Here is the small problem. This wonderful story, with so many amazing and quite positive implications did not happen, at least with regard to most of the details described by Ken Keyes in his best-selling book. The story was nothing more than an entertaining urban myth!
Actually I consider the distortion of an otherwise interesting research study of a bunch of cute monkeys more than a small problem. When I am told I science story, I expect it to have a basis in the actual observations, as reported by scientists.
The website, the Skeptic’s Dictionary devotes a long page to giving some of the background of this oft-repeated myth. Because the story really began with the late Dr. Lyell Watson, it starts with version of what had happened, as it first appeared in the 1979 book, Lifetide: the biology of unconscious;
I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what seems to have happened. In the autumn of that year an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea. . . . Let us say, for argument’s sake, 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, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerin crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary entry goes on to refute the story.
It makes for a cute story, but it isn’t true. At least, the part about spontaneous transmission of a cultural trait across space without contact is not true. There really were some macaque monkeys who washed their sweet potatoes. One monkey started it and soon others joined in. But even after six years not all the monkeys saw the benefit of washing the grit off of their potatoes by dipping them into the sea. Watson made up the part about the mysterious transmission.
Michael Shermer, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine wrote about the Hundredth Monkey tale in his 2002 book, Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time provides an alternative set of events to the two versions of the story of the monkeys on those Japanese islands, based on his research into the published data:
Scientists do not “improvise” details or make wild guesses from “anecdotes” and “bits of folklore.” In fact, some scientists did record exactly what happened (for example, Baldwin et al. 1980; Tmanishi 1983; Kawai 1962). The research began with a troop of twenty monkeys in 1952, and every monkey on the island was carefully observed. By 1962, the troop had increased to fifty-nine monkeys and exactly thirty-six of the fifty-nine monkeys were washing their sweet potatoes. The “sudden” acquisition of the behavior actually took ten years, and the “hundred monkeys” were actually only thirty-six in 1962. Furthermore, we can speculate endlessly about what the monkeys knew, but the fact remains that not all of the monkeys in the troop were exhibiting the washing behavior. The thirty-six monkeys were not a critical mass even at home. And while there are some reports of similar behavior on other islands, the observations were made between 1953 and 1967. It was not sudden, nor was it necessarily connected to Koshima. The monkeys on other islands could have discovered this simple skill themselves, for example, or inhabitants on other islands might have taught them. In any case, not only is there no evidence to support this extraordinary claim, there is not even a real phenomenon to explain.