Since I’ve been doing some writing on the topic, I figured it was only fair to properly frame the questions, and then make something of a position statement. To be very specific, the position I am addressing is the question:
“Do you believe in Bigfoot?”
The way I see it, there are two parts of this question that need to be properly defined before I can make a definitive statement. The first part has to do with the words “Believe in”. This one is a big deal for me. I’m really not into belief in things. This is not to say that I don’t hold beliefs at all, but rather I try not to take things on faith, or believe things that don’t have a certain minimum level of evidence. I certainly believe in things like certain causes and moral questions and that sort of thing. On the other hand, when it comes to subjects related to phenomena of the physical world, I try to keep my beliefs in the form of believing that something is true or not, based on the evidence.
So in this case, the answer to the question has to be “No”. In the same way that I don’t believe in deer, bear, cougar, trees, or any of the other stuff Bigfoot is supposed to live in and near. Is this a cop-out? Do I believe that all those other things exist? Sure. There is plenty of evidence to support the notion that they are real, physical things. So if we were to rephrase the original question into these terms, we might get:
“Do you believe that Bigfoot exists?”
This still isn’t really the best way to frame the question, but we’re close enough that I can give a clear answer:
“Of course Bigfoot exists!”.
Here’s what I mean: By way of analogy, let me ask a similar question:
“Does Star Wars exist?”
Clearly the answer is “Yes, there is a thing known generally as Star Wars“. Star Wars, to be more specific, is a series of movies, books, toys and many other things that create a world that most of us, at least in the US, are familiar with, at least in passing. To say that nothing called “Star Wars” exists would be a difficult position to defend, especially as Disney has just purchased Lucasfilm, and has promised more movies.
Saying that something called Star Wars exists is not the same thing as saying that the characters and the spaceships from Star Wars exist. Star Wars has always represented itself as a work of science fiction, and I am unaware of anyone who is making the claim that George Lucas is actually a prophet or a medium, and describes an actual world that existed a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. So I think we can safely conclude that Star Wars does in fact exist, even if it is made up of elements that do not.
Okay so with that in mind, back to Bigfoot:
To say that Bigfoot does not exist is just as strange as saying that Star Wars doesn’t exist. Millions of people know about Bigfoot to at least some extent, and the creatures have certainly gotten more covers on the Weekly World News than just about any other animal out there. I haven’t done this, but I’ll wager that if you stopped a hundred people on the street, and asked them what they’d ever heard about something called “Bigfoot”, probably 95 or more of them would have at least some idea of what you are talking about.
Just like Star Wars, I think we can state that there is a thing called “Bigfoot”, and we all have a similar idea of what it is, and we can talk about it, and ascribe properties to it. Of course, this does NOT necessarily mean that Bigfoot exists In the physical world. So with this in mind, I propose that the proper form of the question should be:
“What is Bigfoot?”
Broadly, I see the answer to this version of the question as being one or more of three general possibilities. Specifically:
1) Bigfoot is an animal.
2) Bigfoot is a hoax.
3) Bigfoot is a social and/or psychological phenomenon.
The first possibility, of course, is the most controversial and, if true, certainly the most interesting. The latter two, of course, are interesting in their own right for a number of reasons, and there is nothing at all about any of these possibilities that excludes any of the others. There have certainly been examples of hoaxes, and also cases of pareidolia, mistaken identity, wishful thinking, and just plain hallucination. Neither of these two possibilities precludes the other, and nothing about either one, separately or together necessarily excludes the first.
I think it is worth taking some time to briefly examine each possibility.
1) Bigfoot is an animal.
This is what I think most people are talking about when they talk about “Believing in Bigfoot”. Researchers and historians with an interest in the subject have pointed to stories told by European settlers from as far back as the early nineteenth century. One of the most popular and well-known reports was first published in a collection of stories told to none other than Theodore Roosevelt, and is thought to have occurred in the mid 1850’s. Native legends from Bigfoot’s alleged stomping grounds are thought to go back centuries . These older accounts, in common with more contemporary stories, all describe a large hair-covered creature, shaped generally like a large human, but with a number of ape-like qualities. The creature is graceful, stealthy, shy, and extremely elusive.
The common perception that Bigfoot is a single individual is not one that is taken seriously by most who support the animal hypothesis. Most researchers hold the position that Bigfoot are simply a species of primate which has yet to be formally classified. They are generally seen in remote areas of dense forest, although they have occasionally been encountered in outlying areas of small human settlements. Some have claimed they possess psychic or supernatural powers, while others have described them in much more down-to-earth terms.
There are a number of questions that this description raises: How could such a creature have remained unverified for so long? What does it eat? Where are the bones? Why no type specimen (body)?
There are a number of explanations and answers for these questions, and I must say, some are more plausible than others. On the pro side, there is a lot of dense forest in the western US, and a lot of potential habitat for a large omnivore.
One advantage that the animal hypothesis does enjoy, of course, is the simple logical truth that if only one sighting, one track, or any other single piece of evidence is authentic, then the animal hypothesis is correct. Conversely, if it is not correct, then every single piece of data or evidence, every sighting, every track, and every single story must be explained by one of the other two possibilities. On the other hand, the truth of the animal hypothesis does not in the least require the falsification of either of the other two possibilities.
If Bigfoot is in fact an animal, the most prevalent hypothesis as to it’s place in the tree of life would have to be the suggestion, first put forth by Dr. Grover Krantz, that modern day sasquatches are in fact descendants of Gigantopithecus Blacki. Gigantopithecus was a gigantic ape that existed in China, India and Vietnam as recently as 100,000 years ago. It stood a full three meters (9.8 feet) tall. The hypothesis is that some of these apes survived, perhaps crossing the Aleutian land bridge into North America along with early humans, and adapted to survive in the conditions of their new environment.
2) Bigfoot is a hoax.
There is very little controversy on this one. Even the most ardent supporter of the animal hypothesis has to admit that people from time to time have played some pranks, with varying degrees of sophistication and success. Over the years, a number of people have gained fame or notoriety for their hoaxing activity, and at times, the hoaxes have been quite creative and ingenious. Of course, if the hoax turns out to be the only explanation, that would be almost as interesting as the animal hypothesis!
3) Bigfoot is a social and/or psychological phenomenon.
I think this one has a lot going for it. The “Wild Man”, or the hairy guy in the woods is an extremely common mythological archetype which occurs in just about every part of the world. Wherever there are people, there are wild men. Regardless of whether a culture exists in the woods, the mountains, the desert or the plains, the wild man is there. This is actually a real problem for the animal hypothesis, as the only animal that has a global distribution is – you guessed it – human beings. Of course, the only reason why we have such a distribution is that we are mobile, can build shelter against nearly any environment, and can use tools and technology to adapt to changing conditions. Most other plants and animals can’t do that, so they live where they fit in. There is little reason to suspect that a Bigfoot would be able to do any of these things. So one possible solution is that Bigfoots exist because we created them. Maybe somewhere deep within our minds, in the oldest parts of our brains, there is something useful about keeping the idea of such a creature around. In his excellent book Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, author Joshua Blu Buhs makes an intriguing argument that Bigfoot represents some part of our culture that we left behind somewhere around the 1950’s and 60’s. This was a time when the roles of men and women changed, as well as our society’s shift from self-sufficiency, where families would cut their own firewood and make their own food, to a consumerist world where “keeping up with the Joneses” meant going to the store and buying what you needed and wanted. Blu Buhs makes the case that Bigfoot represented the old freedoms, the old masculinity, and the romance of a world that was rapidly disappearing. It’s a great read, and offers something of a reality check for anyone interested in the topic.
The final part of this option is simply that of our senses being fooled, and our minds struggling to arrange our raw perceptions into something coherent. As I have written elsewhere, the forests in northern California are rife with moving shadows, dense woods, and plenty of opportunities to see things that aren’t actually there. The phenomenon of pareidolia, which is the process by which our minds sometimes arrange sensory data into familiar patterns is a prime example of this. Pareidolia is the process that causes us to see, for example dragons in clouds or the Man in the Moon. Add this to an environment where much more mundane animals are moving around and living their lives, and it’s easy to see that there are countless opportunities for misidentification and misperception. These effects almost certainly account for a good portion of the stories that are out there.
Are you going to answer the question or not?
So, what is my “Official” position on the Sasquatch/Bigfoot question? My examination of the available evidence leads me to believe that the latter two explanations are certainly correct. Am I willing to completely reject the animal hypothesis?
Well, actually… Not Really, but I am also not ready to completely accept it.
I do not think that the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and Western Canada are incapable of supporting, and even hiding a large animal, even one as large as the Sasquatch. As an example, it has been widely believed that the last Grizzly Bear in the Northern Cascade mountains was killed nearly fifty years ago, and yet on rare occasions, a hiker will claim to have encountered one, and even less commonly, photographed one. Could it be that there is actually a population of large omnivores that, despite being known and verified, have managed to escape active detection efforts for half a century? If so, is it really that much of a stretch to assume that an animal that is probably more intelligent than a bear, and more directly interested in eluding contact with humans could be living in the woods as well? Is it really that outlandish to think that there might be a great ape living in North America?
Of course, it may actually turn out that there are no leftover Grizzlies in the Northwest, and that it may indeed be too much of a stretch to think that the forests could support such a large animal. Meantime, though, I’m going to be taking advantage of the opportunity to teach my daughter about critical thinking and perceptual illusions, about the value of myth and folklore, and hopefully instill a love of the outdoors and a sense of wonder at Nature’s many and varied forms. So although my mind and my eyes will be wide open, and I’ll be viewing every bit of evidence with extreme skepticism and a critical eye, for now, I’ll keep on Squatchin’!