Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata


Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

“Baboons are perfect models for the ecosystem I study. They live in the Serengeti in East Africa, which is a wonderful place for a baboon to live. They’re in big troops, so predators don’t hassle them much. Infant mortality is low. Most importantly, it takes baboons only about 3 hours of foraging to get their day’s calories. Critical implication of this – if you are spending only 3 hours in a day getting food, that means you have 9 hours of free time each day to devote to being miserable to some other baboon. Like us, they are ecologically privileged enough so that they can devote their time to generating psychological stress for each other. If a baboon in the Serengeti is miserable, it is because another baboon has worked very hard to bring that state about.”

So, while social life carries its benefits, it’s clear there are also costs. There are enough things in the biological world that can make us miserable – infection, congenital disease, predators, droughts – but one of the most important sources of misery (and comfort) is each other. We swim in a sea of other people, who have a dramatic impact on our emotional states. In “The Origins of Virtue,” Matt Ridley described our evolved emotions primarily as social enhancers. I think it’s important to remember that nature did not half-ass our emotions. In that sense, they can push us to commit to an action, allowing us to go beyond mere rational calculation when weighing the pros and cons of whether to cooperate:

“Rage deters transgressors; guilt makes cheating painful for the cheat; envy represents self-interest; contempt earns respect; shame punishes; compassion elicits reciprocal compassion…And love commits us to a relationship” (Ridley, 1996: 142).

For primates, our emotions are evolved tools that help us navigate the subtleties of our complex social lives, keeping us abreast of where we stand in our relationships. We have a tendency to shy away from those emotions that make us feel bad (shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment) and gravitate toward those that make us feel good (pride, acceptance, joy, affection). In conflict scenarios, many of these are affected: contempt, self-esteem, guilt, shame, vengeance, etc. To some extent, other primates attempt to mediate negative emotional states through different ways of reconciliation.

Among chimpanzees, unrelated individuals who have engaged in physical aggression sometimes reconcile through grooming or embracing (Kutsukake and Castles, 2004). However, this occurs less frequently in wild compared to captive chimpanzees, perhaps because they have more space simply to avoid their rivals. Just walk away. Stumptail macaques have been described as having high-frequency, low-intensity aggression, but they also have a rich “repertoire of appeasement and reassurance gestures,” including grooming, genital presentation/inspection, submissive facial expressions and vocalizations, mounting, and mouth-to-mouth contact (deWaal and Johanowicz, 1993). 


Chimpanzee reconciliation (From Frans deWaal)

For humans, allowing internal tensions to linger can impair group cohesion, as well as have harmful effects on our emotional states. In his book “The Human Potential for Peace,” Douglas Fry addressed the myriad ways that people in many cultures act to defuse tensions after an offense has been committed. For example, among many Australian Aborigine groups, unsanctioned violence is considered the least favored path to justice (2006: 152). Instead, there are a list of alternatives, including holding hearings before community elders, paying compensation to the aggrieved (sometimes in goods, at others in the form of a new spouse), socially sanctioned non-lethal duels, public venting of emotions and insults at the offender, and actual reconciliation. Among the Aranda of Australia, a penis-holding ritual among men of different groups served as a means to resolve disputes:

“The primary purpose of the penis-holding rite is to resolve a grievance; however, a simplified version of the rite is associated with demonstrating good fellowship and a lack of enmity among men from divergent groups… Each man belonging to one group in turn approaches each man belonging to a second group and pulls the hand of each partner so as to feel the underside of his penis. Only subincised men can take part in the penis-holding rite, since the incisure on the underside of the penis, not the penis itself, is the important part in the rite. Subincision is a critical aspect of initiation into manhood in some Australian societies.” (Fry, p. 156).

The point is that different societies have come up with their own cultural adaptations to mediate conflict and grievances – through ritual, via atonement, compensation, confession, reconciliation. Think of it as relationship maintenance. Just as our bodies, or our cars, require regular care and mending, so do our relationships, between individuals and among groups.    

As I wrote before, attempts to repair frayed relationships carry a range of benefits. Aaron Lazare (2004) noted that offended persons may seek an apology in order to assess whether the transgressor’s remorse is genuine, or to reestablish trust, to be assured of safety and shared values, and to restore one’s dignity. Similarly, there are many motives to apologize: empathy for others, guilt for the offense, or shame for failing to adhere to one’s standards. To that list, one could add: a desire to repair a frayed relationship, to avoid sanctions such as ostracization, or simply to demonstrate that they recognize and respect the dignity of the offended.

As societies become more secular, it would seem wise to have a wider array of conciliatory tools built more explicitly into the cultural repertoire. In some ways, I find the ideals of Yom Kippur or Penance admirable and worthy of imitation, even without the theology.



de Waal FBM, Johanowicz DL. 1993. Modification of reconciliation behavior through social experience: An experiment with two macaque species. Child Development 64: 897–908.

Fry D. 2006. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. Oxford.

Kutsukake N, Castles DL. 2004. Reconciliation and postconflict third-party affiliation among wild chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. Primates 45:157–65.

Lazare A. 2004. On Apology. Oxford University Press.

Ridley M. 1996. The Origins of Virtue. Penguin Books.

One thought on “Primates and the Day of Atonement

  1. Pingback: Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.