Are Unicorns Endangered or Extinct?

cicada exoskeletonIn 1735, when Carl Linnaeus organized all the species in the world into one vast taxonomy, he included a section on “Animalia Paradoxa”: creatures, common in folklore and myth or attested to by far-flung explorers, that he felt compelled to itemize yet deemed unlikely to exist.

~ Kathryn Schulz

“I hate that noise,” she said, holding her ears against the whiny buzzing of the cicada. Having grown up where cicadas were plentiful, I found it less annoying and a little intriguing. As kids, we used to catch them, put a thread around their neck and fly them in circles. The nymphs clung to the bark of oak trees, and often you’d find the exoskeleton there, with a split down the back where the adult emerged.

Like many of the creatures we found in nature, the cicadas were strange and weird. As fans of National Geographic and other outdoor magazines, we eagerly anticipated the monthly arrival of these publications with photos and stories of strange and unusual peoples, animals and places. Some day we might go there and see them for ourselves.

We frequented the local zoo and marveled at the variety of creatures. At the natural history museum, we saw the evidence of dinosaurs, mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. Scuba diving and deep sea exploration had just begun to reveal the weird and fantastic creatures in the oceans, so it wasn’t hard to believe the stories of giant squid capable of attacking ships (not to mention Nemo’s Nautilus), or even the abominable snowmen in the Himalayas (the Yeti are reportedly related to the Australian Yowie, the Canadian Nuk-luk, the Missouri Momo, the Louisiana Swamp Ape and, of course, Bigfoot).

When Thomas Jefferson tasked Lewis and Clark to explore the American West, he asked them to look for the bones of any “rare or extinct animals”. Early European explorers in South America were cautioned to be aware of the giants that supposedly inhabited Patagonia. Similarly, the Gobi desert was reputed to shelter the Mongolian Death Worm. Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes stories and The Lost World) was among many that believed in fairies. Our acceptance of the existence of the strange and unusual in the natural world is usually unrelated to proof of their existence.

In a recent New Yorker article, Kathryn Schulz explores the believability of “fantastic beasts”. She quotes her sister, “Small impossible things … are more believable than large impossible things, because they could more easily exist without us noticing them.”

Man continues to explore the world and find new fantastical things, but we haven’t really disproven the existence of other things. It’s hard to prove a negative, so we still allow ourselves a glimmer of possibility that the “strange and weird” still lurks out there somewhere. Like Linnaeus, we even have a word, cryptids, for those creatures that may or may not exist.

Ms. Schulz reports on Aristotle’s opinion that authors of supernatural occurrences “should prefer a probable impossibility to an unconvincing possibility.” She summarized, “In other words, even something that is factually impossible can be logically possible, and how closely that logic is followed will affect how plausible a supernatural being seems.” Convincing tales of the supernatural or just plain weird should allow for “suspension of disbelief” by including “a semblance of truth.”

If I can see the reality of a narwhal and a rhinoceros, can’t I accept the possibility of a unicorn? I collected tadpoles as a kid, have seen a manatee and marveled at photos of the platypus; does that make it easier to accept the possibility of mermaids? Flying snakes, spitting cobras and Komodos, not to mention some dinosaurs, do things that dragons can do. Can I say that because I haven’t seen one, therefore, they don’t now or never did exist?

Literature and entertainment is full of wizards, vampires, aliens and zombies. We’re in an era of super heroes (and super villains), ESP and supernatural powers (X-Men). Do we believe, or do we see a semblance of truth in these characters that allows for a suspension of disbelief? Ms. Schulz observes,

“… we may be wise, after all, to treat impossibility as something other than an absolute condition. Alone among all the creatures in the world, we can think about fantastical things and, at least some of the time, bring them into being.”

Stevie Wonder sang about things we don’t understand as “superstition”. I believe that nature is so mysterious and our knowledge of the world is so immense, yet incomplete, that we must believe many things we don’t understand. Science and religions are built on the premise of explaining the unknown and our place in it. So, we each have our threshold for belief or acceptance of what we cannot explain.

If we believe in black holes or gods or fairies or vampires or mermaids or even unicorns, then maybe that’s okay. But as Ms. Schulz noted,

Better, perhaps, to know that what we feel in our happiest moments has some truth to it: life is magical.”

Go ahead, embrace the magic. (Just don’t neglect the science!)

Additional information:

Kathryn Schulz, Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them, The New Yorker, November 6, 2017

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