Potatoes are clearly hot, so here is another story.
Really, I loved the comments on my last post, “The Potato Moment,” so I will share another story–this one with a sweet potato at its heart.
This is about “The Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon,” a New Age myth about critical mass. The idea is that when one more than a certain number of us embraces an idea or a perspective, it can alter collective consciousness.
This pertains to research by Japanese scientists in the 50s and 60s on the monkeys (Muscaca futata) on the island of Koshima, but the phenomenon did not really launch until more than 20 years later. The source was two pages in a book written by scientist Lyall Watson. Titled Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious, it was published in 1979.
Watson was a South African who had degrees in multiple areas of science, including botany, zoology, biology, anthropology, geology, ecology, and ethology, among others. He had written 24 books by the time he died in 2008. His focus, as Wikipedia puts it, was on trying “to make sense of natural and supernatural phenomena in biological terms.”
This was a welcome effort in the New Age era, which began in the 70s and endured until about the beginning of the 21st century.
A TRAIL OF DECISIONS
The story of the hundredth monkey phenomenon was seeded over years through a series of decisions. In the absence of any one of them, there would have been no story.
First came the decision of the Japanese scientists to study the monkeys of Koshima, which we know as macaques. Then, years into their research, they decided to begin “provisioning” the monkeys with food, including sweet potatoes. They laid some of the potatoes on the beach, which made them sandy. Then a young female monkey named Imo decided to wash the potatoes in the ocean, a breakthrough moment.
Next Imo taught her female peers to wash the potatoes, and their elder females decided this was a good idea too. Soon, males were washing potatoes as well. The story could have ended right there. Instead, and almost 30 years later, Lyall Watson decided to refer to the Japanese research in his book.
“I am forced to improvise the details,” he said, and proceeded to do so. He had to be creative because the actual number of monkeys involved in this study was unknown and so was the number of the monkeys who took up potato-washing. “Let us say, for argument’s sake,” Watson wrote, “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, he went on, but the practice also jumped to other islands and even to the mainland. Now this was probably the ignition point of the story’s eventual appeal. After all, Watson’s anecdote took off in the New Age era. It was a period of time in which many eclectic ideas about how the world works flourished, and some emerged from scientific observation. This one seemed to throw light on how group consciousness can develop, and it became extremely popular, traveling worldwide.
THE STORY ENDURES
Even a non-scientist like me can find many deficits in the detail of this story. As a result, in 1985 the Washington Post decided to publish “Spud-Dunking Theory Debunked” by Boyce Rensberger. In spite of the flaws in the phenomenon, he wrote that “Elements of the nuclear disarmament movement have promoted the idea with the assertion that if enough human minds can be won to their cause, the whole world will suddenly be seized by an urge to disarm.”
He also verified that a Japanese primatologist had found that potato-washing appeared on other islands. In one case, though, a potato-washing monkey swam there in 1960 and stayed for four years. On other islands, potato-washing started suddenly, as with Imo, but did not spread. As I read this, I wondered, “Where were they getting the potatoes? Were the scientists still feeding them?” Unanswered questions remain.
Nevertheless the story endures for an important reason. It gives hope that mass consciousness can turn on a dime. All of us I’m sure are either experiencing or seeing frustration, anger, and fear about the way things are in the moment. Everybody would like to effect change according to their own terms, but the challenges are so huge we feel helpless. One would have to be famous or wealthy or powerful or all three to make any difference–or so we may believe.
But then comes the idea of the hundredth monkey. One could be the last individual needed to align in consciousness or action with an idea that could make all the difference. The hundredth monkey phenomenon gives us hope. It makes any small thing we do in service to an ideal count. We could be the game-changer–and never even know it.
And when I think about the hundredth monkey phenomenon, a quote by Black Elk, holy man of the Oglala Sioux, comes to mind: “Whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.”
I think the hundredth monkey effect is basically a constructive idea, and I accepted it as such the first time I heard about it decades ago. I run with it to this day. After all, the leader of the potato clean-up practice was Imo, a female. A lot of clean-up is certainly needed.