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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chimpanzee Apologies

Yesterday, before I left to run my usual Wednesday errands, I stuck around to observe how Lawrence and Bow started out their time together. There was the usual display that lasted quite a while, and then after Bow approved, Lawrence went in, and they embraced, and after that Bow started grooming Lawrence's hand.

And then something happened between them, something very brief, which I could not really make out from my vantage point, and then I saw Bow apologize to Lawrence. An apology from Bow is unmistakable, and since he has apologized to me many  times, I immediately recognized it. It involves both a facial gesture and a hand gesture. The facial gesture is a grimace and the accompanying hand gesture involves presenting the knuckles to the other party's mouth, as if requesting a kiss. What this gesture usually means is: "I'm sorry I hurt you. Please forgive me."

It turns out,  and I only know this because I asked Lawrence, that Bow hurt Lawrence when he attempted to groom a hangnail. Lawrence told him that it hurt and asked him not to do that, and then Bow apologized. After his apology was accepted, Bow went back to grooming the hangnail, but Lawrence switched him to the other hand.

Apologies are not a human invention. The best apologies are those that occur spontaneously and do not involve artifice. One of the unfortunate side effects of human culture and human language is that we are very good at faking apologies. We try to obtain forgiveness when we don't feel any real contrition.

Now, when I write this, I do not mean to imply that chimpanzees are angels or that they never try to deceive. In his telling of falsehoods, Bow is on a par with many a human. But there is something to his body language that does not lie. There are many hard-wired reflexive expressions of genuine emotion, and if you pay attention to those, rather than the things he intentionally says, you will come to a much better understanding of the person that Bow is.

I think that to some extent this is true of humans, too. We talk about forgiveness and what a wonderful thing it is. But many people forget that true forgiveness is a reflex -- that it happens naturally when we are in the presence of true contrition -- which is also a reflex.  If we stop trying to fake these feelings, we just might open ourselves up to experience them for what they are: hard-wired emotional responses that help individuals live peacefully within a group.


  1. I think we can all learn something from watching Bow and Lawrence interact.