Re: Bigfoot as Idea & Meme

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 11 May 2003 - 03:51:34 GMT

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    At 11:28 AM 07/05/03 -0700, you 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.

    I don't believe you make a case here. With rather rare exceptions, ideas
    *are* 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.

    Memes more often than not start as someone having an idea, like a new way to make shoes, or in this case "feet."

    The question you want to ask is: Did this idea spread out to other people? The answer in this case is yes, and that makes it a meme. (I have a long history of UFO hoaxs).

    >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.

    Although *why* a meme spreads is of great interest to me (particularly reasons that derive from psychological traits selected for in our long history of living as social primates in tribes) a mechanism is not required to make a meme. Did the "belief" in Bigfoot spread out to other people? If the answer is yes, that is also a meme.

    >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.

    Memes (same as ideas) are just information. If that information replicates, spreads out to more than the first person who has it, that makes it a meme. (All ideas, even those that never spread, are *potential* memes.)

    Near as I understand it, the entire point to using the word meme is to emphasize that information passed from human mind to human mind is subject to evolutionary selection.

    It is possible you intend to say the same thing. I don't understand your use of "agency."

    >This is why the Bigfoot myth
    >only gets bigger when it's definitively demonstrated to be a fraud.

    To say this, you have to specify a segment of the population. There are lot of people who figured Bigfoot was a fraud from the start. Then there are people who will believe anything.

    >don't depend on our capacity for rational thought.

    That is certainly true or religions would not thrive.

    >Any publicity, no matter
    >how bad, will help perpetuate them.

    Your point is not entirely accurate here. I use the example of phrenology to make the point that some widely held silliness does die out.

    Keith Henson

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