Crucial to the New Age movement was the positing of a means or agent to bring it into existence. Some saw the New Age as due to astrological forces released by the changing movement of the stars or due to energy coming from the spiritual hierarchy. The concept of the Hundredth Monkey was an alternative to both astrological and spiritualist concepts. It suggested that when a certain number of people gave their consent and commitment to a new idea, it would spread through the population somewhat mysteriously. Thus as the number of people attuned to the New Age grew, at some point New Age consciousness would spontaneously sweep through the general population, and the New Age would arrive.
The basis for this idea was derived from a story in the 1979 book Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious by Lyall Watson. He reported on research conducted by several anthropologists on the macaques (a species of monkey) in the islands off Japan. According to the story, in 1953 one of the anthropologists observed an aged macaque female wash a potato to get the sand and grit off of it before eating. She, in turn, taught another to do the same thing. The pair taught others, and soon a number of the adult macaques were washing their potatoes. In the fall of 1958, almost every macaque was doing it. Then macaques who had had no contact with the potato-washing monkeys began to wash their food. It appeared, concluded Watson, that as the practice spread through the monkey communities, a critical mass was approached when 98 and then 99 monkeys washed their food. Then, when the hundredth monkey adopted the practice, critical mass was reached, and the practice exploded through the monkey population.
Watson's story was seized upon by New Age spokesperson Ken Keyes, founder of the Living Love Seminars. In 1982 he published the book The Hundredth Monkey and within a year had distributed 300,000 copies. His subject was peace, and he argued that peace consciousness could spread throughout the human race only if a sufficient number of people adopted a commitment to peace. Once a critical mass was reached, love of peace would suddenly move quickly through the race. As the idea became a well-known concept within the New Age community, other writers, such as Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Russell, and Stanislav Grof, picked up the discussion.
However, the idea of the hundredth monkey did not go un-challenged within the New Age community. As early as 1983, psychologist Maureen O'Hara confronted it in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Her article was followed two years later by another writer protesting Watson's claims, arguing that all the monkeys who washed their food had learned it from another. There was no evidence of a magical mysterious spread of the practice. Watson accepted Amundson's analysis of the situation and admitted that he had developed the hundredth monkey concept as a metaphor based on slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. While the concept retained some supporters through the 1980s, it slowly disappeared from New Age thinking.
Keyes, Ken, Jr., The Hundredth Monkey. Coos Bay, Ore.: Vision Books, 1982.
Watson, Lyall. Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.