Norman Allan

The 100th Monkey: Fact and Fiction.

I think it was Lyall Watson who coined the term "the 100th monkey". It brings up three topics: i, the concept itself; ii, the fact that he "fudged" (falsified or invented) his data; and iii, the data itself. Let's start with the data.

Lyall didn't check his data. He just spoke off the top of his head. And so will I.


Koshimo Island: In the 1950s, in order study the behaviour of macaque monkeys on Koshimo Island, some Japanese ethologist ( footnote "ethology" is the science of behaviour. Konrad Lorenz, he whom the greylag geese followed, was the father of ethology, the study of the natural behaviour of animals, mankind included ), left out food, yams, on an observable beach to draw the monkeys there. So they weren't exactly observing behaviour in the wild, but they thought it would be the next best thing. Certainly it was convenient, and it turned out serendipitous. The monkeys started to frequent the beach where the food was left, and then one day one of the monkeys, a young female the ethologist's named Ito, started to wash the sand off of the yams. Soon other young females and juveniles of both sexes started to imitate her, and gradually the behaviour spread through the colony. The older animals, and adult males in general, did not learn the new behaviour. (footnote:Max Plank, the father of quantum physics said that new theories don't become established by convincing the old academic order, they outlive them.) So we see the same pattern in the spread of innovation in man and in monkeys.

Some time later the ethologists started leaving rice on the beach. Again a young female, a niece of Ito, came up with an innovation. She scooped up a handful of rice and with it, inevitably, some sand. She took this down to the water with which she was familiar from washing yams. She threw the handful of rice and sand onto the water. The sand sank, and she skimmed the rice from the surface. Again the behaviour spread gradually through the troop as young females and juveniles of both genders copied it. (footnote: actually, wasn't she being a bit dense - she was treating the granular rice like a solid yam. Stupidity can be a mother of invention)

The ethologists also saw a behaviour which I call "the Tyrant's Option".

 The Tyrant's Option: The dominant males did not copy the new behaviour, but they'd go into the water when the other monkeys were busy separating rice from sand, and they'd

exercise the Tyrant's Option: they'd take what they wanted. They’d wait for another monkey to throw the rice onto the water, and skim the pickings.

The Tyrant's Option - force and threat of force - has been a winning strategy till now. Now with the scale expanded to a global locust plague, the option is running out.


Watson’s "100 Monkeys": Some time in the 70s Lyall Watson was travelling through Japan when he heard, or misheard, someone talking about Koshimo Island, and he elaborated from this a beautiful fiction which he named the "100th monkey". His fabrication was this:-

The yam washing "pre-culture" spread gradually through the troop as young animals learned it by watching and imitating their brethren, until... until a certain mass was reached and then the knowledge spread explosively, reaching everyone. One autumn day, Watson says, the critical point was attained. "Let's say 99 monkeys had learned the behaviour," he said. When the 100th monkey learned it a "critical mass" was passed and now, suddenly, all the monkeys started to show the behaviour. It became part of their collective unconscious/conscious, not only on Koshimo Island, but all over Japan! The idea is that when enough individuals repeat a particular thought pattern, that pattern is facilitated for the whole species. We'll come back to the concept, but first let's look at the data.

In fact in the period in question, autumn '69, two new animals learned the behaviour bringing the total of creature displaying the behaviour from 36 to 38, and there was no subsequent acceleration in the acquisition of the pattern. Nor did it spread to the mainland, to other troops. Though it might have, for the ethologists observed one of the Koshimo Island monkeys, an adult males, did move to the mainland where he joined a new troop. He stayed for four years, and then swam back to the island.

The whole 100th monkey story was a fiction, and Watson did not take the trouble to read the data, to get the story straight, though it's published in readily accessible journals. Oh well: never let the truth stand in the way of a good idea.

The thought that an idea has a certain inertia is not unique to Watson's 100th monkey. Rubert Sheldrake has generated a wonderful body of thought around this 100th monkey theme.


Sheldrake's Monkey: morphic resonance. I'm going to give you my recollection of a lecture Sheldrake gave in Toronto in 1988. If you wish you can learn further from his book

Rubert Sheldrake: A New Science of Life.

For me the least satisfactory aspect of Sheldrake's thesis is where it comes from. Sheldrake, and various other mystically inclined embryologist, feel that there is not enough information in a fertilised egg to explain how it turns into a chicken, or a man, or a monkey. So these mystics imagine that the species history, the countless generations preceding, going through their development, their "ontogeny", blaze a path, facilitate the process - like following someone through a field of wheat. Where to go? Go where the last one went. But where is the path cut? In what field? And how do we find the field? Through resonance, Sheldrake says. A resonance of form. Form = shape = "morphous": therefore "morphic resonance".

This is the bit of Sheldrake's theory that just doesn't resonate with me, that the fertilised egg does not have enough intrinsic information to become what it is destined to be, that it needs outside help. Sheldrake is ignoring Hegel’s dialectic. He's saying, I don't understand it, so let's call in the finger of God. But if we can't yet solve the "three body problem", how three bodies in space interact, if we can't solve even relatively simple non-linear equations, then who are we to say an egg can't program a chicken. Anyway, Sheldrake said it couldn't, and it triggered a very interesting train of thought. Fields of morphic resonance became for him the mechanism of the 100th monkey phenomenon: and he found the phenomenon almost everywhere.

See Rubert Sheldrake's: A New Science of Life

for a discussion of

crystals (travelling the beard’s chemists)



Sheldrake image degradation experiment.

Urdu/Aramaic experiments

morphic field time space and past life

EPR non-local cause

TV set as metaphor for brain/mind

being watched, sensation of…

where are the morphic fields? we'll return