modularity and phrenology (was a Bigfoot thread)

From: Scott Chase (
Date: Mon 12 May 2003 - 19:45:31 GMT

  • Next message: Chris Taylor: "Re: the messenger"

    >From: "Dace" <>
    >To: <>
    >Subject: Re: Bigfoot as Idea & Meme
    >Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 12:13:57 -0700
    > > From: Keith Henson <>
    > >
    > > 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
    > >
    > > I don't believe you make a case here. With rather rare exceptions,
    > > *are* memes.
    > >
    > > >For Ray Wallace, Bigfoot was an idea. In the late 1950s tales of
    > > >giant Himalayan humanoid, were circulating all over the world.
    > > >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
    > > >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
    > > >generate "Bigfoot" excitement in their own hometown.
    > >
    > > Memes more often than not start as someone having an idea, like a new
    > > 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
    > > a long history of UFO hoaxs).
    >Depends on how the idea travels. Does it travel according to human
    >volition, or has it taken on a life of its own (as in the Roswell myth)?
    > > >While the idea circulated, so did the meme. The Bigfoot meme
    > > >effectively because it exploited the all-too-human desire to believe
    > > >our wild ancestor is somehow still alive somewhere, still roaming free,
    > > >caged up and domesticated like us. Guilty at the thought that we
    > > >"wildman" within, we project his image onto the forests and mountains
    > > >us. On top of that, Rene Dahinden had another motivation to believe.
    > > >he had staked his reputation on the authenticity of Bigfoot, the meme
    > > >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
    > > to make a meme. Did the "belief" in Bigfoot spread out to other
    > > people? If the answer is yes, that is also a meme.
    >Belief in Bigfoot is a meme, not because it spreads but in *how* it
    >i.e. through the exploitation of unconscious desires. It's a meme because
    >it's in control instead of consciousness.
    > > >Ideas are passive. They lack agency. It was human consciousness that
    > > >created the idea for Bigfoot, and this idea spread from one prankster
    > > >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
    > > memes.)
    >The Bigfoot idea became a meme as soon as one person believed in it. It
    >a meme even in that one mind because it had the potential to spread *under
    >its own power* to other minds, preying on their weaknesses as it preyed on
    >those of the original believer. While an idea is exactly what it appears
    >be, a meme carries an image of an idea-- "There's a big, hairy humanoid in
    >the woods"-- while in reality exploiting a weakness of the mind-- "You need
    >to believe that your wild self still somehow lives." So, a meme involves a
    >schism between reality and appearance, sabotaging conscious volition, while
    >an idea merely responds to conscious volition. Ideas are transparent;
    >are opaque.
    > > 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
    > > to evolutionary selection.
    >Why not just include "subject to evolutionary selection" in the definition
    >of "information?" Why create a new term if it doesn't mean anything beyond
    >the old term? After all, evolution is a well-established concept,
    >within the social sciences, which have developed complex, proven models of
    >information transferal and development.
    > > It is possible you intend to say the same thing. I don't understand
    > > use of "agency."
    >It's shorthand for "causal agency." What has the power of determination?
    >Do we control our ideas, or do they control us? Only in the latter case do
    >ideas constitute memes.
    > > >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
    > > are people who will believe anything.
    >I'm refering to the general population. In general, more people believe a
    >meme when it gets plenty of exposure, even negative exposure.
    > > >Memes 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
    > > to make the point that some widely held silliness does die out.
    >I see what you mean. There comes a point when the absurdity of the meme is
    >too much for anyone to accept. Memes are not indestructible. If you drive
    >a stake through its heart, it might just give up the ghost. I understand
    >garlic can be effective as well.
    Among four reasons for the failure of phrenology given in Kolb and Whishaw's text _Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology_ (p. 330) the fourth one is very interesting: (bq) "In the eyes of their contemporaries, however, there was a more damning criticism, which was the fourth cause of their failure. Gall and Spurzheim had postulated that the brain is the organ of the mind, that personality characteristics are innate, and that the brain (or mind) is composed of independent functioning units. The prevailing opinion still reflected Descartes: the mind is nonmaterial and functions as a whole. Since these views are still held be many people today, it is possible to understand the hostility their criticism evoked nearly 200 years ago." (eq)

    This fourth reason sounds amazingly close to the viewpoint of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (ie- mindbrain, innateness of personality, modularity of mind). I don't suppose Keith had these silly features of phrenology in mind when he was scoffing at it Whiggishly, maybe just the head bumps?


    Bryan Kolb and Ian Whishaw. 1990. Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. WH Freeman and Company. New York

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