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‘The Natural History of Hidden Animals’ — Justin Mullis reviews the granddaddy of cryptozoology books

One of the enterprise’s defining texts is now available in paperback.

Bernard Heuvelmans was a Belgian-French zoologist who earned his doctorate in 1939 from the Free University of Brussels for his work on aardvark dentition. But he’s best remembered as one of the founders of the contested “science” of cryptozoology, the adherents of which hunt for such legendary creatures as the yeti, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

Despite his status, much of Heuvelmans’ writing on the subject of the “study of hidden animals” (the literal translation of “cryptozoology”) is now rather difficult to come by. Most of his six books on cryptozoology are currently out of print, untranslated, or affixed with hefty price tags, whether new or used. The lattermost category also includes what is by far Heuvelmans’ shortest book, the posthumously published The Natural History of Hidden Animals (Routledge, 2007), which runs a mere 145 pages and, as of 2017, is now available in paperback.

Complaints about the price aside, Natural History remains an invaluable work for anyone interested in Heuvelmans’ views regarding cryptozoology. Essentially a reprinting of several of Heuvelmans’ International Society of Cryptozoology journal articles — which, like his books, are now painfully obscure — this collection, edited by Peter Gwynvay Hopkins, provides unparalleled insight into how the “Father of Cryptozoology” conceptualized the field and its place in the history of the natural sciences.

Profusely illustrated, Natural History is broken into six chapters, beginning with a discussion of the benefits which cryptozoology can provide for conservationists (Chapter 1), a lengthy exploration of what “cryptids” are (Chapters 2-4), followed by where they supposedly live (Chapter 5, “There Are Lost Worlds Everywhere”, largely self-explanatory), before ending with a historical overview of cryptozoology and finally Heuvelmans’ definition of the discipline — all of which strikes one as a rather backward way to go about things.

Taken as a whole, Heuvelmans’ vision of cryptozoology is that of a primarily archival and ethnographical research pursuit. Cryptozoologists don’t concern themselves with “blind sampling, exploratory tests or processes of control,” for these “are only routine zoological tasks.” But neither should they preoccupy themselves with “trekking through the Himalayas … diving in Loch Ness … track[ing] Bigfoot through the forested western mountains … [or] paddling or wading through oppressive tropical swamps in search of dinosaurs,” either, no matter how much “fun” such pursuits may be (p. 141-42).

No, cryptozoology, Heuvelmans says, is all about collating existing lore on mythical creatures and using one’s scientific intuition to distill what kind of real animal might be at the root of the legend. For Heuvelmans, cryptids are the monsters of our mythologies and folktales. Wild men to sea serpents, dragons and fairies, even werewolves and vampires, all fall under Heuvelmans’ Euhemerist hermeneutic, in which he argues that such creatures cannot be wholly invented since “the imagination is strictly limited,” and can only extrapolate based on what it sees in the world around it. Ergo, there must be a grain of truth — actual animals — behind all these monster tales.

Because of this, Heuvelmans writes that cryptozoologists are not interested in diminutive and mundane unknown animals — new species of insects or fish, small birds or mammals — but rather in those creatures that are “paradoxical, unexpected, striking, emotion-generating, and thus susceptible to mythification” (p. 33). Elsewhere Heuvelmans says that “vertebrata should above all be the focus of attention to the cryptozoologist” (p. 43), and that many cryptids may be “living fossils,” animals long thought extinct but actually still alive today (Chapter 4).

The goal of the cryptozoologist, then, is to deduce what real animal might actually be the source of a particular folktale or legend by dispelling the fog of myth which obfuscates them from science’s penetrating gaze. In Heuvelmans’ own words, “The ambitious aim of cryptozoology is to succeed in describing an animal scientifically before having had to capture it or kill it,” assuming that one ever does (p. 142). Considering the importance of Linnaean type specimens to modern zoology, Heuvelmans’ declaration that cryptozoology should, in essence, be zoology without bodies, marks it as a decidedly antiquated pursuit.

Heuvelmans himself notes in Hidden Animals‘ final chapter, which might be the book’s most interesting and provocative, “The Birth and Early History of Cryptozoology,” that this was once standard practice for “zoologists of the 16th and 17th centuries … to admit into their catalogues … the most fantastic creatures – like the unicorn and the satyr, the mermaid and the sea-serpent, the dragon and the basilisk, the phoenix and the roc-bird … even if its mummified or pickled remains – shell, skin, skull or skeleton – were not present in the latest cabinets of curiosities or newly emerging museums”(p. 96).

Unfortunately for him, the 19th century saw the emergence of what Heuvelmans dubs a kind of scientific authoritarianism, typified by such men as George Cuvier, Sir Richard Owen, Rudolf Virchow, and, in the 20th century, George Gaylord Simpson, who did not tolerate such zoological romanticism.

Although there were hold outs. Geologist Charles Gould’s “outstanding book Mythical Monsters” argued not only for the reality of dragons, sea serpents, unicorns, and the phoenix, but also Noah’s flood (p. 106). Swedish ethnologist Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius quixotically quested for the serpentine lindorm of the Alps, and insisted on the literal existence of trolls (p. 120 & 125).

To Heuvelmans, these conjectures and exploits mark them as true men of science, displaying a commendable combination of “open mindedness,” unflagging optimism, and the willingness to dream big. The methodology of one of Heuvelmans’ personal heroes, Dutch zoologist A.C. Oudemans, which led him to deduce that sea-serpents were actually giant, long-necked seals, anticipated and informed Heuvelmans’ own approach to discerning the truth behind tales of fantastic beasts (p. 119).

Sometimes, weird animals are real!

Needless to say, the aims and activities of cryptozoology as defined by Heuvelmans cannot really be regarded as scientific in anything resembling the modern conception of the term. As paleobiologist Darren Naish and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen noted in their Cryptozoologicon Vol. 1 (2013), it somewhat resembles the exercise of “speculative zoology,” best embodied in the work of geologist Dougal Dixon, in which one conjures up what shapes terrestrial animals might take in the future, or would have taken in the past had certain events, like the mass-extinction of the dinosaurs, not occurred.

While these parallels are valid, it strikes me that an even more precise description is what cultural critics Roger Grimshaw and Paul Lester called “the scientification of folklore,” in which the idiosyncratic beliefs of common folk are effectively streamlined and retrofitted with the trappings of, in the case of monsters, the bourgeois ideals of post-Linnaean zoological categorization and classification. It’s a process which works to make the belief in monsters, if not truly acceptable, then at least more palatable in an age dominated by the paradigm of scientific consensus.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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