Missed this news last week: Lyall Watson, author of the best-selling book Supernature – massively influential in the ‘alternative’ genre – passed away on June 25th, aged 69.
A radical thinker operating at the margins of accepted science, Watson was an apparent polymath who might have sprung fully-formed from a Victorian adventure by Jules Verne or H Rider Haggard. A dapper, shimmering figure, often dressed for the tropics in a safari suit of white linen, he led the first scientific journey up the Amazon river, and was the first white person seen by headhunters in Papua New Guinea.
Supernature, his most successful book, dealt with mysterious and inexplicable natural phenomena. It became a 1970s student essential, and was acclaimed for its stimulating treatment of exotic and unexpected scientific facts and discoveries.
Some were fascinated by Supernature’s coverage of apparently amazing scientific breakthroughs, such as Cleve Backster’s work with plant ’emotions’, but others found it all to be credulous claptrap. Watson’s work was later dismissed out-of-hand by many skeptics on account of his ‘invention’ of the now legendary “100th monkey” hypothesis in his 1979 book Lifetide:
Watson’s tale was that an unspecified number of monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea. But the addition of a further monkey – the so-called hundredth – apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by evening almost every monkey was doing it. Moreover the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously in monkey colonies on other islands and on the mainland.
Although it seemed a good story, the part about spontaneous transmission, at least, was not true. Watson, however, was blamed only for “myth-making” rather than confabulation. “It is a metaphor of my own making,” he admitted in 1986, “based on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. I have never pretended otherwise.” Although the hundredth monkey theory occupied only a few paragraphs of his total output, it bulked disproportionately large in critical studies of his work. Watson himself remained unrepentant, however, and declared on his website: “I still think it’s a good idea!”
Regardless of the reader’s opinion of Watson’s books (25 in all!), one thing is sure – his seminal Supernature had a vast influence on young minds looking for fresh ideas in science.