Considering the climate of America and elsewhere right now, this seems like a good time for a different sort of blog post. This isn’t meant to be political or to be accusatory to any scientific discipline, but I would like to explore one of the main reasons I got into cryptozoology in the first place; which is the inherent racism in many scientific disciplines.
The vast majority of zoologists, ecologists, and biologists are good people who want to improve the natural world and would not be racist in their everyday lives. However, I do believe that, just like in many disciplines, institutionalized racism exists in the sciences without us being consciously aware of it. In particular, the tendency to dismiss indigenous science and observation has always bothered me. When local and indigenous people claim to see a dinosaur in their rivers or a giant bat attacking them through windows, most scientists dismiss the idea. Why? Shouldn’t we assume that local people know their native wildlife better than us? Shouldn’t we trust them? Shouldn’t our default position to be to believe their claims and investigate them appropriately? This is not generally the case; traditional science usually dismisses claims that seem fantastic until a fellow (generally white) scientist makes the same claim. The accounts of the Orang Pendek in Sumatra by local people have been summarily dismissed by most scientists. That is, until white scientists working in Sumatra also claimed to see it. Now there are documentaries and new articles claiming it exists. Despite local reports of its existence, the okapi was not “discovered” until 1901, when it was described by a British zoologist. Prior to this, the okapi was thought to be a mythical animal, as its description by locals sounded too fantastic to be real.
I have always felt that the tendency to dismiss indigenous claims of strange or fantastic animals bears an undertone of systemic racism in the sciences. Some might say that their claims are not taken seriously because they are not trained scientists. But is that it? Or is it because, unlike the scientists, local people in biodiversity hotspots tend to be black or brown? Are we, as scientists, demonstrating systemic racism without even knowing it by not investigating the claims of locals?
This is my belief, and it is one of the reasons I got into cryptozoology. My own tendency to dismiss Cu Rua, the sacred turtle of Hanoi, as a mere myth or legend bothered me. I would like to think that I dismissed it because, as a biologist, I did not believe such a species could exist in the ecosystem it was claimed to. But the possibility that my disbelief was a demonstration of ingrained racism I did not know I possessed bothered me deeply. After that, I decided that all claims by local and indigenous people should be listened to, taken seriously, and investigated. In this way, cryptozoology is the answer to racism in science. Even if such incredible creatures as Mokele-Mbembe and the Popobawa do not exist, we can still learn about nature and culture by searching for them, and we can show respect for indigenous and local people by investigating them.
So in this special edition blog post, I would like to encourage you to consider an anti-racist viewpoint when you next read a news story that local people claim to see an undiscovered species of ape or a giant octopus. Consider where your disbelief is coming from and ask yourself whether considering the idea that it might be real is the more anti-racist way of thinking. And in your own discipline, whether it be zoology, accounting, real estate or whatever else you may work in, ask yourself if you are perhaps working within a system that expresses racism without you even being aware. Only by asking ourselves these difficult questions, being honest with ourselves about the answers, and changing our behavior can we ensure that me move in a direction of true equality for everyone.