A SciFi Monkey Story


”’Japanese Macaque”’ (”Macaca fuscata”) October 4, 2004. One of Iwatayama Monkey Park’s 170 monkeys. Photographer: David Turner {{GFDL}

I was at a workshop this week, and the presenter imparted this lovely bit of [misleading] wisdom:

In a 30-year study of the behavior of Japanese Macaque monkeys, one population of monkeys was given crates of sweet potatoes covered in dirt. At first, the monkeys ate the sweet potatoes and spat out the dirt, but one day, a young monkey discovered that water could wash off the dirt. That monkey taught the water trick to all of its hip little friends, and finally, grudgingly, the young monkeys taught the older generations how to wash their potatoes. Eventually, all of the monkeys washed their potatoes before consumption.

When the researchers estimated that the hundredth monkey had learned to wash its potatoes, the washing behavior was suddenly observed among populations of monkeys on other islands! The researchers determined that this behavior was proof that positive behaviors, when shared by a community of one hundred or more, can metaphysically leap into other populations, without any verbal or proximate contact, or monkey wi-fi. 

The researchers called this The Hundredth Monkey Effect.

We’re talking about psychic monkeys, people!

The presenter shared the story in order to illustrate the power of deliberate, positive behavior, and the importance of youth culture (although the youth component is left out of the stories I’ve found online).

That’s lovely, really, but the story is misleading, and the science is false, which the above link explains further down into the article. Still, the presenter believed the story and explained it as proven scientific fact, and the audience was entranced. But as soon as she started talking about behaviors leaping across space, byway of quantum physics (she really said “quantum physics”), I called, “Bullshit.” (Well, I muttered “bullshit” to myself and started googling for the deets on my phone.)

Anyway, it turns out that Japanese macaque monkeys can swim. And critical thinking is an important skill. And, it is possible to be a skeptic and enjoy SF, and recognize the difference.

Has anyone heard this story before? It was a first for me, but apparently it’s a common tale.

And, if you like scienc-y, critical thinking things, you should check out Science Book A Day, my favorite nonfiction book blog. I was flattered that Mr. PopSciGuy himself, George Aranda, asked me to provide a list this week of some my favorite scienc-y Sci Fi books. It was quite a task, but I did my best to sample from many styles and decades. I’ll also keep it posted on the “Suggested Reading Lists” link on the left side bar.

9 thoughts on “A SciFi Monkey Story

  1. widdershins says:

    Yeah,but you should’a seen what the one hundred and first monkey did!

    I love these myths, and how one teensy, tiny little-bitty fact is always left out.


  2. gumanorak says:

    Some people really, really want paranormal type stuff to be true. They love it, it’s the reason why religions are so popular, and then there’s some people who kind of like living in a material Universe in which everything, with a little investigation and rational thought, has a reasonable explanation.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think so, too. If it sounds warm and positive, they want it to be true. People want to think that life is more amazing than it already is. Cooperative learning is already pretty amazing without any supernatural flair.


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