Re: Bigfoot as Idea & Meme

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 09 May 2003 - 20:31:20 GMT

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    > From: "Ray Recchia" <>
    > Ted wrote:
    > "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."
    > Ted
    > This isn't a bad bit of rationalizing. The idea of Bigfoot, consciously
    > created by fakers to draw tourism, generated what you are calling
    > the 'meme' of Bigfoot, the concept of a monster wandering in the
    > northwest forests which spreads because of psychological factors. I'd
    > call them both memes in a symbiotic relationship, much like idea of
    > promoting smoking for profit and the act of smoking itself. The meme of
    > promoting smoking for profit gathers strength from a conscious awareness
    > of its ability to cause the propogation of the smoking meme.
    > I don't agree that the subconscious elements of the 'bigfoot' meme give
    > it independent agency while the conscious elements of the 'fake bigfoot
    > to get tourists' mean that it is not. The act of spreading the 'bigfoot'
    > meme is still a conscious act whether one is aware of the psychological
    > elements enhancing its spread or not.
    > Ray Recchia

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Up until now I would have agreed with you that Bigfoot represents two kinds of memes, one that spreads among pranksters and another that spreads among believers. Now I feel that the former is not really a meme. Again, I turn to the latest issue of Skeptic, this time to an article by Phil Mole on Ockham's Razor. Mole contends that memeticists inappropriately invoke Ockham to support their view. While it's true that reducing beliefs such as theism to memes simpifies matters considerably, according to Mole we must take into consideration other factors besides simplicity. One of these factors is conservatism. A theory should not contradict established science. Here's Mole on page 44:

    "Memetics, for instance, distorts and sometimes completely contradicts the complex model of cultural transmission of ideas presented by mainstream social sciences." (He refers to an aricle in a previous issue of Skeptic, Vol 6, No. 3, "Memes: What are They Good For?" by James Polichak.)

    If we claim that all ideas are memes, then we must show why long-established social science models are wrong. But if we limit memes to ideas that propagate through exploitation of unconscious needs and desires, then we simply augment traditional social science models. Not only are there ideas that travel through normal routes, such as the prankster's idea of Bigfoot, but there's a special class of ideas that travel much like viruses, replicating from mind to mind, such as the believer's idea of Bigfoot. In the first case, agency is assigned to consciousness. A prankster looks at the possibility of generating "Bigfoot" excitement and simply finds it appealing. In the second case, agency is assigned to the idea itself. Believers are conned by an idea that has no basis in reality but exploits their unconscious desires.

    Typically skepticism towards memetics arises from the fact that it embraces too much material. The more we limit its purview, the more reasonable it becomes.


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