Posted by: Dan | April 28, 2008

The Evolution of Forgiveness

Medium ImageThe “Nature” versus “Nurture” debate is a perennial topic. In Beyond Revenge, McCullough suggests that both revenge and forgiveness are hard-wired into us as social primates. In doing so, he manages to distinguish his claims that such human behaviors are natural from fatalistic conclusions, because “natural” does not connotate a justification for vengeful actions, nor does it suggest that natural behaviors are unavoidable.

It’s a compelling argument that McCullough makes, and a difficult task to balance a presentation of the science with readibility for reaching a broad audience. That is, his descriptions of behavioral studies in humans, primates, and game theory modeling seem to lose their potency in the course of the storytelling. Large parts of it come across as just what McCullough seeks to avoid: adaptationalist “just-so” stories. But his argument is well-written and persuasive.

For instance, his description of Robert Axelrod’s work on game theory modeling and cooperation is extremely insightful and resounding proof that natural selection actually leads to a nicer world in the long run. Primate studies, as he describes them, also suggest that the standard response – and healthy – mechanism of closure to an act of aggression is forgiveness and reconciliation. Human psychology studies back this up, and identify the components of apologies that elicit forgiveness the best.

And in the next-to-last chapter, he debunks the notion that religion is the shortcut to forgiveness and compassion. True, as McCullough notes, religious individuals often forgive more readily – *if* the offender is part of the same social network, and particularly if the offender is part of the same religion. However, devoutly religious individuals are more likely to exhibit more intolerant and vengeful attitudes towards offenders who are outsiders, on the margins of society, etc.

The last interesting item that struck me, reading Beyond Revenge, was something that I don’t think McCullough stressed enough considering his argument that revenge and forgiveness are natural behaviors. That is, the differences between revenge and retaliation – revenge requires planning and forethought as provided by the prefrontal cortex (something that our primate relatives lack compared to us). A similar difference exists for forgiveness and reconciliation, which McCullough mentions but does not elaborate on. These concept pairs are related though, and despite the role of our mighty prefrontal cortex, are all part of our primitive emotional drives.

So I liked the book. In a world of suicide bombers and pre-emptive invasions, it is an important book. We can influence the cycle of retaliation that exists in a harsh world by considering the psychological factors that activate “the forgiveness instinct.”



  1. Nicely written review, Dan. Makes me want to read the book…

  2. Thanks John. I really do think that this is a good and fair book of the topic, and I hope that I didn’t overstate the difficulties that any author on the subject of ethology faces – adaptationalist “just so stories”, and combining technical background with readibility. He does do a fair job of that, and what he doesn’t do is largely a problem of the “black box” of the human psyche.

  3. Lesbos disagreement

  4. I agree…(with John). It makes me want to read the book. There are many fascinating studies on the role of affect in society and evolution. not sure if you have read Tompkins Dan? Very detailed but fascinating conclusions on the evolutionary value of the affects. (also am enjoying your page – thanks!)



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