Arthur Keith

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Sir Arthur Keith (February 5, 1866January 7, 1955) was a Scottish anatomist and anthropologist, who became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Hunterian Professor and conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London (not to be confused with the Hunterian Museum Glasgow Scotland; the two were founded by brothers). A leading figure in the study of human fossils, he became President of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The latter role stimulated his interest in the subject of human evolution, leading to the publication of his book A New Theory of Human Evolution, in which he supported the idea of group selection. Where others had postulated that physical separation could provide a barrier to interbreeding, allowing groups to evolve along different lines, Keith introduced the idea of cultural differences as providing a mental barrier, emphasising territorial behaviour, and the concept of the 'in-group' and 'out-group'. Man had evolved, he claimed, through his tendency to live in small competing communities, a tendency which was at root determined by racial differences in his 'genetic substrate'. Writing just after World War II he particularly emphasised the racial origins of anti-Semitism, and in A New Theory of Human Evolution he devoted a chapter to the topics of anti-Semitism and Zionism in which he argued that Jews live by a 'dual code'.


Born in Persley, Aberdeenshire, the son of a farmer, he obtained a Bachelor of Medicine at the University of Aberdeen in 1888. He travelled to Siam on a gold mining trip in 1889 where he gathered plants for Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London in his capacity as a plant collector assistant for the Botanical Survey of the Malay Peninsula.

On returning to Britain in 1892, Keith studied anatomy at University College London and at the University of Aberdeen. It was at Aberdeen where Keith won the first Struthers Prize in 1893 for his demonstration of ligaments in humans and other apes. In 1894, he was made a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 1908, as he says in 'A New Theory of Evolution', he was 'put in charge of the vast treasury of things housed in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons', which brought about a shift in his interest from anatomy to the pursuit of 'the machinery of human evolution'.

He studied primate skulls, and in 1897 he published An Introduction to the Study of Anthropoid Apes. Other works include Human Embryology and Morphology (1902), Ancient Types of Man (1911), The Antiquity of Man (1915), Concerning Man's Origins (1927), and A New Theory of Human Evolution, (1948).

Keith was editor of the Journal of Anatomy between 1915 and 1936.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913. He was knighted in 1921, and he published New Discoveries in 1931. In 1932, he helped found a research institute in Downe, Kent, where he worked until his death.


Concerning Man's Origins

Concerning Man's Origins, a book based on his Presidential Address at the British Association in 1927, contains a chapter entitled 'Capital as a Factor in Evolution' in which he proposes an interesting explanation for Britain's leading role in the development of Industrial Society. Essentially he argues that the cold unwelcoming climate of Britain selected those who came here for a special ability to store up food and supplies for the winter - those who didn't died out. This 'capitalism' provided a secure way of life with time to think and experiment, for a population that had been selected for inventiveness and resourcefulness. Out of this special population sprang the Industrial Revolution, centred on the colder Northern counties of England like Lancashire and Yorkshire where the high-tech developments of the time took place in spinning and weaving. This is a rare book today, which does not appear to be available as a reprint.

A Manual of Practical Anatomy (1901)

with Alfred William Hughes

Human Embryology and Morphology (1902, 6th ed. 1949)

The Antiquity of Man (1915, 2d ed. 1925)

A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948)

In A New Theory of Human Evolution, Keith puts forward his ideas on the co-evolution of Human beings, Races, and Cultures, covering topics such as Patriotism, Resentment and Revenge, Morality, Leadership, Nationalism, and Race. His particular theory emphasises the ideas of 'In-group versus Out-group', and the 'Amity-Enmity Complex'. Often quoted, but very hard to get, this book covers, in one concise and very readable work, a whole lot of topics that are extremely relevant today, since discussion of such ideas was revived with E O Wilson's publication of 'Sociobiology' and now thrives under the title of 'Evolutionary Psychology'.

One chapter, entitled The Jews as a Nation and as a Race, tackles what is often referred to as 'the Jewish Question', postulating that the Jews are a special case of a race that has evolved to live as the 'out-group' amongst other races, developing a special culture that enables it to survive by means of strong cultural traditions that bind the 'in-group' with unusual loyalty and defensiveness.

Physical copies of the book are difficult to obtain as it would seem that original copies exist only in small numbers, and that modern reprints do not exist. However, an online reprint of the book is available (see link below).


"So clearly differentiated are the types of mankind that, were an anthropologist presented with a crowd of men drawn from the Australoid, the Negroid, East Asian or Caucasoid types, he could separate the one human element from the other without hesitation or mistake." Keith, A. (1922). The dawn of national life. In J. A. Hammerton (Ed.). Peoples of All Nations. London: Amalgamated Press. p. xviii.


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