

In regard to cryptids inhabiting highly-populated regions, I should note that the amount of uninhabited wilderness in western North America is vastly underestimated by many people. I do agree that there probably isn't enough wilderness in the eastern half of North America, but the western half still provides plenty of wilderness for large animals to be able to successfully remain hidden.
And the Loch Ness example is also ineffective, simply due to the fact that the cryptids in Loch Ness, if they exist, do not have to inhabit the loch all the time. It is not necessary for an isolated breeding population to have existed in the loch for millennia. It is possible that individuals occasionally swim into the loch from the ocean, become trapped, and then spend the rest of their lives there. This could potentially apply to other reported lake cryptids, as well.

And finally, it should be noted that not all new species are discovered quickly and easily, and in fact, this is supported by historical precedent. The Giant Forest Hog, Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, was first sighted in Liberia in 1688, but was not officially proven to exist until two specimens were found in Kenya in 1904, a whopping 216 years after it was first sighted. For comparison, serious investigation of Sasquatch only began in the late 1950s (around 55 years ago), and serious investigation into Nessie sightings only began in the early 1930s (around 80 years ago).

In conclusion, Abominable Science! sounds like it had great intentions, but it was ultimately poorly executed. In any case, I applaud the authors for bothering to write an entire book on cryptozoology; no matter what their opinions of the field are, it is refreshing to see that scientists are actually bothering to take a look at the field, rather than just ignoring it. I was ultimately disappointed with the parts of the book that I read, but I still give the authors credit for trying, and they do raise some good points.
Therefore, if I had to rate the first chapter of the book on Amazon, I would probably give it 2.5 stars.

In the future, I might read other sections of the book, and review them on this blog accordingly.


  • Naish, Darren. (2009). Statistics, seals, and sea monsters in the technical literature. Tetrapod Zoology. Accessed September 4, 2014.
  • Eberhart, George M. (2002). Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc. Print.
  • Naish, Darren. (2009). Over 400 new mammal species have been named since 1993. Tetrapod Zoology. Accessed September 4, 2014.
  • Coleman, Loren and Clark, Jerome. (2012). Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature. New York, NY: Fireside. Print.

This illustration from the Woodley et al. analysis shows several crypto-pinnipeds nonchalantly swimming alongside a human diver.


  1. Thanks, hope to hear more in the future on this from you.

  2. BTW I'm curious; in the Bigfoot chapter, did the authors actually dissect any analyses of Roger Patterson's famous 1967 film undertaken in recent years by researchers in the fields of anthropology and special effects artistry from both sides of the argument, or did they just flag arguments from self-professed skeptics lime Greg Long without applying critical thinking to them, as Bill Munns (who has undertaken one of the most detailed analysis of Patterson's film yet) complained in his one-star amazon review?

    1. I haven't read the Bigfoot chapter yet, so unfortunately, I am afraid I cannot answer your question.
      I am aware that Heironymous's claims were supported, though.