by Jay Johansen | May 17, 2020
I don't know if there's really such a creature as Bigfoot. I doubt it, but I haven't studied the question deeply or seriously reviewed the evidence or lack thereof. Because I don't care enough to bother.
And that leads me to a question that really puzzles me. Why do so many people get so excited about it?
The claim boils down to: There is an ape-like creature roaming the Pacific Northwest and showing up now and then elsewhere, that has never been captured and never cataloged by scientists.
It's certainly not startling to say that there are creatures in the world "unknown to science". Scientists have cataloged about 2 million species. Estimates of the number of uncataloged species remaining in the world range from a few percent more to 30 million. By the way, it's not really surprising that the estimates vary so widely. How do you give a count of the number of things in the world that have never been counted?
New species are discovered all the time and no one besides the specialists thinks much of it. If someone said that he believes that there is a kind of frog in the swamps of Louisianna that is unknown to science, I doubt anyone would be very excited. Maybe a few biologists who specialize in studying frogs would consider this breathlessly exciting, but there wouldn't be endless TV documentaries about it and amateur "frog hunters" spending their lives earching for it and books about it and so on. If I read on the Internet tomorrow that someone claimed to have discovered a new species of frog, I'm sure I'd promptly scroll down to something more interesting.
Well, I thought, maybe it's because the idea of such a large creature going uncataloged is mysterious. Sure, a frog or a bug might escape notice, but something bigger than a man is harder to hide. But still, suppose someone said there was a previously unknown horse-like creature. I suspect that would get more attention than a frog, but would that stir the kind of excitement that Bigfoot does? I don't think so.
No, it must be because the creature is claimed to be ape-like, indeed, sort of kind of human-like. But still I think, So what?
Lest you wonder, of the 2 million known species, about a million are microscopic and most of the rest are insects, arachnids, and other bugs. Depending on what sources you consult, there may be something like 5,000 mammals, 10,000 reptiles, 10,000 birds, 15,000 amphibians, and 40,000 fish.
Some of the arguments I've read for why there must be very large numbers of unknown species seem to me to demonstrate serious ignorance of mathematics and common sense. Like I read an article by a scientist who had studied one tree in the Amazon rain forest and found several previously unknown species of mushrooms and bugs on it. I forget the exact number -- I don't have the article any more -- but say 10. He then said that there are estimated to be 300 billion trees in the Amazon rainforest, so if you multiply 10 new species per tree by 300 billion trees, there must be 3 trillion unknown species in the Amazon alone! Well, but, umm, no. The creatures found on each new tree you studied would quickly start to overlap those previously discovered. Maybe each of the first few trees would each yield 10 new species. But that number would quickly fall as you started rediscovering the same species over and over.
Indeed, some scientists say that the 2 million known figure is inflated. In any list of 2 million things, there are bound to be some accidental duplicates. It's pretty tough to keep such a list clean. I used to manage the mailing list for a non-profit organization. That was just a few thousands names and addresses, and eliminating duplicates from that list was a major job. And that's a case where you just have to match up names and addresses. There's no such simple "definition" for an animal species that can be readily compared to each other to spot duplicates. How many duplicates are there? It's very hard to say.
© 2020 by Jay Johansen
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