Forgiving Apes

Originally published April 2005 in the Dickinson County News

Apes are about to teach us about the cultural aspects of forgiveness.

At the Dickinson County News last week, we received a news release letting us know that we’ll soon be learning about human forgiveness and the process of culture through a study at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa.

“By looking at how apes learn to channel certain abilities such as forgiveness, our understanding of these processes becomes infinitely deeper. We cannot gain this depth of understanding by only looking at humans because we are too close to these processes in ourselves to objectify them,” says Ape Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

I’m not even going to dream of diving into the evolution vs. creation argument here. So, let’s all start by simply agreeing that we are like other animals in some ways.
If I took the time, I could probably illustrate that even my pug exhibits forgiveness approximately 2.3 hours after I haul her to the vet. Cats seem to hold a longer grudge.

Sure, I understand why scientists could think they can learn something about forgiveness from apes. I’ll predict they’ll learn apes can and do indeed forgive.
I am having a hard time buying this whole thing though. If I’m following this right, these studies are being done because we need apes to show us why we behave as we do – because we’re too close to our own behavior to understand it. Call me crazy, but if you want my behavior explained, I think the best person to ask would be me.

Of course, I’ve also got my doubts when we look to a creature that doesn’t speak our language to teach us how we work. My guess is that we’re going to have the same issues here as we do when women try to explain men…

Regardless, Curious George may be wondering something else. Why do we want to know so badly if and why apes can forgive? What’s wrong with the system of forgiveness? What can we possibly do with our findings to better society?

I used to get so angry when my dad would deny my teenage requests saying: “It serves no useful purpose.”

That’s my question here: What’s the purpose? What are we going to do when apes help us understand where forgiveness came from and why we forgive? What is this $125,000 study’s “useful purpose?”

The news release did attempt to answer my question:

“When adults discipline children for wrongdoing, they set a pattern which encourages children to discipline peers for wrongdoing,” says Savage-Rumbaugh. “As young children mature, they are then told – through words, not actions – they must forgive others who have engaged in wrongdoing towards them. This creates an inherent conflict in our minds. Do we discipline for wrongdoing or should we forgive?”

Hmmm… and do we teach kids that forgiveness is for the benefit of their own emotional well-being or for the benefit of the person they intend to forgive?

I’ll let you ponder those yourselves. And in the meantime, if you figure out whether the chicken or the egg came first, please let me know…

“Forgiving means to pardon the unpardonable, faith means believing the unbelievable, and hoping means to hope when things are hopeless.” – G.K. Chesterton