“The primatologists learned it wasn’t only the monkeys on the lone island who were washing their sweet potatoes. After a certain number of monkeys learned the benefits, all the monkeys learned. On all the islands. Think about it. They didn’t even have the LINC. Or a market research corporation.”

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do.”

Corporate Torsos Need Not Apply

The 100th monkey effect is part of the speculation that makes Corporate Torsos Need Not Apply speculative fiction.

It’s based on an unsubstantiated claim that a 1950s island group of monkeys began washing sweet potatoes and, when their behavior hit a critical mass, i.e., 100 of them, it impacted the species multi-generationally…including on isolated islands where there was no actual transmission of learning. Although the study was intended to be an example of cultural learning in animals, it wound up becoming a kind of parapsychology myth, that there was this non-local cerebral field. This is echoed in other pseudoscience classics, like The Field.

I revisit this concept every now and then to see if there’s been any actual study on the idea. I haven’t seen much in social science but I did attend the screening of a movie last week about theoretical physicist David Bohm, Infinite Potential, that very briefly covered some of his ideas on the non-locality of information storage. It’s worth a look if you get a chance. Nice biopic about an interesting guy who had a lot of ideas, and got shut out of a better career because he joined the Communist party in Pennsylvania to talk more about Hegel. Those Commies didn’t care about Hegel so he quit after a couple of weeks. Later on he lost access to his own damn research when his security clearance got yanked. What a bummer. But I digress. Back to the monkeys.

The ‘explosion’ of potato washing among the monkeys, unfortunately, was actually a slow and measured behavior change over a long period of time. Too boring for the plot of a near-future cli-fi action-adventure comedy, so obviously I went with the pseudoscience concept instead: the existence of a species-wide cerebral cortex.

The 100th monkey story is worth a read, but don’t look at the wikipedia entry if you want to hang on to the pseudoscience and myth that surrounded the original study. Also, there weren’t even 100 monkeys in the whole group. Disappointing.

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