essay and resources
University Studies Open Forum
28 January 1993
with occasional updates appended
ZOOLOGICAL HOAXES AS CATALYSTS FOR CRITICAL INQUIRY
“A hoax is a kind of hypothesis”
The pedagogical mission of zoologists at a research university is to impart an understanding and appreciation for animal biology to students and to prepare some of them for careers in medicine, research, and other areas of applied and pure animal science. All aspects and levels of organization are included, from the machinations of the cells to the place of an animal in its ecosystem. But to both consolidate their understanding of the great concepts and to train our students beyond the dogmas of a fixed textbook in a changing world they must have a sense that transcends the technocratic. They must have a continuing sense of critical inquiry.
“If a man shall begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” (Francis Bacon Adv Learning, I,8 1605)
BUT NOT ALL DOUBTS ARE CREATED EQUAL!
For example, this extraordinary creature! It is unlike others in our textbooks of anatomy, and physiology, and surely its evolutionary history, development, and ecology must represent some boundary condition. I’ve heard about this beast all my life and it does possess a nagging plausibility, but it is, after all, rather improbable.
BUT the determination of more or less probability is at the very center of the scientist’s mission. Scientists never say never. Actually, scientists probably never say never. And really..
IS THE CENTAUR more improbable than the kraken? –a Viking sea monster myth until the 1830’s when a 29 ton, 35 foot long squid was found washed up on a Newfoundland beach.
Or the giant monkey that pounded its chest when aroused, as described by the Phoenician navigator, Hanno. This was a carelessly observed chimp according to Darwin’s colleagues until du Chaillu shot one in Equatorial Africa in 1856.
Or The Komodo dragon of Indonesia, with its toxic (septic) saliva, dining on bulls; or the giant panda of China, the pygmy hippopotamus, and the coelacanth of the Indian Ocean (found in 1953); all once regarded as highly improbable.
Or the beautiful hoofed quadruped with a single pointed horn emerging from its forehead, found by Marco Polo to be in reality, squat, smelly, and possessed of squalid habits- its horn was even on its nose rather than its forehead– today we call it rhinoceros
Or the discovery of a fish extinct for 70 million years at a fisherman’s market? — The Coelacanth (note)
AS yet unsettled is the true nature of the creature seen at the high mountain pass of Lhakpa La in 1921 by Lt Col Howard-Bury. He failed to be the first man to conquer Everest, but he (and his Sherpa guides) did see a large dark hominid shape loping over the expanse. He didn’t think it as extraordinary as did a reporter for the Calcutta Statesman who heard about the observation 5 weeks later. The reporter found it was quite familiar to the Sherpas, who called it metoh (disgusting) kang-mi (snowman). Within a few years the “Abominable Snowman” was a household word.
Or what of the aquatic creature seen near a highway worksite in the Scottish Highlands by an Automobile Association inspector and some road workers in 1933. First they observed curious ripples and then the partial emergence of some sort of large animal from the waters of Loch Ness.
These are some extraordinary observations, and I want my students to be aware, as Wm James (1909) said, that
“…. Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to.”
Animals –the existence of which is a more-or-less plausible hypothesis (thought by many to be hoaxes) and good hoaxes themselves function in similar ways to compel us to pay attention.
Whether a sincere conviction in the reality of an improbable or heretofore unknown creature or a playfully erudite essay in the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (my favorite is an essay on a self-limiting pathology entitled “The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood”), or a highly technical monograph working up the many zoological details of the now extinct bird of the Gobi desert, Eoornis, a species the principal physical evidence for which is a totemic hood ornament. In all cases, these presentations engender an attitude that is, I think, sorely missed and sorely needed.
Fleetingly glimpsed creatures are the half-truths of biology that challenge us in the same way as hoaxes. Whether they are manipulating and exploiting our fascination with the improbable for profit (National Inquirer), ideologically motivated lies, appeals for attention, or playful pranks, they all function the same way:
AND they share an essential common denominator the best art –they DEAUTOMATIZE us –they force us to take our perceptions off automatic pilot and pay attention.
Many implausible creatures attract those of us who need to have our skepticism or cynicism about the status quo validated by successful challenges. Some of us need to have our complacent worlds jiggled a bit (super market check-out aisle tabloids); others of us love puzzles about either unknown nature or unknown human nature; and for the cautious, such beasts invite carefully crafted hypotheses to set our minds to reviewing and critically evaluating long held, possibly cherished beliefs.
What more compelling consolidation of a student’s intellectual and creative control of theory could there be than to explore how the constraints of biology and science might be flexed to accommodate the unique needs of improbable or unexpected organisms.
Organized fantasy. Exceptions that test the rule.
I have two piles of papers near my desk: one is labeled “UNANSWERED QUESTIONS” and the other, “UNQUESTIONED ANSWERS.”
I WANT MY STUDENTS SKEPTICAL. BUT FURTHER, I want my students to recognize the difference between the reality of the natural phenomena they investigate and their meaning ! I do not believe that the medium is the message: Science is NOT a pile of facts and bones, it is the by-product of the true science– acts of critical inquiry, driven by imagination and reined in by logic, Our CENTAUR is implausible at one level, but inevitable at another. Salust said, “These things never were, but always are.”
MORE ON HOAXES:
———- Forwarded message ———-
by: BEAUVAIS LYONS, Director, HOKES ARCHIVES,
Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 00:07:50 -1000
From: Joey Skaggs <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: blyons <email@example.com>
Subject: The Final Curtain
Hope you enjoy these —
MUSEUM OF HOAXES
“Since Nov, 2002 the Museum of Hoaxes has existed both in virtual form (this website) and in ink-and-paper form (as a book). What’s the difference between the two? For the book I took all the best stuff from the website, polished it up, and added many more hoaxes that I’d purposefully been keeping up my sleeve. I designed the book to be a definitive guide to the most amusing, outrageous, and bizarre hoaxes ever perpetrated. The website, by contrast, now serves as the repository for all the overflow that didn’t fit in the book. So if you like the site, definitely try out the book. It’s easier on the eyes than a computer screen, you can keep it forever, and you can read it anywhere (on the bus, at the beach, or even in the bathroom).”
3/30/00: Adrienne Mayor points out that “The ancients frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, observed the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground. Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains. They displayed the big bones in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures; and they strove to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology. from (Mayor, http://hometown.aol.com/afmayor/myhomepage/index.html)
(note) 4/17/00: The coelacanth is a fish belonging to a group thought to have been extinct for at least 70 million years. But one was found in 1938. The story unfolds — see Axel Meyer’s book review of A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg in Science vol 288 7 April 2000 pp 61-62: [“Just before Christmas 1938, Majorie Courtney-Latimer, the curator at a small museum in East London, South Africa, found a strange-looking fish at the local docks. . . . The fish belonged to a group that was thought to have gone the way of the dinosaurs 70 million years ago. . . . [possibly] ancestral to the earliest terrestrial vertebrates.”
(link needs repair)