Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bigfoot DNA found... maybe.

The Erickson Project is a privately-funded study, begun in 2005, with one aim: to prove the existence of Sasquatch.  Its founder, Adrian Erickson, says,
The objective was to conduct the first long term study that would once and for all, prove the existence of the Sasquatch. In order to do so I asked [outdoorsman and experienced tracker] Dennis Pfohl and [Princeton-educated evolutionary biologist] Leila Hadj-Chikh to join me, and we set out to try to awaken the scientific community, attempted to bring awareness to the general public, while silencing the armchair critics, and tried to vindicate the tens of thousands of witnesses who have been ridiculed for speaking out. [parenthetical notes mine]
As far as this goes, I think it's pretty awesome.  As I've commented before, no one would be more thrilled than me if it turned out that Bigfoot actually existed, and as far as I'm concerned, the only way to convince skeptics is to look at the evidence using the rigorous lens of science.  Much as I'd like to be, I'm just not convinced by grainy photographs of Blobsquatches and film footage of guys in gorilla suits.

So the Erickson Project at least seems to be going about things the right way.  And now, we have news leaked from the project that some Project-funded DNA studies have borne fruit.

If the leaks are to be believed -- and it's a big "if" -- there's material worth looking at here.  Richard Stubstad, an Erickson Project member who is the origin of the leak, states that the team analyzed nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from six samples that were alleged to come from Bigfoot.  (One sample was called "unknown hand;" the others were not specified by the information coming from the leak.)

Stubstad claims that the DNA analysis, which was performed under the leadership of Dr. Melba Ketchum, Director of DNA Diagnostics, Inc., and a forensic geneticist of some note, produced fascinating results.  The mitochondrial DNA, which only is inherited through the maternal ancestral line, was substantially human; the nuclear DNA was considerably different.  The nuclear DNA was analyzed at sites which show large numbers of variations (called polymorphisms); the average number of differences at these sites is an indicator of evolutionary distance. 

This is a highly reliable technique, and has been used on hominid DNA before.  For example, a thorough analysis of Neanderthal DNA by Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo, director of the Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute, found that compared to modern humans, DNA extracted from Neanderthals shows about a 99.5% overlap, and has even been able to identify specific genes that are lacking (or are different) in the Neanderthal genome. 

The leaked information from the Erickson Project states that Neanderthals had on the order of 3,300 differences in polymorphic sites studied, as compared to modern humans.  Denisova, a recently discovered hominid from Central Asia, had 6,600 differences at those same sites; modern chimpanzees have 33,000.  The DNA extracted from the alleged Sasquatch remains showed 12,675 differences at these polymorphic sites.  (As I do not know which sites were studied, I have no way to verify these numbers, so take them with a grain of salt.)

Not surprisingly, Erickson Project members are unhappy about the leak; Dr. Ketchum especially was perturbed by the fact that the information got out prior to publication of a paper that was supposed to coincide with the release of an Erickson Project-sponsored documentary called Sasquatch: The Quest.  Apparently there has been a falling out between Erickson, Pfohl, and Ketchum, with threats of lawsuits and various other unpleasantness.  Erickson, for his part, has sunk three million dollars into the study, and is obviously invested in its success.  Unfortunately, this kind of pressure is not necessarily conducive to producing good science.  It's to be hoped that his desire for proof of Bigfoot's existence would not blind him to accepting negative results if that's what the outcome is (or worse, fabricating false positives).

In any case, I'm hoping that whatever the outcome of the spat is, the data is presented to the scientific world in such a way that the peer-review process can take a look at it.  That is the only way that the whole Sasquatch thing will be settled.  Being a biologist myself, I'm understandably excited by the possibility -- think of what a coup for the evolutionists this would be!  But if the study is found to lack rigor, or if allegations of falsification arise, then we'll be right back where we started -- with anecdotal tales, fuzzy film footage, and claims that are supposed to be accepted without evidence.

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