Bigfoot Encounters

Seeing is believing, or is it? How scientific is 'Wildman' research? 
By Dr. Helmut Loofs-Wissowa

A surprising reappraisal has been taking place in human biology during the past few years. The border between what is "human" and what is "animal" is being subtly shifted to include in the human category the Great Apes (gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan, with all the moral and ethical implications inherent in such a shift. More modestly, we may see ourselves as being part of the Great Apes (see Dr. Colin Groves' talk on Occam 's Razor on 28 April, 1996) and perceive the Great Divide as being between the monkeys and us.

There is also talk about the possibility of a new species of humans walking the land, their DNA artificially altered, straight into the rosy-fingered dawn of yet another Brave New World.

And yet, while all this dramatic rethinking is going on, we do not even know the exact situation within our own genus Homo. We blindly persist in believing that we, Homo sapiens, are the only extant species within this genus. We are convinced, in spite of steadily growing evidence to the contrary, that we hold the monopoly of human-ness proper (never mind our closeness to the great apes), not unlike the conviction some centuries ago that the earth was the center of the Universe. And like Galileo, those who dare question this dogma find themselves in the impossible position of having to prove something that cannot be proved to those who do not want to know. In those times, such heretics were in danger of being burnt at the stake; at present they are branded, by the establishment, as being "unscientific". It is idle to speculate what hurts more: at the stake it was over in an hour or so, but the "unscientific" label may stick to you for many years if not for life.

The question thus is whether the search for still unknown non-sapiens hominids, usually called "Wildmen", has anything to do with science. There are by now thousands of reports of such Wildmen throughout the world: Abominable Snowmen or Yetis in the Himalayas, Yeren in China, Sasquatch or Bigfoot in North America, "Forestmen" in Indochina, and Yahoos, Yowies or Hairymen in Australia. There are also reports of such beings, under different names, from Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Pakistan, Mongolia, the Caucasus, various parts of Africa and even South America.

To dismiss all this as collective hallucination, the primitive need for the mythological or simply as archetypal legends common to all mankind will not do any more. Even though some of these explanations are the results of fairly recent profound thinking, they now appear like rear-guard attempts by some medieval Church authorities to explain away an irritating (because it does not fit into the orthodox world-view) natural phenomenon. That is precisely what the continuing existence of "Wildmen" is: there is no room for them.

The best way to solve the parking problem is to erect "no parking" signs everywhere, is it not? Same here: affirm that the Wildmen problem does not exist and it is ipso facto solved. To ridicule those who believe in their existence by saying that therefore they must also believe in UFOs does not help either, because these are two totally unrelated issues, separated by a huge gap on the probability scale and lumped together in the minds of some naive "skeptics" only because both are outside the rigid boundaries of conventional knowledge. No, we as academics owe it to our contemporaries to come to grips with this problem and solve it on a scientific basis. But how do we go about doing this?

Having recently returned from "Wildman" research in Laos with what I thought were very good results, I was accused of not being scientific enough by some of my colleagues, and even by a journalist. I therefore wish to justify myself; but this is done more in sorrow than in anger.

There seems to be a general agreement that the essence of the scientific method is the "validation of hypotheses by observation or experiments" (The Heritage Dictionary), to which should be added that this must be verifiable by others. The formulation of an hypothesis is thus to be seen as the first and foremost criterion for something to be "scientific".

My own hypothesis, based on many years of research, is that there still exist higher primate forms distinct from both the Pongidae and Homo sapiens, i.e. either still unknown bipedal pongids or non-sapiens hominids, in certain inaccessible parts of the Indochinese Peninsula and in particular in a well-defined spot in Central Laos near the border with Vietnam, from which I had reports of the existence of "gorillas" in the late 1960s. These reports came from Vietnamese, Laotian, American and Australian sources, checked and double-checked with regard to their authenticity and trustworthiness.

My "experiment" consisted in going there (which is far from easy), interviewing old people in remote villages and eventually recording first-hand information about powerfully built hairy manlike creatures which/who used to live in precisely the area I expected them to have been until it was bombed, defoliated and napalmed because the Ho Chi Minh Trail was going through it) which resulted in the destruction of the primary forest, their habitat. In order to pinpoint more closely their physical appearance, I had prepared a set of pictures to choose from: photographs and drawings of the Great Apes, reconstitution drawings or paintings of some prehistoric hominids such as "Java Man" and the reconstitution drawing, after the original photographs, of the famous "Minnesota Iceman", identified by one of the foremost zoologists of our time, (the late) Dr Bernard Heuvelmans of Paris, as being a relic Neanderthal originating very probably from Vietnam. It was to this latter picture, drawn by Heuvelmans' ex-wife Alika Lindbergh that everybody pointed without the slightest hesitation as being the best representation of the creatures they had seen.

My original hypothesis has been validated inasmuch as there are irrefutable indications for the existence at least into the recent past, if not into the present, of obviously non-sapiens hominids, almost certainly of the relic Neanderthal type, in the area I hypothesized them to be. This can be verified by whoever is game enough to repeat my experiment! This research has been conducted strictly according to the rules and should therefore qualify for the coveted label "scientific".

Not so, say certain skeptics or "mainstream" anthropologists, palaeontologist, human biologists or whatever: where is the proof? We want to be convinced! The counter-argument is "this cannot be: non-sapiens hominids cannot exist any more because they are extinct, as we all know"; end of conversation.

There is thus either no initial hypothesis at all (ignore the problem and it ceases to exist), which is certainly not "scientific", or the hypothesis is that such creatures do not and cannot exist, which is impossible to prove by any experiment or observation, the less so if one keeps in mind the dictum that "the absence of evidence is no evidence for absence".

Back to the demand of proof by those who must be convinced. Unfortunately, "proof" and "evidence" are never a matter of simply yes or no; there are grades and shades. There is "no proof", "hardly any proof', "proof", "good proof' and "ironclad proof". As to evidence, it can be "not a skerrick of evidence,, "some evidence", "evidence" and, if you are lucky, "hard evidence". But the degree of hardness is always determined by the receiver of the evidence, not the giver of
it (perhaps we should call them now the "evidencer" versus the "evidencee"). If the evidencee just does not want to be convinced, there is little the evidencer can do except for breaking some crockery or hitting a punch-bag to relieve his/her frustration. The decision of what is "convincing" and what is not is entirely in the hands - or rather the minds-of the custodians of "science as we know it."

Obviously, these custodians know more of the theoretical framework of evolution and of palaeontology than the illiterate peasant in the Lao-Vietnam border region. And yet, when it comes to observing the jungle around them, the latter, free from preconceived ideas, is by far the more reliable provider of evidence than the former. The jungle is the testing ground for theories, not the study of the armchair academic. However, as proof, the testimonial of the Laotian montagnard (or Nepalese sherpa or Chinese peasant), faithfully transmitted by the researcher, is usually considered to be insufficient, although all workers in the field know of the fundamental honesty of indigenous people towards strangers (Margaret Mead and her informants not withstanding! ). I cannot help smelling the nauseating odor of racism here. What, then, would really convince these unscientific skeptics? The first answer to this question, usually accompanied by an arrogant smirk, is: I believe it when I see it! But if ever they were really to see the object of their disbelief, e.g. a Wildman in up-country Laos, they would in turn not be believed upon their return home! They would themselves see the smirk on the faces of their interlocutors and would have enormous and well-deserved trouble in trying to convince them. "Seeing is believing" only works for the individual and cannot be used as proof or evidence for those who do not want to be convinced.

The next step normally is "Wanted: one wildman, dead or alive". Thus runs the revealing title of the rather negative review of Myra Shackley's book Wildmen by a well-known British human biologist in New Scientist, August 1983. Revealing, because it shows the unyielding attitude of the establishment in the face of over-whelming evidence gathered by an intrepid, although fallible, scholar by simply demanding the impossible. It is physically and materially impossible for any one scholar working in the field to produce a living, fierce, growling and biting six-foot Wildman from Outer Mongolia (or for that matter from Central Laos), or even its/his decomposing body, like a rabbit out of a hat, for the benefit of an incredulous armchair colleague in London. It is also ethically impossible. And here we come to the crux of the matter.

Unlike cryptozoological research for other animals like the Tasmanian Tiger, that for Wildmen is really anthropological research (i.e. the search for unknown human beings) and must therefore be conducted according to the ethical principles and scientific rules of anthropology rather than of zoology or palaeontology. If there is now the tendency, among more enlightened primatologists and other scholars, to view the Great Apes as being entitled to the same protection as humans (right to life, protection of individual liberty and prohibition of torture), why should this not be so for still unknown hominoids and especially non-sapiens hominids? The latter are clearly man and should automatically enjoy the rights thereof, regardless of whether these rights will eventually also be accorded to the Great Apes.

In practical terms this means that in no circumstances (except in self-defense) is a researcher allowed to kill the object of his/her research in order to get possession of it as ironclad proof of its existence. Even the hunting, subduing, stunning or capturing of a Wildman cannot be permissible because it would deprive this creature of its liberty and would probably even involve some form of torture. What if, for argument's sake, a hitherto unknown tribe was discovered tomorrow in a remote valley in Irian Jaya: could any western scholar, sitting in his armchair, say "get me one of those blokes dead or alive or else I am not convinced of their existence"? Certainly not; he would either have to go to the remote valley to see for himself or he would have to be content with the description provided by the anthropologist in the field without this being less scientific.

Anthropological research has been done in this way ever since it began and it developed into a fully fledged science without there ever having been this arrogant demand for "proof" by those who stayed at home.

One last-ditch argument by the skeptics often is that even though you are not supposed to kill a Wildman, there must be lots of bodies or skeletons of them around there where you claim they live: why can you not bring home a skull or at least some bones to convince us? So: must there? How many bodies or skeletons of the Great Apes were found before their existence became known through eye-witness accounts?

At the very least, we want something tangible beyond mere hearsay, such as footprints, tufts of hair, faeces, sound recordings or photographs, as if any of these was in itself more trustworthy and unequivocal than the testimonial of honest, observant and unbiased - if uneducated -"natives". On the contrary: every single such item has again and again been dismissed by those who do not want to be convinced. Footprints must be those of a bear or are dilated by weathering, tufts of hair could be from any odd beast, same for faeces, sound recordings are probably fakes and photographs are vague, not in focus, too dark and probably fakes, too. To which the researcher could add that even the best photograph cannot answer better than a faithful eye-, ear- or nose-witness account certain questions regarding the exact taxon of the observed creature, its gait, habits, movements, reactions, smell, etc., thus everything that transforms it from a theoretical into a real human being.

The more one deals with these matters, the more one is struck by the close similarities and yet paradoxical differences between what is going on in a court of justice and in the corridors of what masquerades as science.

There are a number of expressions in the legal vocabulary which science, and in particular that dealing with human beings, could do better than ignore, such as "balance of probabilities", "onus of proof" "beyond reasonable doubt", and above all the admirable Anglo-Saxon maxim of "innocent until proven guilty" which is constantly contravened by skeptics for the sake of scientific objectivity. A person "claiming" to have seen a Wildman is automatically presumed to be guilty of lying (because Wildmen cannot exist!) unless he can "prove" the existence of Wildmen by some other means and thus his innocence to the satisfaction of the one who accuses him of lying! What a charade! This kind of "science" clearly has reached its use-by date and should be taken off the shelves immediately. Time has come in Wildman research to shift the onus of proof squarely on to the skeptics and to realize that beyond a certain point doubt is not only not any more reasonable but also a positive (or should one say negative?) hindrance to the advancement of real science.

This is the more urgent as all still insufficiently known relic hominoids are endangered species and they may disappear before they have been officially "discovered".

This would certainly not be to the greater glory of the scientific establishment at the turn of the millennium. At fault is not the scientific method as such, which has been adhered to scrupulously by most researchers in this field, what is at fault is the one-sided and short-sighted interpretation of what is thought by "mainstream" researchers to be the essence of this method: its thrust.

The scientific method aims at finding out, not keeping out. Long live the scientific method!
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Dr Helmut Loofs-Wissowa, a trained anthropologist, is retired Reader in Asian History and now a Visiting Fellow at the Southeast Asia Centre, Faculty of Asian Studies, ANU. Dr. Loofs-Wissowa's work is covered in the Japanese television film on "Wildman" research, among other topics. The film is in Japanese.

Source ANU Reporter 27(12): 4.

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