Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by cryptozoology, the science (or pseudoscience) of studying unknown animals. As a child, I really wanted to believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and their many brethren. Alas, as the years rolled by and I actually started looking at the evidence for such creatures, I found myself becoming a skeptic.
I have sympathy for people who do believe in such creatures, however. First, there’s an issue of basic fairness. Cryptozoology has seen a few mythical beings actually come to light, most recently with giant squids finally being captured on film and proving the existence of the kraken. Other creatures were based on misinterpretations of actual evidence. Fossil elephant skulls were taken as proof of the existence of the Cyclops, for instance. Unfortunately for cryptozoologists, the deck is stacked. Whenever an unknown creature is finally proven to exist, it no longer belongs in the realm of cryptozoology. It’s merely zoology. Over time, all the mysterious creatures that actually do exist get claimed by science, and cryptozoologists are left with an increasingly dubious bestiary.
But I think cryptozoology has one interesting spin off that does fit into the realm of science. There’s something we can learn about how our brain works by looking at what’s perhaps the most universal and persistent superstar of cryptozoology, Bigfoot. While Bigfoot as a specific creature resides in the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous large hominids reported around the world in a variety of terrains. Swamps produce skunk apes, mountains produce yetis, and the previously mentioned Cyclops resided on a Mediterranean island. The Bible reports on the existence of giants. The notion that there’s big, wild man living somewhere in the nearby wilderness is something that a lot of people throughout the ages have been willing to believe in.
The easy answer to why so many people throughout history believe in these large hominids is that people are stupid. Some people let their imaginations run wild in barren lands and start jumping at their own shadows. They tell their stories to people who are insufficiently skeptical, and eventually a significant percentage of the population believes in beasts that simply do not exist. For a long time, I was satisfied with this easy answer.
Then I found out that dogs recognize other dogs and changed my mind.
You may be wondering what dogs have to do with Bigfoot. You may also be wondering why I would find it even vaguely interesting that dogs recognize other dogs. But, if you think about it, dogs have such variable body shapes that it’s difficult to define on a purely surface level exactly what a dog looks like. A pug looks nothing like a Doberman and a Chihuahua bears only the slightest resemblance to a Saint Bernard. Yet, when the pug sees a Saint Bernard, it somehow knows it’s a fellow dog. This makes sense if the dogs meet and can smell each other. However, the study I read about eliminated this by only showing the dogs pictures. The study dogs were shown two pictures at a time, one of a dog, one of a non-dog mammal. If they picked the picture of the dog, they got a treat. They got nothing if they picked a cat, horse, or goat. The dogs weren’t fooled by the non-dogs. Something in their brains seems to be hardwired to hone in on the defining features of a dog, whether it be a dachshund or a Great Dane.
The human mind likely possesses similar built in templates. Humans evolved in a world with numerous rival hominid species competing for the same habitat. Lions and tigers and bears were threats, but none were as dangerous to our survival as other large hominids. If one was in the neighborhood, spying at us from behind a tree or a rock, we had to be able to spot it fast or we might not live to pass on our genes. Our hominid spotting senses didn’t need to be too finely tuned to weed out false positives. If we mistook a shadowy tree trunk for a giant, hairy man and ran away, we’d live to tell our tribesmen about our close call. If we mistook a giant, hairy man for a tree trunk, we might not get to tell anyone.
It evolutionary years, it’s practically yesterday that we were sharing the planet with other large, tool-using hominids. We probably still have the built in templates for seeing these dangerous beasts out of the corner of our eye. Of course, all we get now are false hits. But I suspect that a fair number of Bigfoot sightings are honestly reported by sober people who actually saw something suspicious because our brains are on the lookout for something suspicious. The hunt for Bigfoot will probably never actually produce a Bigfoot, but I think it does provide us an interesting window into the lives of our early ancestors.