“Telepathy, my dear Watson” (Hundredth Monkey Effect)


When Lyall Watson and fellow researchers introduced sweet potatoes to macaque monkeys in the 1950s, one of the younger primates took to washing the vegetables in the ocean. This habit eventually caught on with most of the troop, either through observation or teaching.

There were a couple of distinguishing features about this. First, it was a rare case of the young teaching the old, sort of like when middle schoolers explain the latest computer innovation to their grandparents. Secondly, the oldest members of the troop tended to never pick up the practice. These distinctions could have been the starting point for legitimate study on how groups learn new techniques. Instead, Watson went with the hypothesis that once a certain number of monkeys began washing the sweet potatoes, their kin on nearby Japanese islands began tater-dipping in a cosmic transference of food sanitation protocol. But the only group consciousness demonstrated was by the credulous listeners who lapped up this notion of a spontaneous leap of collective ability once critical mass was reached.

Of course, merely ridiculing this idea is not a valid strike against it; that needs to come from a scientific angle. This was most thoroughly achieved by Ron Amundson in an article for Skeptical Inquirer. He perused five papers Watson and his associates had written on their experiences, and found Watson failed to even attempt the first step in the scientific process, defining the question. He also learned that the papers were in conflict with each other and were inconsistent with claims Watson had made in public. His own sources were contradicting him. In speeches and before reporters, Watson declared that in one spectacular instant, any monkey in the troop who hadn’t washed potatoes suddenly acquired the ability. Even more amazing, monkeys on nearby islands also gained the skill. But the reports written at the time revealed a slower, gradual increase.

This makes for one of the stranger tales in pseudoscience history. Usually the perpetrator will coin some silly term or act evasively when defending his work. Instead, Watson readily admitted to patching his hypotheses together with third-hand reports, constructed memories, and folklore. He conceded Amundson was right when he accused Watson of basing his conclusions on undocumented conversations, improvisations, and intuition. And while most pseudoscientists are hostile to criticism Watson wrote, “I accept Amundson’s analysis of the origin and evolution of the Hundredth Monkey without reservation. It is a metaphor of my own making, based as he rightly suggests, on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.”

The next logical words from Watson’s mouth should have been the ones fully rejecting his original hypothesis. Instead, he said, “I still think it’s a good idea.” Well, he can think it without it being true. And a critical mass of people can think it without it being true, which contradicts the whole idea.

After poring over the documentation, Amundson pieced together what really happened. Relatively young monkeys saw the benefit of washing the sweet potatoes and this method was passed onto still younger members of the troop through observation or tutoring. Older monkeys mostly did not gain the skill. As the older monkeys died and more monkeys were born, the percentage of the troop that washed the potatoes grew. After nine years, all monkeys in the troop were doing it. No sudden increase in the ability occurred and there was certainly no indication of knowledge transference through psychic means.

Since the proposed Hundredth Monkey Effect bypassed the Scientific Method, it was a nonstarter among zoologists. But it was happily embraced by those in the New Age movement who were unburdened by the need for an explanation of how things work.

Ken Keyes Jr. pushed the idea that we should think peacefully in order to avoid nuclear war, a notion whose nobleness is outweighed by its implausibility. And as psychologist Maureen O’Hara observed, what would be the point of activism regarding nuclear disarmament or any other issue when it’s more efficient to silently dwell on it?

Meanwhile, Rupert Sheldrake cited the Hundredth Monkey Effect as evidence of morphic fields. He never quite explains what these fields are, but they seem to be a railway network of memories and animal telepathy that people can draw from, be it to gain strength, to have clearer insight, or to bolster a pseudoscientific notion of psychic primates. Others considered the Effect to be validation of Carl Jung’s theory of collective unconscious.

The website mindopenerz.com goes a little further and asserts it is evidence of a collective consciousness: “The monkeys across the other islands started washing their potatoes in the ocean as well as if it was understood on a higher level of consciousness. This brings to light the idea of a Collective Consciousness, where as if only a few individuals know a new idea, it remains the conscious property of all.”

Meanwhile, spiritualdynamics.net informs us that, “When enough people’s primary attention becomes focused through their heart chakras, the hundredth monkey effect will occur.”

If you still haven’t met your daily quota of begging the question examples, here’s another: “The mechanism for this transference of ideas works the same way for monkeys as it does for all sentient beings. We exist within a global atmosphere of consciousness.”

The website references what it considers an example of the Effect. In 1941, Les Paul and Leo Fender independently invented a solid-body electric guitar, a form of the six-string which had never been produced. According to the site, this is the Hundredth Monkey Effect in action.

However, per the Effect, there should have been many more than two people perfecting this instrument innovation simultaneously. In truth, this occurrence requires only a mundane explanation. By 1941, guitars had evolved to the point where what Paul and Fender did would have been a next logical step, especially when being conceived by musical geniuses whose careers were dedicated to the very idea improving this instrument.

Because potato washing was observed on different islands, Watson inferred that it had traveled in some paranormal way from one location to another. But independent innovation is not unusual among a species whose members are spread out. It’s similar to backyard basketballers deciding to play PIG without realizing that many others have previously come up with this shortened version of HORSE.

Watson’s ideas are more akin to those embraced by believers in ancient aliens, Zermatism, and similar notions, where alleged patterns are said to indicate a common mysterious teacher. Macaque monkeys didn’t even have potatoes to wash before 1952, when provisioning began. Within 10 years, monkeys on at least five islands had learned to wash them. This indicates a similar level of ingenuity one would expect among members of the same species, as opposed to being proof of a magic monkey mind meld.

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