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Looking for the 100th Monkey
I have recently seen several references to the story of the Hundredth Monkey. The story first appeared in Lyal Watson's book Lifetide, but may be more well known from the opening of Ken Keyes' book The Hundredth Monkey. For those of you who do not know the story, here is a synopsis.
The Japanese monkey Macaca fuscata has been studied by scientists for many years. In 1952, the researchers provided a colony of monkeys living on the island of Koshima with sweet potatoes. The potatoes were dropped in the sand near the colony. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw potato but not the sand and dirt on them. A young female named Imo found that by washing the potato in the water of a nearby stream, the dirt and sand could be removed. She taught the method to her mother. Her playmates also learned to wash the potatoes, and a few taught it to their mothers. Over the next five years, most of the young monkeys learned this cultural innovation, but only a few adults who mimicked their children adopted the technique.
Keyes' version of the story embellishes the tale from here and supposes that one morning in the autumn of 1958, the hundredth monkey in the colony learned to wash potatoes. Then, by evening almost every individual in the colony had adopted the technique. The "hundredth monkey had somehow created an ideological breakthrough! But notice. A most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea." Colonies of monkeys on the mainland and other islands began washing their sweet potatoes.
The central theme behind this parable as written by Keyes and Watson is that when a sufficient number of individuals adopt a new idea or behaviour, there occurs an ideological breakthrough that allows a spontaneous mind-to-mind communication without the connection of external experience. When this happens, all the population spontaneously adopt it.
While the notion has great appeal and can be used to support concepts such as Jung's collective consciousness, there are some major differences with the historical record. Sure, the fall of the Communist Bloc could be cited as evidence for the phenomenon. But what about human institutions such as religion or form of government. If only a relatively small critical mass is required to convert all, why has Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam not established itself as the sole religion or democracy as the sole form of government to the 5.6 billion people of this planet?
Elaine Myers looked further into the story (In Context, #9, 1985) and found that the true details differed from those reported by Keyes and Watson. While most young monkeys (aged 2 to 7 years) did learn to wash potatoes, only two of eleven adults had taken up the practice. Propagation of the behaviour moved along family lines and among playmates. Older males, who had little contact with the young, did not learn to wash potatoes. When the potato-washing generation grew up and had their own babies, the new generation learned the behaviour from their mothers. By 1962, almost all the monkeys living on Koshima Island, except those adults born before 1950, were washing their potatoes. There was no mention of widespread washing in other colonies although some individuals were washing their potatoes. Rather than a transfer of knowledge through cosmic consciousness, the practice on other islands likely resulted from the emergence of an innovator like Imo in the group.
Myers suggests that the story of the Koshima monkeys based on the scientific observations has a different explanation. Rather than an example of the spontaneous transmission of ideas, she believes the story is an example of the propagation of a paradigm shift. In a paradigm shift, changes in habits or beliefs tend to come from innovations by those in young adulthood. If the innovation is strong and well-grounded in fact or faith, it will pass among members of that generation. Members of older generations will continue to cling to the habits and beliefs they grew up with. With the passing of the torch of power from one generation to the next, the paradigm of the younger generation takes hold.
Interestingly, the Koshima monkeys, having learned to use water in connection with their food, began to expand their use of the sea and stream as a resource. The potato washing lead to wheat washing and then to bathing and swimming and use of sea plants and animals as food. The simple act of washing one food has ultimately led to extensive changes in the culture of the colony.
However, there well may be a critical number of individuals that is required to shift an emerging behaviour from one of a personal quirk in a few individuals to community behaviour, but reaching that number does not automatically replace older behaviour patterns. It just establishes the new behaviour as a strong alternative.
The important lesson of the true story of the monkeys of Koshima Island is not one of magical communication of an idea, but that ideas need to be directly communicated among individuals. Most importantly, we must teach the younger generations by word and deed that lifestyles which will sustain life on this planet can be fulfilling. The most important word here is deed. Rhetoric will not make the changes happen. We must lead by example as did Imo.
As we have seen, the innovation by Imo of washing her potato opened the door for several other major innovations in her colony. There is no logical jump from washing a potato to eating seafood, but there is a connection. As James Burke, the author of Connections has said, "New objects appeared that were not recognizable as a mutation of something that had existed before, and as each one emerged it altered the environment not for a season, but for ever." So too new ideas and behaviours.
Change will happen whether we want it or not. That is a given fact. What path that change takes is, to a degree, under our collective control. The lessons being learned by the children today will set the paradigm for the latter half of the Twenty-First Century. Will the lessons being taught today provide them with the knowledge and the skills to survive the century? Or is there a little Imo, who has the insight to see what is needed, out there sowing the seeds of a new paradigm we cannot even imagine?
Looking for the 100th Monkey by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1999, All Rights Reserved.
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