Arthur Keith

Sir Arthur Keith FRS[1] FRAI (5 February 1866 – 7 January 1955) was a British anatomist and anthropologist, and a proponent of scientific racism. He was a fellow and later the Hunterian Professor and conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.[2][3] He was a strong proponent of Piltdown Man, but finally conceded it to be a forgery shortly before his death.[4]

Arthur Keith
Sir Arthur Keith.jpg
Arthur Keith
Born(1866-02-05)5 February 1866
Died7 January 1955(1955-01-07) (aged 88)
Alma materUniversity of Aberdeen
Known forGroup selection
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career


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 Evolution he devoted a chapter to the topics of anti-Semitism and Zionism in which he argued that Jews have survived by developing a particularly strong sense of community between Jews worldwide based around cultural practices rather than homeland, while applying the 'dual code' in such a way that perceived persecution strengthened their sense of superiority and cohesion.

He is also famous for discovering the sinoatrial node, the component of the heart which makes it beat, with his student Martin Flack in 1906.[5]


He was born at Quarry Farm near Old Machar in Aberdeenshire[6] , the son of John Keith, a farmer, and his wife, Jessie Macpherson. He was educated at Gordon's College in Aberdeen.

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 and elected President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland for 1918 to 1920.[7] He gave the 1927 presidential address (Darwin's Theory of Man's Descent As It Stands To-day) to the British Association meeting in Leeds.[8] The same year the University of Leeds awarded him an honorary doctorate.[9]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913.[1] 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.

In 1899 he married Cecilia Caroline Gray (d.1934). They had no children.

He died at his home in Downe, Kent on 7 January 1955.

European hypothesisEdit

British anthropologists Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith were both fixed on European origin of humankind and were in opposition to models of Asian and African origin.[10]

In 1925 Raymond Dart announced the discovery of Australopithecus africanus, which he claimed was evidence for an early human ancestor in Africa. The British anthropologists of the time, who firmly believed in the European hypothesis, did not accept finds outside of their own soil. Keith, for example, described “Darts child” as a juvenile ape and nothing to do with human ancestry.[11][12]

Racial viewsEdit

In conjunction with his Eurocentric view on human evolution in Europe as being separate from Africa, Keith shared scientific racist views with a number of other intellectuals and writers during the 1920s, often based on Galtonism and the belief that opposition to cross-breeding in animals could be applied to miscegenation. In 1931, with John Walter Gregory, he delivered the annual Conway Hall lecture entitled Race as a Political Factor. The lecture contained as its abstract: The three primary racial groups within the human species are the Caucasian, mongoloid and negroid. From analogy with cross-breeding in animals and plants, and from experience of human cross-breeding, it can be asserted that inter-marriage between members of the three groups produces inferior progeny. Hence racial segregation is to be recommended. However, the different races can still assist, and co-operate with, each other, in the interests of peace and harmony.[13]

Piltdown Man hoaxEdit

Keith was a strong proponent of the Piltdown Man. Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery, written by the anthropologist Frank Spencer after completing the research of Ian Langham (an Australian historian of science who suspected Keith, and died in 1984), explored the link between Keith and Charles Dawson and suggested it was Keith who prepared the fake specimens for Dawson to plant. Phillip Tobias details the history of the investigation of the hoax, dismissing other theories, and listing inconsistencies in Keith's statements and actions.[14] More recent evidence points to Martin Hinton,[15] but the case remains open.


A Manual of Practical Anatomy (1901)Edit

with Alfred William Hughes

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

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

Concerning Man's Origins (1927)Edit

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 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.

The Place of Prejudice in Modern Civilisation (1931)Edit

An address given to Students at Aberdeen University. Keith’s concluding sentences in this book sums up his thesis : "Even in the modern world we must listen to the voice of Nature. Under the control of reason, prejudice has to be given a place in the regulation of human affairs". (p. 54) Keith remarks that the 18th century common sense realist philosopher Thomas Reid reached the same conclusion. Keith also cites Adam Smith, the theoretical father of capitalism, who in his 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' (1759) regarded prejudices as part of human nature, to both preserve human life and for the welfare of the common good. Keith concludes that the idea that prejudices "are not artificially acquired, but have been grafted deeply into our natures for particular purposes" is not merely a discovery of Darwinism. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, these arational feelings must serve some higher survival purpose and are so largely present in life, that they all can't be dismissed as "sin".

A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948)Edit

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'.

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. Such claims are very controversial today.

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).

An Autobiography (1950)Edit

Keith wrote his memoir when he was 84, because "a short time hence someone will have to write my obituary notice, so that what I set down now may then prove of service".[16] He recounts how he came to pursue his scientific work, and reports on important people whom he met along the way—William Boyd Dawkins, Conan Doyle, Charles Sherrington and others. Nonetheless, the lengthy volume was deemed "completely unexciting. Events of sentimental interest and happenings of pure routine get almost equal emphasis."[17]

Darwin Revalued (1955)Edit

Keith went to live in a house very close to that which Darwin had occupied in Downe, Kent, in the latter years of his life, and took a great interest in trying to understand more about Charles Darwin. In this book, written just before he died, Keith gives a lot of detail about Darwin's family life, as well as his career.

Prediction of the futureEdit

In September 1931, Keith and other prominent individuals of the time were invited by The New York Times to make a prediction concerning the world in eighty years time in the future, in 2011, to celebrate the paper's eightieth anniversary since its establishment in 1851. Keith's prediction warned against overspecialization:

Eighty years ago medicine was divided among three orders of specialists – physicians, surgeons, and midwives. Now there are more than fifty distinct special branches for the treatment of human ailments. It is this aspect of life – its ever growing specialization – which frightens me. Applying this law to The New York Times, I tremble when I think what its readers will find on their doorsteps every Sunday morning.[18]


"Why is it that the feelings which accompany the practice of every kind of reprisal or of revenge are painful? Indeed, all the feelings which enter into the practice of the code of enmity are unpleasant and abiding. The explanation I offer is that resentment is unpleasant to make sure that it will be put into execution, so giving relief by gratification.

—Sir Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution, (London: Watts & Co., 1948), 82.

"I have sought to prove ... that the code of enmity is a necessary part of the machinery of evolution. He who feels generous towards his enemy, and more especially if he feels forgiveness towards him, has in reality abandoned the code of enmity and so has given up his place in the turmoil of evolutionary competition. Hence the benign feeling of perfect peace that descends on him."
—Sir Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution, (London: Watts & Co., 1948), 82.

"Another mark of race possessed by the Jews must be mentioned. Their conduct is regulated by a ‘dual code‘; their conduct towards their fellows is based on one code (amity), and that towards all who are outside their circle on another (enmity). The use of the dual code, as we have seen, is a mark of an evolving race. My deliberate opinion is that racial characters are more strongly developed in the Jews than in any other race."
—Sir Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution, (London: Watts & Co., 1948), 390.

"The German Führer(Adolf Hitler), as I have consistently maintained, is an evolutionist; he has consciously sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution. He has failed, not because the theory of evolution is false, but because he has made three fatal blunders in its application. The first was in forcing the pace of evolution among his own people; he raised their warlike passions to such a heat that the only relief possible was that of aggressive war. His second mistake lay in his misconception of the evolutionary value of power. All that a sane evolutionist demands of power is that it should be sufficient to guarantee the security of a nation; more than that is an evolutionary abuse of power. When Hitler set out to conquer Europe, he had entered on that course which brought about the evolutionary destruction of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes (see Chapter 34). His third and greatest mistake was his failure to realize that such a monopoly of power meant insecurity for Britain, Russia, and America. His three great antagonists, although they do not preach the doctrine of evolution, are very consistent exponents of its tenets."

—Sir Arthur Keith, Essays on Human Evolution, (London: Watts & Co., 1946), 210 (cf. Evolution and Ethics, (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947), 229.)

Spurious quotationEdit

Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable.

This supposed quote is used by creationists in an attempt to demonstrate that Sir Arthur Keith simply dismisses evolutionist viewpoints outright due to a presumed anti-atheistic bias.[19] However, in attempting to research this statement, one finds that it usually appears without primary source documentation.[20] In those instances where seemingly original documentation is provided, it is stated to be a foreword for a centennial edition or "100th edition" of Origin of Species.[21] However, several facts show that the attribution of these words to Arthur Keith is erroneous.

Keith died in 1955, some four years before the 100th anniversary of Darwin's work, so that he was clearly not available to write an introduction for the centennial edition (this was actually done by William Robin Thompson who did in fact hold anti-Darwinian views as can be seen from his foreword published the year after Keith died).[22][23] Furthermore, while Keith did write an introduction to earlier printings of Origin of Species, in use from 1928 to 1958, the words given above do not appear in that introduction.[24] Finally, the last "edition" of Origin of Species is the sixth edition published 1879.[25] It is for this reason that all later publications of Origin of Species are actually reprints of this or earlier editions so that there is simply no "100th edition" of Darwin's work. The quote appears to stem from a 1947 article about—not by—Arthur Keith, in the magazine The Nineteenth Century,[26] which was then misattributed.


  1. ^ a b c Clark, W. E. L. G. (1955). "Arthur Keith 1866-1955". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 1: 144–161. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1955.0011.
  2. ^ Read, R. C. (2007). "Arthur Keith, the anatomist who envisioned herniosis". Hernia. 11 (6): 469–471. doi:10.1007/s10029-007-0273-9. PMID 17687509. S2CID 22678667.
  3. ^ Keith, A. (1912). "Anatomy in Scotland during the lifetime of Sir John Struthers (1823–1899)". Edinb. Med. J. 8: 7–33.
  4. ^ Edmeades, Baz (2021). Megafauna First Victims of the Human-Caused Extinction. Cork: BookBaby. p. 333. ISBN 9781544526522.
  5. ^ Silverman, M. E; Hollman, A. (1 October 2007). "Discovery of the sinus node by Keith and Flack: on the centennial of their 1907 publication". Heart. 93 (10): 1184–1187. doi:10.1136/hrt.2006.105049. PMC 2000948. PMID 17890694.
  6. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.
  7. ^ "The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland – Presidents of the Society" (PDF). The Anatomical Society. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
  8. ^ Presidential Address to the British Association Meeting, held at Leeds in 1927
  9. ^ "Leeds University bestows honours". Leeds Mercury. No. 27402. 7 September 1927. p. 6 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  10. ^ Henke, Winfriend and Hardt, Thorolf (2006) Handbook of paleoanthropology, Vol. 1, ISBN 978-3-540-32474-4. p. 31
  11. ^ Barnard, Alan (2011) Social Anthropology and Human origins. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521749298. p. 10
  12. ^ Suid-Afrikaanse wetenskap, volumes 1–2, South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1947, p. 35
  13. ^ "Race as a Political Factor". 15 April 1931.
  14. ^ Tobias, Phillip V. (June 1992) An Appraisal of the Case Against Sir Arthur Keith. Current Anthropology .
  15. ^ TalkOrigins. Retrieved on 8 June 2008.
  16. ^ Arthur Keith, An Autobiography (London: Watts & Co., 1950), pp. 1-2
  17. ^ P.L.J.W., "Cave Men and Professors: Life of an Anthropologist," The Age (Melbourne, Australia), 29 April 1950, p. 8
  18. ^ Keith, Arthur (13 September 1931). ""World We Hope for Runs Away with the Pen of the Prophet"; Sir Arthur Keith Doubts if His Individualist Longings Can Be Realized". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
  19. ^ Thus shortly after giving this quote, Christian apologist Bert Thompson remarks "These kinds of statements leave little to the imagination, and make it clear that those who say such things believe in evolution not because of any evidence, but instead because they have made up their minds, a priori, that they are not going to believe in God" (Biological Evolution, (Montgomery: Apologetics Press, 1990), 7). Similarly, Christian minister Dennis James Kennedy gives the same citation prefaced with the point that "To the reprobate mind, the unregenerate mind, creation is incredible because it requires belief in a creator, and that is totally unacceptable to such men as these" (Why I Believe: in the Bible, God, Creation . . . The Return of Christ, rev. ed. (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2005) 61, cited also on 62). This same view is seen in a sermon delivered in 1957 by Christian minister W. A. Criswell who uses this quotation to support his claim that "The evolutionist begins with an a priori judgment that there is no such thing as God's creative acts. Therefore, anything that proves special creation is immediately cast aside and scorned and ridiculed" W. A. Criswell, The Record of the Rocks ( "Sermon 2074". Archived from the original on 20 September 2011. Retrieved 28 June 2011. ).}
  20. ^ Several examples of Creationist publications which give this quotation without any source reference are: W. A. Criswell, Did Man Just Happen? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 73; "Why Should We Believe?" Watchtower, 79 (15 October 1958), 618; John Fred Meldau, Why We Believe in Creation Not in Evolution (Denver, Christian Victory Publishing, 1959), 27. Examples of Creationist publications which give references from secondary sources are: Rob van de Weghe, Prepared to Answer: A Step-by-step Guide to Bring the Power of Christian Evidence to Your Life (Port Hadlock: Windmill Ministries, 2008), 80, 413, Bert Thompson, Biological Evolution, (Montgomery: Apologetics Press, 1990), 7 [both cite W. A. Criswell, Did Man Just Happen? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 73]; Dennis James Kennedy, Why I believe: in the Bible, God, Creation . . . The Return of Christ, rev. ed. (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2005) 61, 218 [cites John Fred Meldau, Why We Believe in Creation Not in Evolution (Denver, Christian Victory Publishing, 1959), 27].
  21. ^ Thus after giving this citation, Christian apologist Ray Comfort speaks of Keith as "author of Forward [sic] to The Origin of Species, 100th edition" but fails to provide any page number (Intelligent Design vs. Evolution: Letters to Atheists (Orlando: Bridge-Logos, 2006), 9). Christian authors Linda Coates and Leslie S. Kelly similarly speak of Keith as "the scientist who wrote the forward [sic] to the 100 year anniversary edition of Darwin's Origin of Species" when giving this same citation also without a page number (The 12 Days of Christmas: A Guide to an Old Tradition with a New Purpose (Mustang: Oklahoma, 2008), 46).
  22. ^ cf. Thompson, W. R. (1958) introduction to On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. London: J.M. Dent.
  23. ^ "The Origin of Species introduced by W R Thompson on".
  24. ^ cf. Keith, Arthur (1928) introduction to On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. London: J.M. Dent.
  25. ^ Darwin, Charles (1872) On the Origin of Species, 6th ed. London: John Murray; In discussing this edition, Tim M. Berra notes that "the 1876 printing of the sixth edition is considered the first issue of the definitive text" (Charles Darwin: the Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2009), 89).
  26. ^ Vol. 141-142, p. 112.

External linksEdit


Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2016.

Academic offices
Preceded by Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by
Preceded by Rector of the University of Aberdeen
Succeeded by