The blog of Xeno, a slightly mad scientist
The hundredth monkey effect is a supposed phenomenon in which a new behavior or idea is claimed to spread rapidly by unexplained, even supernatural, means from one group to all related groups once a critical number of members of one group exhibit the new behavior or acknowledge the new idea. The story behind this supposed phenomenon originated with Lawrence Blair and Lyall Watson in the mid-to-late 1970s, who claimed that it was the observation of Japanese scientists. …
The story of the hundredth monkey effect was published in Lyall Watson’s foreword to Lawrence Blair’s Rhythms of Vision in 1975, and spread with the appearance of Watson’s 1979 book Lifetide. The claim is that unidentified scientists were conducting a study of macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima in 1952. These scientists purportedly observed that some of these monkeys learned to wash sweet potatoes, and gradually this new behavior spread through the younger generation of monkeys—in the usual fashion, through observation and repetition. Watson then claimed that the researchers observed that once a critical number of monkeys was reached—the so-called hundredth monkey—this previously learned behavior instantly spread across the water to monkeys on nearby islands.
This story was further popularized by Ken Keyes, Jr. with the publication of his book The Hundredth Monkey. Keyes’s book was about the devastating effects of nuclear war on the planet. Keyes presented the hundredth monkey effect story as an inspirational parable, applying it to human society and the effecting of positive change.
In 1985, Elaine Myers re-examined the original published research in “The Hundredth Monkey Revisited” in the journal In Context. In her review she found that the original research reports by the Japan Monkey Center in Vol. 2, 5, and 6 of the journal Primates are insufficient to support Watson’s story. …
The story as told by Watson and Keyes is popular among New Age authors and personal growth gurus and has become an urban legend and part of New Age mythology. Also, Rupert Sheldrake has cited that a phenomenon like the hundredth monkey effect would be evidence of morphic fields bringing about non-local effects in consciousness and learning. As a result, the story has also become a favorite target of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and was used as the title essay in The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, published by the Committee in 1990.
In his book Why People Believe Weird Things Michael Shermer explains how the urban legend started, was popularised, and has been discredited.
The effect discredited
An analysis of the appropriate literature by Ron Amundson, published by the Skeptics Society, revealed several key points that demystified the supposed effect.
Unsubstantiated claims that there was a sudden and remarkable increase in the proportion of washers in the first population were exaggerations of a much slower, more mundane effect.
Rather than all monkeys mysteriously learning the skill it was noted that it was predominantly younger monkeys that learned the skill from the older monkeys through observational learning, which is widespread in the animal kingdom; older monkeys who did not know how to wash tended not to learn. As the older monkeys died and younger monkeys were born the proportion of washers naturally increased. The time span between observations by the Japanese scientists was on the order of years so the increase in the proportion was not observed to be sudden.
Claims that the practice spread suddenly to other isolated populations of monkeys may be called into question given the fact that at least one washing monkey swam to another population and spent about four years there and also the monkeys had the researchers in common. Amundson also notes that the sweet potato was not available to the monkeys prior to human intervention.
I was having a great debate this morning about consciousness and reality. It is important to know that our living mental model (consciousness) does not always match external reality. Some people have built an entire false world view around a handful of wrong interpretations and urban legends.
The point of the 100th monkey myth is that sweet potato washing behavior magically jumped to other islands. It must have been magic, because monkeys can’t swim. Except they can.
M. f. fuscata is the mainland subspecies of the Japanese macaque. … Japanese macaques are excellent swimmers and are reportedly able to swim distances of over half a kilometer (Mito 1980 )
The 100th monkey effect might better become known as a case of human ignorance causing the belief in magical behavior acquisition. The ignorance, the false conclusion that helped spread the myth, is that monkeys can’t swim. They can. Even chimps and orangutans can.
Two monkeys have created a splash among experts after proving that apes can learn to do the breast stroke.
Cooper the chimp and Suryia the orangutan have caused a monkey puzzle that has left scientists scratching their heads.
Most land mammals instinctively doggy paddle in the water by paddling their paws but until now it was believed that great apes were very poor swimmers.
Monkeys usually flounder around in a flurry of limbs when they find themselves out of their depth and some have even drowned in zoos that use moats to keep them enclosed.
But these two have shown they can learn the breast stroke after being brought up by humans in the USA.
Scientists watched Cooper swim in his pool in Missouri where he enjoys retrieving objects from the bottom.
And Suryia was filmed at a private zoo in South Carolina swimming 12m independently.
Both used a leg movement similar to the frog kick used by humans to do the breast stroke.
Researcher Renata Bender said: “It was very surprising behaviour for an animal that is thought to be very afraid of water.”
Scientists believe that tree-dwelling ancestors of apes and humans might have lost the instinct to swim and over time developed other strategies to cross rivers, such as wading upright or using natural bridges.
But these apes seemed determined to prove them wrong.
Each ape had a slightly different style. Cooper moved his back legs together but Suryia kicked them out alternately.
Cooper eventually became so confident in the water that he could dive – helped by safety ropes – and taught himself to stay afloat.
And Suryia learned to swim under water with his eyes open and could move like human swimmers with his face immersed.
Researchers concluded: “The common opinion that apes are not able to swim due to an anatomical barrier is clearly rejected here.”
By the way, “proves scientists wrong” is a stupid and misleading phrase because scientists are constantly challenging, testing and revising theories. That’s what science is: a method which gives the best evidence-based information at the time. New evidence is always coming in. There are not final answers in science, there is only “the best evidence at this time says that …”
This is approach, experimentation, peer-review, and objectively and critically looking at evidence, is better than superstitious wishful thinking if you want the truth about something. It isn’t better in that it takes more time. If you just need an answer right now, and being right is not important, don’t use scientific method. Instead, make a guess and then state your conclusion repeatedly with great conviction.
Getting back to the 100th monkey book, ending the threat of nuclear war is still important, but it won’t happen magically. We have to communicate and educate.