Chapter 4 – Monkey See, Monkey Do


Many of you likely heard that description of children’s behavior from some adult as you were growing up. You may have even used it yourself. Somewhere in my life that expression got stuck in my mind. I suspect I first heard it growing up in the mid-West. I’m not sure when I started using it as an adult to express what I was witnessing among people. And the string of words has morphed over time. A light meaning has become one of new pondering. I do recall that it resurfaced frequently when we had children and started hanging out with them and their raucous, expressive friends. Our older son would do something daring on the playground jungle gym. His younger sister would try the same feat with little or no success. With their older neighborhood friends or peers they looked up to, they’d mimic behavior, adopt certain dress styles, insist on the same dolls as Molly, or fight a mock war like Captain Travis when given a chance to lead.

Even as they grew to become adults I found myself applying the expression to more human behavior I observed. I realized that MSMD applied to me, others as individuals and groups alike. It also became a life-situational response, I suspect. You see, most of my adult work life became devoted to helping adults learn. As adults I discovered we still rely on learning like children: “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. A variety of terms also express the notion: copying, mirroring, apprenticing, conforming, herd mentality.

Watching children, it was an endearing, amusing, hopeful expression. It also held an element, for me, that was puzzling and a bit discouraging. Why were my bright children not doing the leading and others copying? Certainly they, like all kids, had moments when they led others to do. A partial answer is self-revealing: I was projecting my needs and competitiveness into the scenes before me. Stepping back, what I found is that I needed to observe more, see the pattern involved in those interactions, and expand my field of vision.

In my profession, the more I worked with adults to re-instill discovery learning and learning to learn, the more I sensed that there was wisdom in that old saw, MSMD. To oversimplify this small journey, I gradually connected a dot or two. There was no ah-ha or lightning insight.   Also, I was reading more and more about evolutionary psychology and relevant sciences. Today my files and bookshelves are filled with writings on cognitive psychology, evolution, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, etc….

Most of my work, whether in the classroom, in teams, or coaching , always incorporated facilitating the discovery, integration, and alignment of learning to improve individual, group and organizational effectiveness and health. I remember exercises where learners would look at their life histories in a time line and connect the dots of memorable events. Pattern recognition became an important quest. (another example?) But I digress.

Arguably perhaps, MSMD aligns quite nicely with answering the question, for starters, of “how did our ancient ancestors learn and pass on knowledge and skills”?  I believe, as do most evolutionary scholars, we have to go back to the beginning. Since people argue over the beginning, I’ll be arbitrary.

My beginning is a visual image you’ll have to create with a few cues. Take a moment to envision the situation for small numbers of homo-sapiens when they found themselves on the ground, upright on two legs, and together with others of their evolved species. Stop reading for a moment and let your mind dwell on the question as you form your image.

They had to hunt or gather food and water wherever they were. They had to protect themselves from threatening, meat eating creatures. Simply, they had to struggle to survive. So what images and scene did you create in your mind’s eye?   A core notion I gleaned from my visits to that past involve a key concept about life from our primitive beginning: Survival. For many of you, a likely refrain is: “Our struggle for survival is still a ruling guiding principle whether conscious or unconscious.”

Back to hunting and gathering. Sounds routine for the ancients, perhaps. But maybe not exclusionary to modern homo-sapiens. There is at least one underlying process that is with us today. Imagine that some were better at each task than others. At some point that began to be observed by the other family members and children and it became important. Maybe for survival. And maybe because gathering more or hunting better just caught on without words or language, as we know them, to transmit what’s a better practice. In sum, our ancestors copied the best hunters and gatherers who stumbled onto or created better techniques. Observed, valued, copied with repetition, learned and embedded and passed on as more conducive to the goal: survival. Make sense? I’ll expand that routine to other domains of our ancient species.

Here’s another one that caught my fancy, evidenced by crumbs on a trail left by movies, books, lectures, articles but yet to become a recognizable pathway to integrated knowledge. And, if the trail I’m constructing makes sense, please add your crumbs and insights to the unfolding story. Remember, we’re just at the beginning. While millennia have passed, you’ll find or can leap to realizing we still rely on MSMD more than you have imagined.

Returning to the beginning, what is progress and human improvement? How did it happen then and now? Return to your self-guided imagining recalled above. Perhaps a few decades or a hundred years have passed and our ancestors are increasing their consumption of meat for a host of reasons and needs. Someone notices that a lot of meat is being left on the bone. Their teeth and jaws still aren’t adapted well enough to be more efficient carnivores. Out of curiosity, the person notices a bone fragment that is sharp and begins to scrape the meat off the bigger bone. More meat is then available. Other family and relatives, and passing strangers, note this innovation and begin to adopt it. In another village, with no contact with that tribe, another curious ancestor has access to sharp pieces of shale and begins to do the same process. It too catches on and spreads in their river valley.

As the variety of foods in their diet increase, the use of their teeth, mouths, jaws and head shape begin to change as the centuries and millennia pass. Learning to use fire emerges. The gestation period for child birth shortens for a host of reasons and needs again. Their learning and adapting causes changes in the brain and brain size. As those two basic bodily processes evolve, they are in need of more calories for the evolutionary changes to be sustained and take irreversible root.

This evolutionary process is also evidence that deeper learning may have been occurring. Looking around their natural environment they discovered and learned that sharper, harder objects can do more efficiently than, say, wood. Embedded, this notion has become a cue that natural things may serve more purposes. Just imagine the leaps in learning that would be required over the millennia to take natural elements from nature combined with combined learnings to discover, or prove, that making and forging bronze was of value to survival and doable. How that process evolved we’ll likely never know. But it is fun to imagine what our ancestors did on that long path.

Discovery and learning are starting to accelerate – albeit slowly from our place in history. Life is becoming more complex which pushes the need for better and swifter forms of communication to enhance “monkey see, monkey do” although that process has never been abandonded. Primitive language starts to take hold perhaps illustrated by a common set of gesticulations, grunts, guttural expressions, whistles or music-like sounds.

A core element of this approach to learning is that someone, or many “someones” emerge in the small human collectives that figure things out (innovations) sooner than others or just plain get lucky. Their innovations are observed and start catching on to wider audiences, for lack of a better term. Do these individuals repeat their innovation discovery? Those that are “expert” for their contribution or find other skills that are passed on become acknowledged, appreciated and maybe revered in their small tribes and communities. Does that role morph into a larger status with attendant responsibilities and requests for, say, their advice and wisdom or the mystery and awe surrounding “how’d you do that and then that and then that?”

No formal designation of role and status are yet likely invented or being bestowed on tribal members. And on the spiritual side, I don’t know that we’ll ever know if that human need, whether yet in human awareness then, was created and embodied in male or female individuals. Nor is it likely we will find evidence to take the spiritual needs and creativity beyond speculation. As the millennia passed from then, it is highly probable that an MSMD spiritual process would emerge. Felt human needs as well as created human wants were beginning to join the march. Our curiosity, creativity, acquisitiveness, and ability to learn from one another was, in temporal terms, showing signs of limitlessness. That path or paths are yet to be explored and imagined in subsequent chapters.


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