Bigfoot as Idea & Meme

From: Dace (
Date: Wed 07 May 2003 - 18:28:45 GMT

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    An article on Bigfoot in the latest issue of Skeptic (Volume 10, No. 1) provides a perfect illustration of the difference between ideas and memes. In "Big Foot, Bigger Hoax," Daniel Loxton presents the two faces of Bigfoot. First there's prankster Ray Wallace, who appears to have concocted the whole shaggy human story and kept it going for over forty years. Then there's Bigfoot enthusiast Rene Dahinden, who died two years ago, bitter and broke, never having seen the mysterious creature he spent his life hunting. Wallace himself died last November, after which his son announced, in an interview with the Seattle Times, "Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot. The reality is, Bigfoot just died." Michael Wallace revealed the original strap-on alderwood feet that enabled his dad to produce fake oversized footprints.

    As Loxton observes, "while the Wallace family mourns the death of a lovable prankster, reports of Bigfoot's demise have been greatly exaggerated; indeed, Bigfoot is bigger now than he's been in years, precisely because of those reports." Curiously, news of the hoax that started it all has only fired up interest, triggering an increase in the number of "sightings" reported in the Pacific Northwest.

    For Ray Wallace, Bigfoot was an idea. In the late 1950s tales of "Yeti," a giant Himalayan humanoid, were circulating all over the world. Wallace's idea was that a similar craze could be generated right here at home by simply faking a few giant footsteps. He carved a pair of feet and walked around on them at a construction site he was managing in northern California. His idea circulated throughout the region as fellow pranksters realized how simple it was to generate "Bigfoot" excitement in their own hometown.

    While the idea circulated, so did the meme. The Bigfoot meme propagated so effectively because it exploited the all-too-human desire to believe that our wild ancestor is somehow still alive somewhere, still roaming free, not caged up and domesticated like us. Guilty at the thought that we killed the
    "wildman" within, we project his image onto the forests and mountains around us. On top of that, Rene Dahinden had another motivation to believe. Since he had staked his reputation on the authenticity of Bigfoot, the meme could maintain itself in his mind by exploiting his pride.

    Ideas are passive. They lack agency. It was human consciousness that created the idea for Bigfoot, and this idea spread from one prankster to another through normal conscious means. But before long the beast was self-propagating among believers, based on its ability to exploit unconscious desires. What is idea for one is meme for another.

    Memes are ideas that take on their own agency. This is why the Bigfoot myth only gets bigger when it's definitively demonstrated to be a fraud. Memes don't depend on our capacity for rational thought. Any publicity, no matter how bad, will help perpetuate them.


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