Lyall Watson, 69, Adventurer and Explorer of the ‘Soft Edges of Science,’ Dies
Lyall Watson, a maverick scientific polymath and explorer who wrote the best-selling book “Supernature” and introduced the “hundredth monkey” theory to explain the sudden and inexplicable transmission of behavior and ideas across social groups, died on June 25 in Gympie, Australia. He was 69 and lived in West Cork, Ireland.
The cause was a stroke brought on by Lewy body dementia, said Katherine Lyall-Watson, his niece.
Mr. Watson, whose interests and academic degrees embraced animal behavior, anthropology, chemistry, botany and geology, chafed at the limitations of traditional science, which he considered inadequate to address the mysteries of the natural world. His restless mind and wanderlust led him on expeditions to the Amazon and Borneo, and, on the far intellectual frontier, to explorations of eyeless sight, clairvoyance, telepathy and the spoon-bending demonstrations of Uri Geller.
His most famous contribution to paranormal debate was the hundredth monkey theory, proposed in the 1979 book “Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious” and enthusiastically embraced by New Age thinkers.
Japanese scientists studying macaques on the island of Koshima, he wrote, found that members of the colony took to washing sweet potatoes left by the researchers before eating them. When enough macaques engaged in this behavior — say, 99 — the addition of one more monkey would create a critical mass, and the practice spread not only throughout the tribe but also, telepathically it seemed, to colonies on other islands.
Under withering criticism from skeptics, who showed that the facts behind the theory were wrong, Mr. Watson conceded in The Whole Earth Review that the hundredth monkey theory was “a metaphor of my own making,” a way of suggesting how mechanisms other than natural selection might work in evolution.
“It might have come to be called the Hundredth Cockroach or Hairy Nosed Wombat Phenomenon if my travels had taken me in a different direction,” he wrote. And besides, he added, it still might be true.
Malcolm Lyall-Watson was born in Johannesburg, the eldest of three brothers. His Scottish father worked as an architect, and his mother was a radiologist. As a child, Mo, as his brothers called him to his lifelong annoyance, roamed his grandparents’ farm and learned the ways of the veldt from a Zulu farmhand. He learned to read studying a voluminous work called “Birds of South Africa.”
In an effort to tame him and his rambunctious friends, Mo’s grandmother drove the lot of them to a beach shack made of driftwood and left them with a month’s provisions and instructions to fend for themselves. The tribe prospered, and the exercise was repeated every summer thereafter.
After attending the Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town, Mr. Watson enrolled at 15 in the University of the Witwatersrand, where he earned degrees in botany and zoology. He would later earn degrees in geology, chemistry, marine biology, ecology and anthropology. He completed a doctorate in ethology, or animal behavior, at the University of London under Desmond Morris, the curator of mammals at the London Zoo and author of “The Naked Ape.”
After joining the BBC, where he was a producer and reporter on nature documentaries (and dropped his first name), Mr. Watson embarked on a series of ventures. He designed zoos, served as director of the Johannesburg Zoo, ran a safari company in Kenya and created a whale sanctuary in the Seychelles, where his work on the International Whaling Commission helped bring about the current moratorium on commercial whaling.
Improbably, he also presented championship sumo matches at the Albert Hall in London and produced a British television series, “Sumo,” for which he provided the expert commentary as tournaments unfolded.
In 1961 he married Vivienne Mawson. The couple divorced in 1966. A second marriage, to Jacquey Visick, also ended in divorce. His third wife, Alice Coogan, died in 2003. He is survived by his brothers Andrew, of Gympie, and Craig, of South Africa.
As much an adventurer as a scientist, Mr. Watson spent much of his life heading for remote regions of the globe, leading expeditions to the Antarctic, the Kalahari, Madagascar and Indonesia in search of isolated peoples and what he called “the soft edges of science” — paranormal phenomena like the fabled psychic surgery practiced in the Philippines.
For 12 years he lived on a converted shrimp trawler in the Amazon. Often he traveled with Fred, a tapeworm he introduced into his body in the belief that it warded off stomach ailments. For a time, after marrying his third wife, he lived in the United States, but eventually he settled in West Cork, where he suffered a series of strokes and then came down with Lewy body dementia, a poorly understood disease that combines the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
In “Supernature: A Natural History of the Supernatural,” published in 1973, Mr. Watson presented a full menu of the fringe phenomena that he found fascinating and that mainstream scientists scoffed at. He suggested that oysters might possess a “tidal memory,” that a knife left under a paper pyramid could sharpen itself and that plants responded sympathetically when a live shrimp was thrown into boiling water.
The book spent 50 weeks on the best-seller list in Britain and sold 750,000 copies in paperback. A year later, Mr. Watson published “The Romeo Error,” an inquiry into death, the afterlife and the supernatural, and in 1986 he published a sequel to “Supernature” called “Beyond Supernature: A New Natural History of the Supernatural.”
His more than 20 books, reflecting a wide-ranging curiosity and in some cases a high tolerance for ridicule, included “The Nature of Things: The Strange Behavior of Inanimate Objects” and “The Dreams of Dragons,” as well as studies of whales, wind, water, elephants and sumo. His most recent book, published in 2004, was “The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs.”
His belief in a collective unconscious shaping the natural world led him ever forward on what seemed to him a simple mission. “All I do,” he once wrote, “is look, listen and try to make sense of what I find, in biological terms.”
Perhaps the only species he dismissed were the army of skeptics who found ready fodder in his preoccupations and all-too-willing suspension of disbelief. “Self-appointed committees for the suppression of curiosity,” he called them.