Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bigfoot DNA Evidence Redux

The first-ever attempt to thoroughly map the bigfoot genome, authored by Dr. Melba Ketchum, et al. and published in DeNovo Scientific Journal, has been out for a couple months. I eagerly spent the thirty bucks to get my hands on a copy at my very first opportunity. I read every word of it three times. I also sought the opinion of a couple of geneticists for, despite my science background, I did not understand most of the highly technical jargon in paper.

What I really needed was some context. Context is particularly essential since almost no one else in the general public has the ability to grasp the incredibly arcane and specific language of the geneticist. I am capable of understanding most of Ketchum’s explanation of the methodology and of course her conclusions. Beyond that, I recall the advice of a career scientist who once told me that the way to read a study is to first read the abstract (a one or two paragraph summary of the whole report), then the introduction, and then the conclusion. Skip everything else. The academics will pour over that and you can’t understand it anyway.

OK, so here it is in a nutshell: 109 samples were obtained from all over North America.
(Obviously, the sasquatch phenomenon is more widespread than most people realize.) Most samples were hair, but not all. Blood, saliva, and even a tissue sample was analyzed. Not all of the work was done by a single lab. Some of it was farmed out to university labs that were not initially given any background about the samples they were asked to examine.

The findings were remarkably consistent: mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA), which is indicative of the female component of the genome, came back as human! The nDNA (nuclear DNA from the male progenitor) was found to be ‘novel’, which is geneticist code for “doesn’t match anything previously extracted.”  Also, large sections of the DNA strands appeared as single strand molecules (haploid), as opposed to the uniformly double-stranded DNA of all human DNA that is not found in sex cells (gametes). This might indicate that the DNA being sequenced was highly degraded DNA, but degraded DNA is found to contain lots of bacteria, and no bacteria was found in conjunction with the DNA that showed single strand configuration.  It was not degraded, but it was single strand DNA in about half of the segments that were sequenced. Multiple labs observed this anomaly, an dutifully reported it to Ketchum.

I was warned ahead of time by prognosticators like my buddy Guy Edwards that a DNA study proving the existence of the sasquatch probably would not rock the world. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is poorly understood by the general public. People want to see a body. I also fully understood that the community of self-anointed ‘bigfoot researchers’ is highly competitive, even back-stabbing. Vocal individuals in that community could be counted on to attack and devour anyone’s claim to scientific progress since it is always seen as a threat to the stature of the other self-important personalities who feel that the media attention is rightfully theirs. Then the ‘group-think’ kicks in. An underappreciated person with a recognizable name becomes critical and launches a blistering attack. The unexamined tribalism of a larger group, who are all in constant contact via the internet and Facebook groups march in lockstep disdain, comfortable in the belief that their collective criticism of the new evidence or new thinking is protected by the umbrella of group consensus, which emboldens the group in the near term but eventually turns out to be based on somebody’s logical fallacy.

Meanwhile, anyone who attempts to challenge the groupthink by endorsing the new idea or new evidence is roundly dismissed with pat turns-of-phrase like: ‘They drank the Kool-aid’ (a crass reference to the members of James Jones’ cult who committed mass suicide in Guyana). In truth, the groupthinkers are the cult, consisting of the vocal critics who will not examine the ideas on the basis of their merits, and those who fall in line behind them for fear of becoming outcasts from the 'bigfoot researcher tribe.

There is a long tradition of dogmatic tribal groupthink in bigfoot research. Peter Byrne and Rene Dahinden, two early luminaries, absolutely vilified anyone who claimed to have more than one bigfoot sighting. They strenuously argued for years that anyone who was claiming more than a single sighting was a liar. "Rubbish," was Peter's dismissive, single word reply. Paul Freeman’s groundbreaking field work was dismissed in his lifetime by these na├»ve purveyors of the ‘my-way-or the highway’ groupthink, who have now, I think, been thoroughly discredited.

Early attempts to collect and isolate sasquatch DNA were met with similar hostility. The sophistication of the early efforts was nowhere near what it is today, so the DNA sequences were always incomplete. Still, attempts were made and the reaction of  bigfoot researchers and mainstream scientists was always the same: The samples were obviously contaminated by the handler because the hair was found to be HUMAN! The researcher who collected the hair was discredited even ridiculed by the vocal skeptics in and outside of the bigfoot researcher community.  Still worse, these views  always managed to get printed or broadcast in a news media that has always favored simple, groupthink answers to complicated questions.

Paul Freeman was one of the most frequent recipients of this abuse. He submitted hair samples he collected under credible circumstances and in his case, no prominent lab anywhere in academia would consider giving his evidence a serious look. It finally ended up being handled by a private cosmetics lab, who stalled on it for months and months, then confidently declared that his sample consisted of artificial fibers, probably from a sofa cushion. As if Paul Freeman couldn’t distinguish between a real hair and the stuffing of a sofa cushion! What about Paul Freeman’s fairly impressive video clip? No one has ever been able to duplicate it or show that costuming was involved, but it was never able to penetrate the opposing mindset which a local Portland environmental writer, Brenda Scearcy so precisely describes as the “ossified tribal mindset”.

Now, enter Melba Ketchum. She has kept her distance from the ‘bigfoot research community’. She has not attended the conferences, she has not made the requisite pilgrimages to the Bluff Creek film site, to Steven’s museum/bookstore in Willow Creek, and the insufferable forums and chat rooms where a tribe of armchair enthusiasts spend way too much of their free time.

The tribe wasted no time.   Before it was even published, the Ketchum study was faulted on several fronts. The eagerly-awaited publication was repeatedly delayed for unspecified reasons. That was seen as damning.  Ketchum’s personal and business life was thoroughly scrutinized by a platoon of amateur sleuths. The fact that her privately owned genetics lab was not flourishing, and that she had some unhappy customers, was the beginning of the groupthink feeding-frenzy. Then it was discovered by eager-beaver researchers that her paper was rejected by first-tier scientific journals. It was suggested that the paper had so many problems that that we might not ever get to see it in print at all.

During this time, I had some contact with Dr. Ketchum. She confided that she was intensely frustrated by the fact that the peer-reviewers for the journals she was courting kept ‘moving the goal posts’ on her. Initially receptive audiences suddenly became unreceptive. Suggestions for small changes were willingly accommodated by her, only to be followed by further requests for huge changes and revisions. All this was taking place while she was trying to maintain her animal genetics testing business and while the hyperactive bigfoot research community poured over her every move and publicized every questionable business decision she ever made on the internet. Meanwhile, she was scrambling to satisfy the demands a highly skeptical group of peer-review scientists. Small wonder her business struggled and her customers were unhappy. I cannot believe she was able to function at all while living under such a microscope. This doesn’t even begin to address the fiscal problems with trying to privately fund such an unprecedented genetics effort, even as she was still struggling to rebuild her business in an area of Texas that had suffered severe impacts from Hurricane Rita.  

Based on information I got from a local lab in Portland, I estimate that Dr. Ketchum had to have spent around two hundred thousand dollars on equipment and materials alone, in order to process the 109 samples she collected from all over North America. In the acknowledgement section of her paper, Ketchum states that she was able to secure the funding for the equipment and materials from a few generous philanthropists like Wally Hersom, Adrian Erickson, Larry Surface, and others. It’s a good bet that this funding source covered only a fraction of the true costs of this enormous effort. Ketchum donated all of her own lab time and probably benefited from the generosity of many other dedicated souls. The labor costs on such a project, I am told, would raise her total costs for the project to something like two million dollars if she had billed all of her time, which she did not. Would one expect her business to suffer while she is pouring her heart and soul into this effort? As the kids say these days, “Duh!”

As soon as the study was made available, the criticism shifted to the fact that, she published the paper by acquiring control of an obscure ‘boutique’ journal, and then making her genetics paper its sole item of content. I would certainly agree that this is not the preferred way to present an important scientific paper. I also know that, as the author of two bigfoot books, ‘bigfoot’ is a topic that very few if any publishers wants to touch, and this is doubly true of scientific publications. Scientists are people too, and they stand in line at the grocery store, reading the tabloid headlines about Elvis’ bigfoot baby or whatever else the tabloids are screaming about that week. Scientists have their prejudices and 'bigfoot' is a big one.

So, hell, yeah, Ketchum is going to have a tough time getting published. I could see that one coming miles away, especially since I had the frustrating experience of trying to get two different books published on the much-maligned bigfoot subject. Maybe it’s just because I’m a lousy writer, but I couldn’t get any publisher to look at my novel, so I, like Ketchum, went ahead and self-published Shady Neighbors. I’d still be sitting on an unpublished manuscript if I had not. Not only do I NOT blame Melba Ketchum for essentially ‘self-publishing’ her paper, I am downright appreciative that she did so. I have no idea whether it required still more money from Wally or Adrian to acquire the rights to the DeNovo masthead, but I do know that, if she had not ‘gone to the well’ one more time for publication money, we would still be waiting to read her paper. I feel nothing but gratitude for the effort and money expended so that us ungrateful bigfoot dweebs could finally read the scientific treatment that we have long-argued that the subject deserved. If I knew of a way to send Melba Ketchum some genetics business to support her lab's bottom line, I most definitely would. I feel nothing but gratitude for the Herculean feat that she willingly, and perhaps foolishly, took on.

Which brings us to a discussion of the results of her study: half human, half ‘novel’ DNA. This finding is so radical, and the implications are so enormous that it’s a no-brainer that she was going to have a very tough time finding a scientific journal that would publish this finding. Scientific journals get very uncomfortable with radical finding, no matter how good the science is. Bear in mind also that Ketchum, with all her radical conclusions, is not nearly as an established in academia as someone like Dr. Bryan Sykes at Cambridge. She's a veterinarian and the owner a small, privately owned genetics lab in Texas. For whatever reason, she had the willingness to apply her genetics training to the bigfoot mystery. And when she examined the genetic evidence surrounding that mystery, it took her to a conclusion that was way too radical for mainstream science. In fact, it seems her conclusions are even too radical for a most bigfoot researchers to accept, and bigfoot researchers have always seen themselves as outside-the-box thinkers.

Truth is, once again, the ossified groupthink in bigfootville does not allow the researcher tribe to consider the possibility that bigfoot is not the ape that John Green, Peter Byrne, and Rene Dahinden always said it was. I believe it was Rene Dahinden’s quotation that lives in infamy, “It’s nothing but a damn, dirty ape!” Sadly that phrase still echoes in the halls of bigfootville and it has done lasting damage to the intellectual integrity with which the competing hypotheses have been considered by bigfoot researchers to this day.

Full disclosure: It is difficult for me to discuss the Ketchum study’s conclusions without wanting to stand up and shouting, “I told ya so!” Indeed, when I first got my hands on the study, it gave me a chill when I read it. Bear in mind the fact that, every time I had the chance to stand up in front of a group and speak on the bigfoot subject over the last fifteen years, every time I published a book or article, I strenuously made the unpopular point that they (the sasquatches) are actually PEOPLE. The First Nation people (Indians) have always said they’re a tribe. My own field work, my experiments with cameras, baiting, habituating, and communication always pointed in the direction of a very wily, avery intelligent, and a very sensitive group of entities that knew much more about us humans than the Dahinden-poisoned groupthinkers were ever prepared to consider.

The very title of my 2003 book “The Locals” says it all. In the first chapter of that book, I discussed early efforts to morphologically identify hair samples as well as the early DNA extractions that had been attempted. In both cases, the few scientific results that were available when I published tentatively concluded that the hair looked human, and the DNA was also of human origin. Of course, the ‘Damned Dirty Ape’ concept still dominated the groupthink and so it was easy to dismiss such  unexpected scientific findings, not to mention a middle school science teacher like me. The ossified groupthink was justified as being 'appropriately skeptical' and I was mostly OK with that, even though it still troubled me that the groupthink was being shaped by people whose ‘field work’ often involved large caliber weapons.

Now that my true colors as a “Ketchum-supporter” are plainly evident, I try to acknowledge the points raised by Ketchum's critics. The paper has flaws, they say, even down to spelling errors. I read the paper three times. I saw no errors in spelling. I do not know the genetics lingo well enough to spot mistakes when it comes to genetics terminology, but I think that finding fault with minor spelling errors is ridiculously nit-picky. I did see two places where the author refers to the “Sasquatch samples” that were being processed. She should have said “the putative Sasquatch samples” or some other wording that implied that the samples were just ‘unknown’ until such time as the study was complete. This too, is a bit nit-picky. I can see how some empirically-minded peer reviewer might object to that wording, but stuff like that does not seem like a reason to reject out-of-hand such a serious and expensive effort as the one she undertook.

Beyond the semantics, there is the much-discussed question of the tissue sample submitted by Justin Smeja, which was ostensibly the product of a hunting accident. The story is being circulated that Smeja’s sample was found to be a combination of bear and human DNA, with Smeja himself being the probable source of the human DNA. I had the chance to ask Ketchum about this. She stated that all the samples she tested, including the ones she sent out to other labs for verification, were remarkably consistent in their result, and one of those consistencies was that in every sample, the human element of the DNA contained mutations that no human, not even Justin Smeja, is known to possess.  Specifically, long sections of the DNA strands that were sequenced by multiple labs showed single strand DNA. Further, Ketchum knows how to take a sample from the center of a piece of tissue when that opportunity exists, and the tissue sample provided by Smeja was substantial enough to allow for a pure sample to be taken from the center of the tissue where contamination is not possible.  Ketchum is completely confident in her methodology and its’ inherent conclusion.

She is not confident of any sample that was not processed by her, Ketchum stated that the alleged bear/human DNA results came from samples that were not part of her study.  Rather, they were independently by someone other than Ketchum. ( Correction: In the first draft of this essay I mentioned an old friend, Bart Cutino as being involved in the resubmitting of theses samples on Justin's behalf. Bart got in touch with me and corrected me on this.  My apologies to Bart Cutino.) In any event, samples were evidently resubmitted after the initial work was done, and they claimed a different result: human contaminated bear DNA. These results surface after the study was published and Ketchum emphatically calimed that whatever was being posted on somebody's Facebook group was not any kind of genetic data from her study.  Interestingly,  the time this happened, Justin, as well as many others in the world were made aware of the fact that the sample he provided to Ketchum was showing indication of human DNA.  This brings us to one of the more peculiar ironies of this whole story: Justin Smeja appears to have unwittingly provided the tissue sample to Ketchum that, assuming her  DNA sequencing work is correct, may ultimately show that accidentally killed a human being!

Bear in mind too, that by this point, Justin Smeja had submitted to and passed a lie detector test in which he insisted that he did indeed shoot at least one bigfoot creature. When the samples came back as human, it had to be a terrifying realization for Smeja, and one that would certainly provide more than enough motivation to put a different spin his story, and maybe even get busy and submit a second sample for testing that would show a more confusing, contaminated result.  Meanwhile, Justin Smeja, or somebody else using his name begins circulating a new story on Facebook group pages: that he was told by Ketchum to destroy his remaining samples. Ketchum calls this a pure fabrication.

If Justin Smeja actually shot and killed one, and maybe two, sasquatches, is Justin Smeja really guilty of a capital crime? I really don't think so.  His defense would simply be that he was completely unaware that these hair-covered human-hybrid creatures even existed. He thought it was a bear. And as long as our trusted government continues to keep the public in the dark about the existence of these sasquatch creatures, neither Justin Smeja nor anyone else, can be prosecuted for shooting such a human variant that doesn’t officially exist.  This is precisely why the focus of Ketchum’s current effort is to gain official recognition of the creatures’ existence before uninformed hunters shoot any more of them!

Smeja’s sample just is one of many. Even if he succeeds in muddying the waters in hopes of reducing his legal vulnerability, where does that leave us? With 107 other samples that all say essentially the same thing: human-hybrid creatures are leaving DNA evidence all around North America.

I suggested to Dr. Ketchum that vindication of her work will only happen when it is replicated by another study, maybe even more than one. She wholeheartedly agreed. We are told that Dr. Bryan Sykes at Cambridge is already on it. Meanwhile, Ketchum has complete confidence that her methodology and her result will withstand the test of time and scientific scrutiny, if scientists will just look objectively at her work.

If there is one pattern in the sasquatch groupthink culture, it’s that right after any new line of evidence, whether it be the Freeman footage, the Skookum cast, or a new track way surfaces, the initial reaction is always very loud and very critical. Then, after vitriol has run its course, the discourse shifts to something quieter, more balanced, and more reasoned. I think I’m seeing that evolution taking place in the case of the Ketchum study, and I am optimistic that Ketchum’s groundbreaking work will be verified by future DNA sequencing efforts.

I find her arguments compelling, and it isn’t just because her findings agree with that which I have always said and published in my books. Her conclusions are also perfectly consistent with everything I have experienced in the field and with all the information I have gathered from reliable witnesses over many years. I long ago concluded that the sasquatch are human so it is very easy for me to agree that Ketchum study is correct in its’ conclusions. If that makes me a “Ketchum supporter” then, yes, I guess I drank the Kool-Aid. All I can say is, it was delicious. And, it was much easier to swallow than that, bitter, even toxic Kool-Aid that has been dispensed for decades by the ossified tribal group-thinkers, and I have certainly tasted that Kool-Aid many times.

There is one final doozy of a stone that is still unturned.  It’s sort of the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about.  Put another way, the Ketchum study, I think, has yielded physical evidence whose implications are so profound that most do not even want to open that can of worms.

I’m referring to the other half of the sasquatch genome that the Ketchum study identified; the part that isn’t human. The sasquatch genome, according to the Ketchum’s work, is human DNA that interspersed with DNA that is absolutely unknown.  It is neither ape, nor human, not lemur.  Ketchum has no idea what it is, nor does anyone else, but the ‘novel’, single strand, haploid DNA is there for anyone to find who knows how to sequence it. Is it some evolutionary offshoot of humanity that we have yet to identify in the fossil record?  Maybe. But the mysterious sequences are single strand, that is haploid DNA, and all terrestrial DNA in somatic cells (blood, hair, tissue, bone) is diploid unless it is in gametes (sex cells).  

OK, so what is the origin of this truly novel DNA that Melba Ketchum found in the sasquatch genome? For one possible answer, check out The Locals, Chapter 10: “No Stone Left Unturned.”  What gave me a chill when I read the Ketchum study is the possibility that I may have written down an answer ten years before I even asked this question.