Planet of the Apes provides an intriguing look at just how well orphans can do when their environment provides them with the support they need to flourish. In fact, having just watched the movie, I was impressed by how well the story of the main character, Caesar, demonstrates a few important principles regarding the epigenetic consequences (how genes are triggered to bring out our best or worst) of children's relationships with their families and, ultimately, their resilience after trauma.
Here's what scientists who work with primates have known for some time. That monkeys (and humans) are designed to seek the comfort of a soft safe place to snuggle. Like humans, primates value feeling a mother's touch even more than being fed. That experience of a soft warm lap to sit on is a buffer against stress and improves the child's chance of growing up psychologically and physically healthy.
With advances in the study of neurophysiology and genetics, we are now coming to understand how a nurturing environment later in life may actually undo the damage done by early deprivation, abuse and exposure to traumatic events like family violence. Stephen Suomi at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recently showed that when a rhesus monkey is orphaned, or raised by a neglectful mother, that child will exhibit normal bio-behavioral development (meaning they will act as if they were never abused) if placed in a "benign" environment. That environment must be nurturing, safe and provide the stimulation to grow. In Hollywood's rendering of the orphan monkey adopted by the compassionate scientist, we watch as Caesar gets most of what he needed to flourish emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
The reverse situation is also true. Put an orphaned, neglected, or abused monkey like Caesar into a stressful environment and he will become fearful or aggressive. What's even more profoundly telling is that these characteristics, either healthy prosocial adaptation or aggression, are passed to the monkey's offspring via non-genetic mechanisms. In fact, it appears that a great deal of who a monkey is depends on what his environment teaches him to be. Even with a bad start in life that could trigger emotional reactivity at the physiological level, a supportive environment can turn things around. They did for Caesar.
The research on resilience tells us that the same can happen for human children too. Problematic patterns of behaviour that are triggered by adverse early life experiences can be turned off if we pay attention to making the environment around a child optimal for development.
Of course, Caesar loses that supportive environment when he is sent to primate "prison." One can't help but think of all the abused kids who populate our juvenile detention centres. Three quarters of young women and one third of young men in that system have been sexually abused; most have experienced neglect and physical abuse. Like Caesar, many fail to rehabilitate. In fact, when those jails are poorly funded and staff badly trained, our children learn to be more brutal, more angry, and become less likely to reintegrate into society. Caesar's behaviour behind bars isn't that different from most young people who find themselves in a similar situation.
However, just as Suomi's research reminds us, give a child a supportive environment, and he will flourish. There are many youth facilities that are properly funded and their staff well trained. I tell the story of one boy's experience inside an institution like that in my novel The Social Worker. Sadly, such a benign, nurturing environment is relatively uncommon. Instead, our most vulnerable children, most from situations of abuse and neglect, find themselves further brutalized inside our institutions. It doesn't turn out so well for Caesar, who, as the science predicted, became more aggressive, not less as the quality of his environment declined and threats increased.
The lesson? Environments can heal, or they can exasperate early trauma. While we can run experiments on monkeys, we have to rely on our powers of observation with human children. Anyone who promotes stiffer sentences for juveniles should spend a day inside a Kiddie Jail talking to the kids and finding out their life histories. Bad environments beget bad kids. That's what's you'll hear from most of our young people who are behind bars. The science of epigenetics is doing nothing more than convincing us of what we already knew. Give a child a safe secure environment to grow up in and most will do fine, even after experiencing a traumatic event.