Natural History of Hidden Animals, The
By Bernard Heuvelmans, edited by Peter Gwynvay Hopkins
Published by Kegan Paul, 2007 - £69.95
My fundamental criticism of the present book is that it is a compilation of the writings of the late Bernard Heuvelmans, which lacks cohesion, and repeats much of what is already published in his earlier works, without really adding anything of consequence. And, unfortunately, as is so often the case with books of this nature, hanging on the coat-tails of science, its credibility is seriously undermined by sloppy research. Dr Maurice Burton (no relative of mine) is referred to as "an attaché of the Department of Natural Sciences of the British Museum" -- presumably a mis-translation of a "Staff Member of the British Museum (Natural History)" as it then was. It is stated that Frank Lane was born in 1902, with no d.o.d given, but his actual dates were 1908-1987. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited as having lived from 1552-1681 -- a truy remarkable feat if it were true, as he would have been headless for the last 63 years of that long life (he was beheaded in 1618). There are also lots of minor niggles, such as stating that the northern white rhino was discovered in 1900, when what should have been written was it was "first described scientifically in 1900". Normally this would not bother me, but it is fundamental to cryptozoology, that these animals were known before their scientific discovery, and description by zoologists.
Now for major criticisms. The price and the index. Nearly £70 for less than 150 pages, much of which has been previously published, cannot be considered value for money. And the index is rubbish. For a book of this sort, allegedly trying to deal with the subject scientifically it is pretty annoying to find most of the people mentioned, as well as many of the creatures are not in the index; and the sources of the illustrations are not given, and neither is there a bibliography -- surely an essential of a book if it is to be taken as serious science.
But to my mind, this book is based on a false premise: that crytozoology is a real subject. Most zoologists are only too ready to recognise that there are large numbers of species still awaiting description. But the so-called crytozoologists, all too often tend to create paper tigers, in order to justify their obsession with things like Loch Ness monsters, and the Surrey Puma. Cryptozology, according to editor Hopkins, "...is the scientific study of animal forms, the existence of which is based only on testimonial or circumstantial evidence, or material proof judged insufficient by some." And therein lies the paradox. How can it be a scientific study, if the data and evidence do not stand up to scientific scrutiny? The reality is, that in almost all cases, larger animals, if there is enough hearsay and circumstantial eveidence, sooner or later do get 'discovered' by scientists. And the majority of the recent discoveries of larger animals, were never the subject of research by crytozoologists. However, the latter then use the discovery of such large animals such as the Chaco Peccary, or the Kouprey as evidence that large animals can survive without being scientifically described. Other supporting evidence is claimed by Hopkins from the fact that new species such as the Bornean Clouded Leopard remained undescribed until recently -- but to a conventional zoologist this would come as no great surprise -- the species had in fact been known for well over 100 years -- it was simply that modern taxonomic changes suggest that it it is specifically different from the mainland, not just a subspecies. Scores of subspecies of primates and other mammals have thus been reclassified in recent years, largely because of DNA studies. But it does not mean that new species are being 'discovered'.
Perhaps I take a rather negative view of so-called cryptozoology -- but I do find much of it a rather pointless excercise. When there are so many animals that are already known, and known to be critically endangered, it does seem to me a waste of valuable resources to be worrying about animals that probably don't even exist.
Review by John Burton