The ‘hundredth monkey’ phenomenon describes the development of a new capacity or talent in a world-wide population of monkeys when a sufficient ‘critical mass’ of individual monkeys have adopted or reproduced that behavior. It illustrates several key concepts which we can apply in our understanding of human evolutionary development. First, it becomes clear that the progress takes place first at the individual level. Second, it is apparent that the new talent or behavior is something that is generally possible for the entire race, which is why it can be generally disseminated once a sufficient number of individuals have achieved the result.
Humanity has a variety of views about progressive development. Some believe that certain developed new capacities are unique to specific extraordinary individuals and cannot be made part of the future of the race in a more general way. Some deny the value of individual progress entirely and expect that somehow the society will make its own progress, all together, without individual uniqueness entering in at all.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “The Spirit in humanity discovers, develops, builds its formations first in the individual man: it is through the progressive and formative individual that it offers the discovery and the chance of a new self-creation to the mind of the race. For the communal mind holds things subconsciently at first or, if consciously, then in a confused chaotic manner: it is only through the individual mind that the mass can arrive at a clear knowledge and creation of the thing it held in its subconscient self. Thinkers, historians, sociologists who belittle the individual and would like to lose him in the mass or think of him chiefly as a cell, an atom, have got hold only of the obscurer side of the truth of Nature’s workings in humanity. It is because man is not like the material formations of Nature or like the animal, because she intends in him a more and more conscious evolution, that individuality is so much developed in him and so absolutely important and indispensable. No doubt what comes out in the individual and afterwards moves the mass, must have been there already in the universal Mind and the individual is only an instrument for its manifestation, discovery, development: but he is an indispensable instrument and an instrument not merely of subconscient Nature, not merely of an instinctive urge that moves the mass, but more directly of the Spirit of whom that Nature is itself the instrument and the matrix of his creations. All great changes therefore find their first clear and effective power and their direct shaping force in the mind and spirit of an individual or of a limited number of individuals. The mass follows, but unfortunately in a very imperfect and confused fashion which often or even usually ends in the failure or distortion of the thing created. If it were not so, mankind could have advanced on its way with a victorious rapidity instead of with the lumbering hesitations and soon exhausted rushes that seem to be all of which it has yet been capable.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 23, Conditions for the Coming of a Spiritual Age, pp. 246-247