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A Monkey and A Sweet Potato



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.

Lyall Watson

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.


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.

Macaque Washing Sweet Potato

“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.


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.









PBS trailer on the macaque.

7 Responses to “A Monkey and A Sweet Potato”

  1. Jan Harris

    Although not as circumspect as some others who have responded, I want to agree that we can all be powerful in affecting change. If we are lucky, it is productive change. Every little way we show kindness and inclusion to others or help someone who needs a little, we make a positive difference. What a wonderful world it could be!

    I’m likin’ this potato theme you have going!

  2. Lynn Peyer

    I also believe that one can effect change by doing something, even a small thing. This is why I never skip voting.

  3. Maggie

    Well here I go with my simplistic mind, but what struck me is the saying “Monkey see, Monkey do.”
    To the depth of your article which as always is truly informative and full of your thought provoking insights, there may be thresholds that push an idea over an edge. Don’t think it is necessarily 100. For me the prime example, we see today is the media reciting the same lines almost word for word when they need to push their ideology. Likewise politicians who echo each other’s pablum. I digress…..I agree with your comments about trying/wanting to make a different, whether solo or in a group. That is an awesome goal to strive for and perhaps one we all deep down, have in common.

  4. Les Fenter

    Hmmm. Clever comments? Thanks for your invite, Ellen. Don’t know much about Sweet Potatoes and Monkeys. (Was better at geometry.) But I have some experience with Home Fries and Sweet Servers. The little gal at our local Sports Bar works tirelessly to bring HOT thick fries along with a true hamburger on a semi-sweet bun. YES. However I’d be pleasantly surprised if she ever used a typewriter or read “The Complete Works of The Bard”. Right! But it’s the one of the few Monkey theorems one can tell nowadays w/o offending someone. Really, if you had an infinite number of Monkeys, could they type the recipe for grandma’s T-day marshmallow and tater recipe?
    As Black Elk, holy man of the Oglala Sioux, may have said regarding the 100 Monkey story, “Whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.” So what is true? And is 100 a real number? Or is it like the number 40 in the Bible to describe floods, fasts and other obvious, but not necessarily scientific truths?
    So the cleanup crew consists of females? You may be pleased to know I have committed to cook dinner for 100 people from who-knows-what-needs at our church. Why am I doing that? Many of our female members think only women can do it. After all, they always have! Haha, we now have about 10 male volunteers to help. . . . . .oh yes, and one daughter of Pat’s and mine is bringing the frejoles! But our cleanup crew will consist of males.
    Yes, a lot is changing. It is our (your, your followers, my, and ours) peeps who are changing the old ways – one more monkey at a time. Smile, Nancy P.
    BTW, she must have been hot in her younger years.. . . . . smile 😉