Hunting Monsters

⭐⭐½ based on 1 review.

Written by Darren Naish.

tl;dr: A perfectly fine book with an unwavering and boring outlook; sceptical to an unexpected fault.


Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I have very mixed feelings about Hunting Monsters. On the one hand, I have a huge amount of respect for the author, someone whose research and scientific outreach I've followed for years. On the other, I have a long fascination with the underlying "field" of cryptozoology, one which I though Naish shared. To be clear, I'm no true believer. I do not think we will discover lost North American or Himalayan bipedal apes, nor find giant, prehistoric relicts in solitary bodies of water around the globe, no matter how remote, deep, or mysterious. But small relict populations of species given up as extinct? New, scientifically unknown species? Even ones that show clear similarities with local folklore, mythology, and traditional knowledge? Yes, I do, and I therefore think that cryptozoology still has a place in mainstream zoology.

Of course, the term has become saturated with the extreme – but eye-catching – tales of bigfoot and co., so I can certainly sympathise with an aim to modernise and reclaim the word. I personally use "cryptozoology" to describe any attempts to verify species based on anecdotal evidence. It isn't simply discovering a previously unknown fish at the bottom of an ocean trench, or a new frog atop an unexplored rainforest plateau. Those are mere zoology and exploration. But where indigenous populations talk of a species that we cannot currently categorise; where photographic or other secondary evidence exists for something unknown to museum collections; or with creatures that others have written off as too fantastical – the study of these claims, that is cryptozoology. So yes, you could do research on the Loch Ness monster, to interrogate a claim or piece of purported evidence, but I would rather see the term focused on more realistic goals, like the South Island kōkako, mystery tapirs in Brazil, the Zanzibar leopard, or maybe even the thylacine. After all, similar research saved the takahē, discovered the okapi, and uncovered the saola.

So I was disappointed to read Naish's proposal that the term should effectively be redefined into the study of modern day mythology and folklore. That we should view cryptids first – and possibly purely – through the lens of anthropology and psychology, as aspects of humanity, rather than potential species in their own right. It's not the first time I've seen him propose an idea like this, but it was still sad to read a book where this was such a prominent topic, particularly from an old ally of cryptozoology. Perhaps Naish hasn't fully written off the entire concept, at least not intentionally, as there are one or two parts that suggest a continued level of support for mystery animals to be given some credit, but Hunting Monsters largely reads as a take-down of the entire discipline.

Again, there are good reasons to wants to distance it from the sensationalist "documentaries", publicity stunts, and wilder stories, but there are plenty of cryptids out there which have a stronger justification for legitimate study, rather than merely being regarded as sociocultural phenomena. Native knowledge and eyewitness accounts should still be regarded as a legitimate starting point for zoological investigation!

All of that said, if you agree with the stance of viewing cryptozoology as apart from zoology, then the book is well written and covers a broad range of topics. It certainly stacks up a good amount of evidence that the big-name cryptids, their hoaxes and cult-like followings, have undercut any sense of legitimacy from the topic. And the book does occasionally set the record straight in favour of those advocating a more open-minded approach. For instance, the idea that the myth of the kraken can be explained away by modern discoveries of giant cephalopods ignores a lot of historical context, the nature of reports, and the way the "animal" was treated. History is a lot more complex than that simple explanation implies, and whilst some sightings may have been dead or injured giant squid and similar encounters, the vast majority of kraken "records" can (and likely should) be considered in different ways, including as purposeful tall tales and allegories (I don't fully disagree with Naish's proposal to review myth and historical cryptids through a sociological lens, after all). But these occasional nods to broader explanations do little to alter the overall tone.

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