Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lessons from Evolution

Hello, readers!

Most of my posts describe a specific cryptid-- but this time, I want to talk about cryptozoology in general.

It's been a couple weeks since I resumed updating this blog, and honestly, it's been a lot of fun.  I've added a few fearsome critters, described a few new cryptids, and improved the look of the site.  But making new content is only part of my mission here-- I also want to improve the old stuff.

A couple days ago, I started rewriting my shoddily-done 9th-grade posts.  It feels good to have proper entries on the Kongamato and Mokele-Mbembe, and even better to replace the old ones.  I've been doing my re-vamps in the order-- the oldest posts on this blog are the first to get updated.  And that means I'm following the pattern set by my younger self, and starting with Congolese dinosaur-cryptids.

I doubt any of you remember my original posts on these beasties, but they're drastically different than my new ones.  And I'm not just talking about writing quality.  In ninth grade, I was far more... I suppose the word is "optimistic."  I was eager to believe that dinosaurs still lived in Africa-- that the Congo was a mysterious lost world, where prehistoric beasts still lived.

My new posts show a very different tone-- not cynical, per se, but much more skeptical.  Rather than discussing the most popular theories, I discuss the most realistic ones.  Rather than being sensationalistic, I'm writing as factually as I can.  My ninth-grade self would be appalled at me, I'm sure, and would accuse me of being a non-believer.  But that couldn't be farther from the truth.  I'm as interested in cryptids as I've ever been-- and am convinced many of them are real creatures.  But I've changed my methods of cryptid analysis, largely due to my studies of evolutionary biology.

In my opinion, evolution is the most useful tool in a cryptozoologist's arsenal.  If you want to approach this field as a science-- and to predict, with accuracy, the identity of a cryptid-- then understanding some evolutionary concepts is essential.

One of the most important is geography.  Species don't pop into existence out of a void-- all of them have prehistoric ancestors from which they have, over time, developed.  Knowing the ancient wildlife of a region helps us guess what might live there today.  One good example is the Emela-Ntouka, a Congolese "dinosaur" cryptid.  Some people think it's a living ceratopsian.  But these dinosaurs never lived in Africa-- so how could one be found there today?

Here's another question, this one easily solved using geography:  which is more likely to exist, Bigfoot or the Yeti?  The latter, it turns out, is far more probable.  No ape has ever lived in North America, even in prehistoric times.  But the Yeti's range overlaps with that of Gigantopithecus-- a huge prehistoric orangutan of about the Yeti's size.  We know that apes once lived where the Yeti has been sighted-- which means that apes might be found there today.

A second evolutionary concept is habitat.  Every species on Earth is adapted to live in certain conditions.  To support a particular animal, a region must (1) contain enough food for it (2) contain the right types of food for it (3) be the right temperature (4) have places for it to live (5) etc.  Though it fails the geography test, Bigfoot certainly passes the habitat test.  There's plenty of open space in the Pacific Northwest, and lots of vegetation to be eaten.  Nessie, on the other hand, fails this test.  Plesiosaurs can't survive in frigid Scottish lakes, and even if they could, they would never find enough food there.

One final concept I'd like to bring up:  parsimony.  Basically, what this means is that the simpler, less-fantastical interpretation is likely correct.  Which is more probable:  that the Emela-Ntouka is a living dinosaur, or that it's an undiscovered rhinoceros?  I think we all know the answer to that one.

I promise, I'm not trying to take the fun out of cryptozoology.  Much of its appeal lies in its endless possibilities-- who knows what bizarre creatures could be out there!  But personally, I think imagining strange monsters is only part of the excitement.  Deciphering the truth behind legends is even more interesting.  I want to hear stories of monstrous creatures-- and then I want to know where those stories come from.  Science helps us find the fact in fiction-- and to solve the greatest mysteries on Earth.

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