It sounds astounding. But is it true? (1995)

This is the story of a big idea, and how it came to replicate, mutate, and eventually parasitize otherwise healthy, sane minds. It's the story of the Hundredth Monkey.

Basically, the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon is the purported paranormal spurt in a learning curve that happens when enough individuals share the same idea. If large enough numbers of people think, or learn the same thing, a kind of nonlinear process occurs where everyone learns it everywhere else, even without direct exposure. Or so the the theory goes. Ideas are "in the air", as it were, and are picked up by a sort of psychic osmosis.

Though I had heard of the "Hundredth Monkey" some years ago, it wasn't recently until I saw the idea in action. Not the phenomenon itself, mind you -- just the idea.

I was with a group of people who gathered on a semiregular basis (The kind of thing done in pre-Internet days) to discuss media issues and the ideas of Noam Chomsky. One fellow, a therapist of some kind or other, told the assembled that the solution to Third-World misery and similar depressing topics is to feel love for one another. Not an especially bad prescription for international relations, and certainly better than tanks or death squads. But he was adamant that we didn't need to extend our goodwill any further than our immediate local circle. The result would be is that, with others doing likewise, the love for one another would spread out in a kind of spiritual pyramid scheme, reaching a critical mass, and "enveloping the world - it's like the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon." Another person in attendance responded enthusiastically, saying, yes, she had heard of the Hundredth Monkey, and explained the concept to the others. All assembled agreed that if enough people wish something to happen - even without actually doing anything other than wishing - it will very likely come to be. Overt political action, the idea goes, is redundant and retrograde in the age of the Hundredth Monkey.

So this particular primate, it seems, has the burden of supporting some fairly heavy-duty New Age conceits. How did this come about, and what, exactly, is the Hundredth Monkey?

The Hundredth Monkey idea has its beginnings back in 1979, in a book called Lifetide by zoologist Lyall Watson. A scant two pages --147 and 148, if you're inclined to look it up -- introduced the idea. It involved the learning patterns reported in Japanese Macaques in the 1950s. These animals, spread out on a number of islands off the coast of Japan, were under observation by primatologists, who left food out on the ground for the beasts to keep them from raiding nearby farms. One young monkey, Imo, had apparently hit on a neat trick: sand could be removed from sweet potatoes by washing them in water. Not a momentous discovery, but it was apparently something like a Grand Unified Theory of gastronomy to the macaques: according to Watson, almost immediately every monkey was washing his or her food items in the brine -- even monkeys on neighboring islands. It seemed more than simple cultural diffusion. What happened? According to Watson's account,

"One has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. And those who do suspect the truth are reluctant to publish it for fear of ridicule. So I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what happened. In the autumn of that year an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea... Let us say, for arguments sake, that the number was ninety-nine and that at eleven o'clock on a Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama."

A kind of group-consciousness had arisen among the monkeys. Watson admits that he had to improvise "the details, the day, and the number of monkeys" -- it could just as well of been a thousand, instead of a hundred -- presumably the data isn't there because the primatologists themselves were a bit astonished at the whole thing. In any case, Watson was illustrating a general principle for a popular book, not writing a dissertation.

Watson's Hundredth Monkey was latched on to immediately, and became part of the unconventional wisdom of the growing New Age movement. A book on nuclear war by Ken Keyes, The Hundredth Monkey, appeared, and became a best-seller. An article of the same name appeared in The Brain/Mind Bulletin, and an eponymously titled film followed. There was an even an article in Science Digest called "The Quantum Monkey". Each venture relied on Watson as the sole source of information on the mysterious macaques. And to this day, as I discovered, the Hundredth Monkey is still a potent concept. It's a compelling, amazing idea. But is it right?

In a word, no. At least not in the specific application to sweet-potaoto-washing macaques. A professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Ronald Amundson, went back to the original documentation on the macaques. What he found is that there was no indication in the detailed journal reports of anything suggestive of a sharp, inexplicable jump in the monkeys' habit of washing foodstuffs. The troop numbered 20 in 1952 and grew to 59 by 1962. There was - numerically at least - no Hundredth Monkey. An article by Masoa Kawai in 1965, the primary document in the literature, is meticulous in detail. It indicates that in 1958, the year Watson claims the learning patterns reached critical mass, there was actually only two monkeys on Koshisma island who learned the habit. of washing food. As for it "spontaneously" leaping natural barriers, two Japanese primatologists reported that the behaviour was observed off Koshima in at least five different colonies. Their reports specifically state that the behavior was observed only among a few individual monkeys and that it had not spread throughout the colonies. There is no report when these behaviors appeared, nothing to connect them with some 1958 event.

Amundson's study, originally in the Whole Earth Review in 1988, wento into much more detail than this, but you get the general idea. Watson's response to the accusations was that the Hundredth Monkey was "a metaphor of my own making, based -- as he (Amundson) rightly suggests -- on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. I have never pretended otherwise."

The Hundredth Monkey should have been demolished at this point, but it has shown remarkable resilience, leading a life of its own in popular culture. When an idea that originally referred to the washing habits of a species of Japanese Monkeys becomes touted as a weapon in the battle against nuclear weapons and third world injustice, you're talking about a powerful idea with many applications. You're talking about a conceptual Dice-o-matic that a lot of people have bought even though it doesn't work properly.

Biologist Richard Dawkins has written about something he calls "memes". Memes can be theories, bits of recited poetry, a song - practically any peice of information that can be communicated from one human mind to another. "Go ahead, punk, make my day", is a meme, as is "E=MC2". Dawkins point was that memes act in culture like genes act in nature: they transmit information, they can promote growth, etc. But instead of replicating through bodies, as genes do, memes leap from mind to mind through books, films, word of mouth, and so on.

The Hundredth Monkey meme has had an evolutionary history stranger than anything encountered in biology class. It's constituent parts, drawn from the primordial soup of science journals, were cobbled together to form the apocryphal anecdote in Lyall Watson's book. The anecdote then mutated into a fully-formed concept, infecting magazines, films, and the occasional circle of people who gather to talk about the world's problems. The Hundredth Monkey meme, it seems, is a hardy one, and is still going strong today. But it's still a bad meme.

Just as there are unhealthy genes, like those for cancer, so too are there unhealthy memes, like Aryanism, or the flat earth theory. I would put the Hundredth Monkey in with the unhealthy memes, somewhere between National Socialism and Beavis and Butthead. An idea that lends itself so readily to political passivity is attractive -- and potentially dangerous. The Hundredth Monkey tells us the physical universe is one and the same with the magical world of our childhoods: our desires can become manifest if we wished them hard enough. A concept like this, which allows one to return to the amniotic warmth of pre-adult thought, is a luxury the overwhelming majority of people on Earth can't afford -- they're too busy just trying to stay alive.

The Hundredth Monkey, it seems, will be one of those memes with us for some time to come, rattling around in the collective consciousness like a bolt in a wheelwell.

We can't do anything about disappearing biodiversity. We can't do anything about Third World sweatshops. We can't do anything about the collapse of the inner-cities. We can't fight city hall. But what we can do is meditate! We're clever primates, monkeys with gold cards; we can send waves of love out to others, and the others, in turn, can send waves out to more monkeys, and heck, in time, the whole globe should get it.

It's the trickle-down effect, man!

Critical mass!

The Hundredth Monkey!

Geoff Olson