Time of for a game of what-if…Let’s examine a hypothetical situation (since, despite recent claims, it hasn’t happened yet) to explore what might happen if Bigfoot were definitively, irrefutably proven to be real. So here we go.
DNA testing has shown that samples provided by Bigfoot researchers are humanlike, but not human. What happens next? Will long-held scientific ideas get overturned, replaced by a New Anthropological World Order? This is what many Bigfoot aficionados, and even a number of Bigfoot researchers, have hoped—and perhaps prayed—for over the past couple decades. DNA, the story goes, is the ultimate irrefutable proof of Bigfoot’s existence and identity. In reality, however, two possible scenarios could play out from this point forward.
Scenario 1: The scientific establishment accepts the results and admits Bigfoot into the pantheon of named, accepted species.
Scenario 2: The scientific establishment scoffs at and/or ignores the results.
In part one, we’ll examine the first scenario.
In the first scenario, the scientific establishment (aka mainstream scientists) accepts the DNA results as genuine, accurate, and faultless. Anthropologists scramble to find a place in the primate family tree for our hairier cousins; however, they’ve got a problem. It’s not a new problem, but one that has plagued taxonomy since the beginning. Taxonomy is the art and science of classifying living things—dividing them into discrete groups, such as species. Originally, species were classified based on their appearance, both inward and outward. This proved a contentious and not altogether accurate method of distinguishing species, especially when faced with limited physical evidence. Fossils are the prime example of this. Often, fossils are broken and scattered, leaving scientists with an incomplete specimen. Even when a complete fossil skeleton is found, scientists can only guess at what the creature looked like on the outside.
Now with Bigfoot, we have nothing but fragments of flesh, bits of hair, and samples of feces. The sole evidence for Bigfoot’s outward appearance and anatomy comes from the combined testimony of eyewitnesses and footprints. In a court of law, footprints may provide substantial and often damning evidence. Yet in the court of science, footprints cannot solidify mushy evidence into concrete. Eyewitnesses, in the eyes of science, provide no better evidence. Scientific principles require hard evidence and results that can be replicated. But isn’t DNA considered hard evidence?
The answer is yes and no. In a court of law, a defendant may be convicted based on DNA evidence that places him at the scene of the crime. Genetic testing can tell us whether two people are related, such as in paternity tests. But when it comes to identifying species, genetics has fallen short of providing foolproof evidence. Scientists cannot even agree on how much of a genetic difference signifies different species. Then we have the problem of cryptic species, creatures that look the same but differ slightly in their DNA. Without a consensus on how to separate species based on genetics alone, how can anyone know for certain that cryptic species really are different species? How can we differentiate any two similar-looking species? What if two creatures look different but have nearly identical DNA? These questions will plague any attempt to scientifically classify Bigfoot.
When we look at vastly different creatures, such as worms and humans, identifying them as separate species is quite easy. The greater the similarity between two living things, the more tangled the taxonomic conundrum becomes. When we look at chimpanzees and humans, for instance, we see striking similarities but also striking differences—enough differences, in fact, then we can easily distinguish ourselves from them, despite sharing somewhere between 95% and 98% of our DNA with them. Chimps are primates, like us, but they are not hominids—that is, they do not belong to the family Hominadae, a taxonomic group that encompasses both humans and extinct fossil species like the Neanderthals. Although in recent years attempts have been made to shift the great apes into the hominid family, there’s nothing close to consensus on this issue. Genetic similarities have provided the main impetus for the apes-are-hominids movement. Yet no one really understands the implications of these genetic similarities, especially when dealing with animals that look as different as humans and the great apes do.
Now consider the Neanderthals. Genetic analysis has shown that Neanderthals and modern humans share about 99.7% of their DNA. This is a closer genetic affiliation than that between humans and chimps, but only slightly so—particularly if we accept the higher estimates for the chimp-human comparison (98% similarity). Yet the bones of Neanderthals resemble our bones far more than chimp skeletons look like ours. No one looking at the bones of a Neanderthal would mistake them for the remains of a great ape. We find ourselves staring straight down the barrel of another taxonomic conundrum, one that threatens to blow apart long-held notions about the infallibility of DNA evidence. Even if we examine only Neanderthals and humans, we run into problems. Sometimes Neanderthals are listed as their own species and sometimes they get labeled a subspecies of Homo sapiens.
What does this mean for Bigfoot? Well, with nothing but DNA to go on, scientists will have a difficult time deciding whether they merit their own species or belong to an existing one. Even if scientists had a complete Bigfoot specimen, alive or dead, classifying these creatures would remain a contentious issue. After all, scientists can’t even agree on how to classify Neanderthals!
Scientific acceptance of Bigfoot DNA results is only the first step. We should expect even more steps, and even some backward hops, before the creatures we call Bigfoot find their way onto the official family tree of life.
Coming up in part two, what might be the result of the second scenario?