If entire countries apologized more often, the world would be more peaceful

A recent study looks at whether collective apologies on behalf of countries may inspire hope that can lead to reconciliation. 

Does an apology from someone who offended you make you feel better? What if it was a whole country that wronged you and your people—what good would that do?

Would it make a difference if American leaders apologized to Vietnam for the costly war fought against it? Or if Saudi Arabia apologized to American citizens for giving financial support to the radical Islamic sects that would ultimately attack this country on 9/11/2001?

A recent study from Flinders University in Australia looked at what role collective apologies have on forgiveness. The researchers found that apologies can create the possibility of a more harmonious relationship but require the victim's desire to reconcile. That's when hope comes into that space and makes forgiveness possible.

In “On Apology", Aaron Lazare defines apology as essentially a communication or gesture by the offender meant to signal that they take responsibility and feel remorseful for doing wrong. Apologies can offer a path towards repair and change.

Andrew Chan holds Myuran Sukumaran in a holding cell at the Denpasar Courthouse before their repsective sentencing trials at Denpasar Court on February 14, 2006 in Denpasar, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. The two Australian men were charged with heroin trafficking having been arrested in Bali last April. Both Chan and Sukumaran were today condemned to death by firing squad for their crimes. (Jason Childs/Getty Images)

Collective apologies have the potential to reduce the desire of victims for vengeance and make them more willing to deal with the offenders.

"The hope in turn motivates the victims' own engagement in conciliatory efforts, including the willingness to forgive the offender group: letting go of hostile feelings, being willing to re-engage, and extending trust and benevolence to the outgroup," write the researchers.

The team, led by Michael Wenzel, carried out three studies, involving international students. The first two, having, respectively, 84 and 405 university students, were concerned with Indonesia's 2015 execution of two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were found guilty of drug smuggling.

This event was deeply offensive to many Australians. The execution occurred despite protests and pleas by the Australian public, famous artists, politicians and officials. The fact that the voice of so many Australians was disregarded made them incensed by Indonesia's actions. As a result Australia recalled its ambassador to Indonesia and boycotted travel to Bali.

Amnesty international and Sydney Bali Nine activists hold a vigil in front of a flower wall that says '#keephopealive' in a last ditch effort to sway the Indonesian Government to halt proceedings to execute Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on April 27, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Chan is one of the nine Australians accused by Indonesian Police of drug trafficking on April 17, 2005. (Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)

The studies considered what kind of hypothetical apologies from the Indonesian government could create a reconciliation between the sides.

The third study involved 467 people and looked at a made-up incident of supposed desecration of Australian war graves in the Philippines by Filipino soldiers. The scenario described how a group of soldiers urinated on the graves and was left unpunished due to corruption in the country. The experiment asked people to react to a fabricated apology by President Duterte to the Australian people.

All the studies showed that an alleged apology from the country that made the offense opened the door to reconciliation and eventual forgiveness. Hope was a vital element of that process, found the researchers. The possible apology led to hope of a reconciled future.

The studies also showed that there were some situations where an apology would not work. This could be in the case of a long-entrenched situation where history and ideology makes it impossible for people to believe that any meaningful change could take place, regardless of the apology. The same holds true if the victims just have no desire for reconciliation.

"People enlist hope in situations of uncertainty, and hope jumps exponentially when a possibility of success emerges," write the scientists. "Hence, an apology may be particularly effective when the situation is bleak, when the relationship is under real threat, but not beyond repair."

You can read the study here, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.