There have been updates in the manimal case, but I’ll save those for the end.
Possibly a more worthwhile a topic: one commenter was disappointed in the whole affair, thinking it demeaning and sensationalist. I’m trying to decide if that’s so.
In this case, the manimal debate started out as good-humored dinner chatter before my colleagues found out real money was involved. After that, they approached me to witness the feat (as the prize requires publication in the media before they’ll consider your application).
But am I skeptical to the point of being dismissive? Yes. Did I write about it because I thought people would be amused? Guilty as charged. Is that entirely a bad thing? Some say yes:
Whether this individual transforms himself into an animal in a way that matches you Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was possible and true. Also, I’m hard pressed to imagine how such a belief could be detrimental to these people.
I think the fact that so many operate as if these powers are real is precisely the reason to be worried. An easy example is the astonishing number of witch killings each year, many of which target poor, single women. (See Ted Miguel’s paper on this in East Africa)
I’ve also spent the last years working in northern Uganda and Liberia, places where leaders claiming spiritual powers had laid waste to their nations in long and bloody civil wars. Widespread belief in their power is no small contributing factor to their success. (Stephen Ellis has a nice volume on just this subject.)
Another example: Just today a senior diplomat bemoaned a recent by-election. The popular, qualified candidate lost to a less scrupulous one whose entire campaign aimed at convincing the populace that his opponent would die from evil spirits if elected. It seems to have won him the election.
People ought to be left in peace to decide their own spiritual beliefs. If I had to rewrite the manimal post, I’d probably be less condescending. But what I would say is this: When claims of spirit power are used in the pursuit of power and money—whether an American faith healer, a Liberian politician, or a village elder pursuing a million dollar prize—I tend to think the world would be a more peaceful place if we heaped skepticism on all and scorn on the obvious frauds.
Back to our prize seeker. In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so. Nimba will have to wait for my next trip (we have, in fact, a project there) but you’ll forgive me if I haven’t reserved judgment.