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.


Beliefs and Words


I ended Chapter 2 with a phrase in my poem which, even out of context, may still resonate for some and not for others: “Knowing our oneness in Life’s Eternity”. For most current belief systems that is generally agreed upon. Our oneness. Life’s eternity. In faith, whether religiously based or spiritually created, we can imagine where we’ve come from, our place in this waking moment, and can envision the infinite moments to come. That combination of words speaks truth as we know it and want it to be.

You know the old saw question, much trivialized over time: “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” What came first, the knowing or the words?  Clearly, we can agree that “words” have meaning and that their meaning is important, shapes our lives, guides our behavior, and often determines the course of history and, more importantly, our evolution. How we have come to know a word’s meaning, value it, and act on it is less commonly understood.

So one might ask: where did words come from? I’m sure there are many answers and spirited debates emerge. Let me take you down a simple path and leave the complex argumentation to more scholarly writers. My wife and I were listening recently to a series of lectures by a historian, an expert, on Chinese history. Some 5000 years described in some 32, 45 minute segments. He spoke early about the role of women in Chinese pre-history. That’s before writing or codifying with symbols and characters (carvings, wall drawings, pottery etchings, etc.) emerged to be discovered by archeologists. So it was in the beginning for the Chinese. Sort of their “Genesis”.

It seems that women, as shaman or spirit leaders, played a dominant role in formation of beliefs and rituals and interpreting signs and symbols. Their “reading” of those communicated meaning about past events and predicted futures, small and large. And that meaning was passed on, held onto, and guided the beliefs and behaviors of small and then larger groups of people. We can’t be sure if language, as we know it, had yet been created. Probably. And probably more than grunts, whistles, gesticulations (signing).

This “language” guided “higher level” belief about the unknown, spiritual world. It came to make sense to collectives of individuals albeit extended families, perhaps villages of relatives but nothing of any great size. Still, this language, and the belief system it embodied, held them together.

I haven’t attempted here yet to describe my views on language and behavior’s role in our evolutionary journey of survival, adaptation, and progress toward civilization. That is for another chapter. But I’d like to leap from the pre-historical example above to a later, higher level of social thought and organization using the history of China.

In that same lecture series, the historian talks about the impact of Confusionism and Taoism on the emerging, evolving Chinese culture as we’d see it between 500 BCE and 100 BCE. One could say that these two philosophies, quasi-religious belief systems, and descriptive word constructs brought different approaches to describing the reality of the time. They offered a way for people to communicate, believe, and behave around organizing concepts, symbols, and stories that united them and offered templates at differing times. While not yet codified as “laws” as we know them, they were however a foundation upon which emperors and kings could formulate rules their subjects were bound to follow or suffer consequences.

Subsequent emperors, kings and leader-challengers, built on those early words and belief systems to mold their kingdoms, empires and dynasties. As China passed into the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE, emperors blended Confucianism and Taoism with realistic techniques of Legalism to hold allegiance to their far-flung empires. And in later centuries, these morphed into new words and beliefs of Buddhism and spiritual explanations. But they were never totally lost as guides to present life, as depictions of the eternal future and connections to history, ancestors, and the spirit world.

As my wife and I talked about those lectures on 5000 years of Chinese history, we were struck by similarities and parallels to our Judeo-Christian history. One world mostly untouched by another. One much older and yet not unfamiliar when looking at the patterns of evolution building two different civilizations and quite different cultures. If one thought of those as unconnected universes as they evolved and then discovered the broad brush similarities, it might raise a question about the convergence of human evolution along a predictable path which unites our oneness and ties it together for eternity as we conceive it today. Thus, “Knowing our oneness in Life’s Eternity”.

Chapter 2 – An Offering and Hope

This morning I awoke trying to break the code of “what’s next?” to follow the opening post of my blog. I’d opened up a vast and unknown territory with my introduction: lots of hope, thousands of thoughts, hundreds of pages of notes and ramblings but not clear plantings to grace the landscape. So in that moment, as I picked up the folder of hard copies crafted and penned and scratched over time, I came across this “rumination” (I love that word, hardly used anymore) which I jotted down as I awoke from a nights’ sleep in the Fall of 1989.

“The vision of our future for ourselves is no more than the patterns of our past making itself explicit”.

Provocative, debatable still. It seemed a reasonable assertion at the time and worthy of holding onto. I knew not “why” or “what for.” It didn’t matter, “who cares?”

Over the years, while it seems life’s mosaic gets clearer and clearer, there are moments that change it, add more meaning, are a relived reflection or honed insight brought forth springing from a painful jab or a laugh that refocuses the moments past. My “Offering” below was drafted in November 2005 and read at a reunion of friends and family around the Thanksgiving table. It wasn’t provoked by a joyful laugh or prods but rather the growing hate in our land toward Muslims and, by extension, “different” peoples. Added to that were the increasing headlines and research reports of our uncontrolled damage to the environment. Somehow it seemed the theme of “diversity” pulled those jabs and prods together.

A Thanksgiving Offering  

In this hour of darkness and hope, let each of us vow to love and cherish the other and this fragile earth we inhabit. Let us take responsibility for our mistakes and learn from them. Let us realize that we can dream of a more perfect world and that we have the power to make this world evolve and become. Know that we must honor and respect the diverse religions and belief systems of the world and permit them to thrive. They represent the creativity and creative possibilities of the human mind and spirit which are infinite. They are the human reflection of the vast and seemingly endless diversity of nature before which we stand in awe and love. Its diversity is our diversity. We must commit to sustaining and embracing it in all its forms if we wish to achieve a hopeful, harmonious and generative future for all living things. However we choose to imagine and create that future, and from our diverse beliefs and faiths, let us join in celebration of this moment of renewal and mutual hope.

Mutual hope and renewal.   Hmmmm. If you are like me, we have lived our life, so far, moving between moments of doubt, fear, and disappointment to those bursts of optimism, renewed faith, and celebration of life’s joy and opportunity. Both are real. Both validate life and living. In between, we go “h(u)mming” along (pardon the pun). And yet, I believe that we’d prefer the latter conditions more which make those difficult times acceptable and tolerable as part of, well, life and without which we’d live in endless warm sunshine or cloudy cold. Either would be really boring to me anyway. Good news: life is not pure either/or. Maybe it is both/and.

The following attempt to write a poem about the moment of Obama’s election in November of 2008 tried to capture what I expected might be the unfolding future in front of us for the next few years. Whatever you believe happened in the following 8 years, and what it means for the future, seem to be united around one strong belief I have: that our better angels do now, have over the eons, and will continue to guide the future unfolding of our species’ evolution.



Our hopes raised high once again

Amid those whose fears spike as mirror of us.

But to find the calm in reason and honor the contrasts of reality

And to embrace this long moment with love and that same hope,

Breathe deeply and imagine that chaos may be harmony

Whose vibrations may confuse us

While we seek a way forward together;

To share joy and happiness and peace

Joined by more than words,

United in spirit,

Touching, holding hands, embracing,

Knowing our oneness in life’s eternity.


Drafted January 27, 2017

Introduction to Timeless Change – Chapter 1:


Who was it that said? “The only constant is change.”   Heraclitus, I believe or so we are told. Seems a likely “fact” and “truth” somewhat lonely in a vast space surrounded by overwhelming uncertainty, relativism, and socially constructed reality. Strange comment that! We often assert that we know with certainty what the past “was”. And so it would be today until we discover a new “scientifically proven” law in physics, or chemistry or medicine, or biology contrary to past “proven” laws. Look at the new work of archaeologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists. Or historians who re-write the myths we have constructed. New evidence is assembled that reveals a revised or new “truth” that validates what skeptical historians had asserted earlier. So is there one universe explained by Big Bang or parallel universes whose origins we can only speculate?

Don’t worry. I won’t try to explain all of what is embedded in that paragraph. I’m neither capable of that intellectual stretch nor would you read much of it were I able to.

What I do hope to do are a number of things readers and commentators might find interesting. First, I want to portray my ideas, patterns of thought, and learning accumulated over 74 years. They keep rolling around in my brain and emotions as I try to make sense of my life now and as I look ahead beyond my lifetime. It all made sense, up to now.

Second, I am presumptuous enough to believe that you will relate to a significant proportion of my ramblings that keeps you engaged. You’ll find some or much that you can relate to your life. You’ll discover paragraphs and pages you’ll take issue with. You’ll read statements and assertions that will challenge your assumptions about topics like: where we have come from as a species; where are we today and where are we headed?; what does this mean for our society and world as we know it now and in the next 50 or more years?; what might the next 1000 years look like emerging from radical change and turmoil?

Finally, I hope that any responses I receive will challenge my assumptions and knowledge expressed in these writings thus opening new channels of insight, reflection, and learning for me. Also, I invite reactions from readers who find affirmation in their grappling with similar thoughts and feelings as we try to understand the meaning of our lives.

In closing this introduction to my blog, here are some words to explain briefly the title I have chosen. It should be seen as representing a large canvas for me to paint many brush strokes of color, shapes and perspective as the entries unfold. As you read, you have been set in this moment which is part of timeless change. If you re-read all the foregoing, the color, shapes and perspective you had 5 minutes ago may have changed and you are in another moment. All of this was shaped in the “there” that you came from before you sat down to your computer. But I am talking about a “there” which is more than the years of your age. It is the “there” we all share from eons past. You’ll find there is largely an unfolding of “good news” that portends a hopeful future – barring any major cataclysm. You are in the “now” which includes the past that shapes the “timeless tomorrow”.

I hope you are sufficiently intrigued by what I’ve written so far and by the mystery intended in the title so that you’ll want to return in the days and weeks ahead. But don’t expect this to unfold in a linear fashion from point A to B to C. It will unfold and fold back. A single, simple image followed by a more complex expansive image next. As with all good mysteries, you’ll enjoy inserting your own interpretations of where the entwining threads are headed. And you’ll build your own connections and meanings from your life onto the impressionistic painting being revealed as I pick up brush and select the next paint and image that fancies me in the moment as I look back and forward from each moment I am writing.

Re-drafted, 2/25/2017

Ralph Bates