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The science of solidarity

by Chris Knight

University of East London

In 1844, following a four-year voyage around the world, Charles Darwin confided to a close friend that he had come to a dangerous conclusion. For seven years, he wrote, he had been ‘engaged in a very presumptuous work’, perhaps ‘a very foolish one’. He had noticed that on each of the Galapagos Islands , the local finches ate slightly different foods, and had correspondingly modified beaks. In South America , he had examined many extraordinary fossils of extinct animals. Pondering the significance of all this, he had felt forced to change his mind about the origin of species. To his friend, Darwin wrote: ‘I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’.

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The Science of Solidarity

“Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group looks at the ‘selfish gene’ revolution – and draws some rather different conclusions from moralistic liberals” – article in Weekly Worker. 3 Aug 2006

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Human Solidarity and The Selfish Gene

by Chris Knight

University of East London

In 1844, following a four-year voyage around the world, Charles Darwin confided to a close friend that he had come to a dangerous conclusion. For seven years, he wrote, he had been ‘engaged in a very presumptuous work’, perhaps ‘a very foolish one’. He had noticed that on each of the Galapagos Islands , the local finches ate slightly different foods, and had correspondingly modified beaks. In South America , he had examined many extraordinary fossils of extinct animals. Pondering the significance of all this, he had felt forced to change his mind about the origin of species. To his friend, Darwin wrote: ‘I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’.

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The human revolution

The chief value of the study of human origins is that it nails the myth that ‘no revolution can ever change human nature’. It shows, on the contrary, that everything distinctively human about our nature – our ability to speak, to see ourselves as others see us, to aspire to act on moral principle – has come to prevail in our species thanks precisely to the greatest revolution in history, ‘the revolution which worked’.

paul-mellarsPalaeolithic archaeologist Paul Mellars (pictured left at Blombos Cave, South Africa) argues that distinctively human language, mind and society emerged during a revolution – ‘the human revolution’ – accomplished by our ancestors somewhere between 70,000 and 200,000 ago.

Ian Watts is the ochre specialist at Blombos Cave, South Africa, ian-watts2where much of our earliest evidence for symbolic culture has recently been found. Ian (right) was the first archaeologist to point out that ‘the human revolution’ – formerly associated with the European Upper Palaeolithic and attributed to a chance genetic mutation – was in fact the culmination of a Middle Stone Age process of natural and sexual selection associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa [C. Knight, C. Power & I. Watts, The human symbolic revolution. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5/1 (1995): 75-114].

The Darwinian component of what seemed at the time Ian’s highly controversial theory is today known as the Female Cosmetic Coalitions model chris-henshilwood-camilla-power1and was developed by Camilla Power (pictured left with Chris Henshilwood in Blombos Cave) while she was researching under the supervision of Leslie Aiello at University College London. Thanks largely to the work of Chris Henshilwood and his team, the ochre crayons, shell ornaments and other cosmetic items found at Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos are today widely accepted as evidence for some of the world’s earliest symbolic traditions. The Female Cosmetic Coalitions model is currently the only attempt to explain these findings on a Darwinian basis. A point in its favour is that it accurately predicted the archaeological discoveries before they were made [C. Power, ‘Sexual selection models of the emergence of symbolic communication: why they should be reversed’, in R. Botha & C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language (2009), Oxford University Press, pp. 257-280].

rethinking-the-human-revolution2But what does it mean to speak of a ‘revolution’ so far back in our evolutionary past, long before history began? The challenges are immense and are exhaustively discussed in Rethinking the Human Revolution, edited by Paul Mellars, Katie Boyle, Ofer Bar-Yosef and Chris Stringer (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007) and more recently in The Cradle of Language, edited by Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight (Oxford University Press, 2009).

the-cradle-of-languageFor an introduction to my own current thinking, see my ‘Language and revolutionary consciousness’ [chapter 7 in Alison Wray’s edited volume The Transition to Language (Oxford University Press, 2002)], ‘Honest fakes and language origins’ [in C. Whitehead, (ed), The Origin of Consciousness in the Social World, Imprint Academic, 2008, pp. 236-248] and ‘Language, ochre and the rule of law’ (the final chapter in The Cradle of Language volume).

In fairness I should add that by no means all archaeologists believe in the human revolution. One frequently cited down-with-the-revolutiondissenting contribution was entitled ‘The revolution that wasn’t’ (Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, Journal of Human Evolution 39, 453-563, 2000). As if that wasn’t enough, a more recent update of the same argument defiantly proclaims ‘Down with the revolution’ (chapter 12 in Mellars et al., Rethinking the Human Revolution).

As a Marxist, it seems to me natural to expect slow, quantitative change to culminate from time to time in revolutionary breakthrough. major-transitionYet in itself, of course, that’s no reason to accept the scientific validity of this concept in this particular case. While much remains uncertain, there are surely no a priori grounds for restricting the concept of revolution to recent historical times. Archaeologists investigating the origins of farming routinely speak of the ‘Neolithic revolution’. major-transitionsAn event of this kind need not be telescoped into a brief period: what matters is that gradual evolution culminates in revolutionary change. Scientists agree that on a geological timescale, the emergence of language-using Homo sapiens qualifies as a ‘punctuation event’ or ‘major transition’ in the history of life on earth. The classic text here is The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary (W. H. Freeman, 1995).

alison-brooks Alison Brooks (pictured left) is an eminent archaeologist well-known for her opposition to the theory that there was a ‘human revolution’. She has very effectively poured scorn on the naive idea of a cognitive mutation responsible for telescoping the emergence of language and symbolic behaviour into a single dramatic moment. The African archaeological record, she points out, suggests a much more gradual process of behavioural and cognitive change. At the ‘Cradle of Language’ conference held in Stellenbosch in 2006, I asked Alison whether the two opposed camps – for and against the whole idea of a ‘human revolution’ – might settle on a compromise. Setting aside the idea of a sudden mutation, would she agree that on a geological timescale, the emergence of language-using Homo sapiens was a revolutionary event? ‘On that timescale’, Alison replied without hesitation, ‘yes’.

Dominance and resistance

If we go back far enough in time, our ancestors are likely to have lived under social arrangements not radically different from those of today’s monkeys and apes. chimps-societyThere is now a vast literature on such topics, but for me the classic texts remain Franz de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics (Allen & Unwin 1982), Jane Goodall’s The Chimpanzees of Gombe (Harvard University Press, 1986) and Robin Dunbar’s Primate Social Systems (Croom Helm, 1988). Despite much variation, primate social systems share one feature in common. They are based on what is called ‘dominance’, defined as the ability to use or threaten violence to displace others from a contested position or from access to a valued resource. Life in ape society will typically be hierarchical and politically unstable, with alliances mostly opportunistic and rivals struggling for dominance at one another’s expense. And wherever dominance is momentarily enforced, those suffering the effects are likely to band together in order to fight back.

Superficially at least, these features of non-human primate society equally characterize ourselves as we struggle for power and resources in today’s politically divided world. But while the parallels may seem real enough, the differences are no less profound. However resigned we may be to unprincipled behaviour from our rulers on the political level, in our face-to-face interactions we still expect morality and accountability. From childhood on, we encourage one another to strive for approval and corresponding status by aspiring to principles the reverse of those appropriate either in a nonhuman primate context or in a Machiavellian contemporary political one. Esteem is gained less by threatening or deceiving those around us than by striving to act appropriately in the eyes of our peers, demonstrating our good faith and commitment to shared goals. (For the distinction between primate-style ‘dominance’ and merit-based human ‘prestige’, see Henrich, J. & Gil-White, F. J., ‘The evolution of prestige. Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission’. Evolution and Human Behaviour 22 [2001]: 165-196).

Hunter-gatherers as revolutionaries

What applies to humans everywhere in their face-to-face relationships applies in particular to hunters and gatherers, whose egalitarian traditions may be particularly informative about the challenges faced by our ancestors before class society arose. hadza-bushpig-low-res1The photograph on the left was taken while I was a guest among Hadza bow-and-arrow hunters in Tanzania in 2003. Having killed a bush-pig, the men are carrying the meat back to camp where it will be cut up and properly shared.

Hunter-gatherers can be as competitive as anyone, but they are under pressure to compete in a paradoxical way. The struggle is to be perceived as non-competitive – and the best way to succeed in this is to be genuinely so. Esteem and corresponding status in a hunter-gatherer band goes not to the most dominant or assertive but to those best at establishing what anthropologist Christopher Boehm terms ‘reverse-dominance’, measured as the ability to join with others in transcending internal conflict, displaying generosity and suppressing attempts at dominance by selfish individuals. If you’re a socialist or anarchist, such norms will probably be familiar to you – in principle at least. In Boehm’s refreshingly political account of the ‘human revolution’, the project of establishing an egalitarian hunter-gatherer ethos meant not just modifying but systematically reversing the logic of primate dominance which had previously prevailed. In short, it meant turning the world upside-down.

African origins

Our species emerged in Africa some 200,000 years ago. From this time onwards, intimations of art and symbolic culture begin to appear in the archaeological record, sporadically at first but then with increasing intensity and regularity. Our earliest evidence for art and symbolic culture is the recent discovery of pieces of red ochre which seem to have been selected and shaped to produce clear outlines of brilliant red colour on the surface of the human body. As if to exclude any doubt as to their makers’ artistic capacities, a number of ochre pieces from Middle Stone Age sites such as Blombos Cave, South Africa, have themselves been etched with abstract designs (see illustration). blombos-engraved-ochreIn addition to these carefully selected and preserved ochre pigments, archaeologists have found shell beads apparently used as necklaces or other personal ornaments.

What has often been termed ‘the symbolic explosion’ – a spectacular efflorescence of art and symbolic culture – took off in parts of Africa around 100,000 years ago, spreading to Asia and then Australia from 60,000 years ago and eventually reaching Europe some 40,000 years ago.

Darwinism’s greatest challenge?

Can natural selection can explain this ‘major transition’ in the history of life on earth? Few educated people nowadays doubt that Darwin’s theory can explain the evolution of our anatomy and physiology. But can it also explain language and mind? And what about moral awareness? Darwin himself recognised that such topics present theoretical challenges, and the difficulties have remained with us to this day.

darwinDarwinism in the twenty-first century is no longer ‘just a theory’. The facts of evolution by natural selection are about as well established as the existence of gravity or the fact that the earth moves. This makes it all the more striking that evolutionary theory has to date failed utterly to explain what might seem a simple problem – the emergence of language in our species. Since the early 1990s, there has been a plethora of speculative hypotheses, but none has commanded more than transient or minority support.

Certain evolutionary psychologists – most prominently Steven Pinker – argue that language is just one more complex biological adaptation, on the model of, say, stereoscopic vision in primates or echolocation in bats. Since it’s an adaptation, it must have evolved the way all adaptations do, by standard processes of Darwinian natural selection. Pinker’s idea is superficially appealing, not least because it tells Darwinian theorists that they have nothing to worry about. As far as Darwinism is concerned, the existence of language poses no special theoretical challenge.

The problem is that despite Pinker’s optimism, neither he nor any of his colleagues has to date succeeded in producing an actual theory along these lines. For Darwin’s principle of ‘descent with modification’ to work, there must be an appropriate starting point. Let’s imagine some feature of nonhuman primate cognition or communication that displayed certain language-like properties. Piecemeal cumulative modification might then lead eventually to language. But the problem is that no such point of departure exists. It’s not just that chimpanzees, for example, haven’t got very far toward the evolution of language. If by ‘language’ we mean a system involving arbitrary symbols and some kind of grammar, they haven’t even started down that road.

Perhaps the simplest conceivable form of language might be one in which pointing gestures were reciprocally and intentionally used. Remarkably, as it turns out, wild-living apes don’t even do this. So the question is posed: why not? What exactly is the problem? Could it be that making a pointing gesture with the arm or finger is not as simple as it seems? Is it really a complex operation posing sophisticated computational challenges beyond the capabilities of an ape’s limited brain?

There is another possibility. Maybe it’s simply that apes lack sufficient incentive to point things out for one another in the way humans spontaneously do. I prefer this explanation because it tallies with the primatological evidence. It turns out that chimpanzees are perfectly capable of a limited kind of ‘pointing’ – provided it suits their own interests. chimps-directed-scratchHence when a chimpanzee is being groomed by a companion, it will sometimes scratch at a particular spot on its own body to indicate just where the grooming should be directed. Field primatologists Simone Pika and John Mitani [‘The directed scratch: evidence for a referential gesture in chimpanzees?’ in Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight (eds), The Prehistory of Language (2009)] regard this as possibly the nearest apes get in the wild to intentional communication and hence to a rudimentary form of language. For pointing to become more elaborate and generalized, it would have to become less selfish. True pointing would mean directing someone else’s attention to some feature of the environment in a socially helpful way, or simply as a matter of shared interest.

What prevents apes from doing this? The obstacles are surely not cognitive. Wild-living apes receive little practice in pointing – that is, they don’t come under those particular selection pressures – because under their social circumstances it’s not worth the effort. Relatively selfish animals, or those willing to cooperate only in restricted ways, will generally choose to keep their own secrets – their own hard-won knowledge – to themselves. When they discover something interesting about their environment, their first concern will be to make use of that information for themselves. If apes don’t point, as evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello explains [‘Why don’t apes point? In N. J. Enfield and S. C. Levinson (eds), Roots of Human Sociality, Berg 2006], it’s because they are insufficiently cooperative to make that strategy of communication worthwhile. What applies to so basic an activity as pointing will apply even more emphatically to more complex linguistic developments. In the absence of some social breakthrough, language will not even begin to evolve.

Pinker insists that language is a biological adaptation in the sense that, say, stereoscopic vision in primates is an adaptation. But stereoscopic vision confers benefits on us regardless of our social circumstances. The political environment can be competitive, co-operative or anything in between: depth vision will be adaptive anyway. But with language – as with pointing – this isn’t the case. Like coins or banknotes, words would be useless to us if no-one else used them or believed in them. While the brute facts of nature are true anyway, regardless of other people’s beliefs, facts such as word meanings – ‘social’ or ‘institutional’ facts – are hallucinatory products of collective agreement. Natural science inevitably fails us here: to understand social facts, we need the insights of Durkheim, Wittgenstein and Marx. But this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s theory must be diluted or abandoned. It just means that we need to know how the different philosophical paradigms – those of natural science on the one hand, sociology and anthropology on the other – fit together properly and interlock. We need a parsimonious, powerful and empirically testable ‘theory of everything’ – an explanation of the origins of human nature and culture taken as a whole, with the emergence of language situated in its proper context as part of this wider process.

Did language suddenly emerge?

This is where I differ from Noam Chomsky. Chomsky insists that language in our species is an innate biological faculty. Yet he also insists that language is ‘off the chart’ – so utterly unlike any animal system of communication as to render it immune to Darwinian explanation. The human language faculty did not evolve, he argues, but arose fully fledged in an instant. When asked how this might have happened, he admits that he doesn’t know. While some linguists and archaeologists accept Chomsky’s approach, others see it as bordering on creationism, inconsistent with the evidence and, in any event, theoretically unattractive since it presupposes laws of nature which are currently unknown.

Language and public trust

Inspired by Marx and Engels as much as by Darwin, my view is that gradualist and revolutionary accounts can be combined. Our innate capacity for language evolved gradually, but it took a revolution to liberate that potential. The most precious outcome of the revolution was the establishment of sufficient co-operation to enable language to work. My argument here is that words are cheap. Nothing connects them to reality: that’s part of the definition of a ‘symbol’. Signals of this kind are so prone to deceptive abuse that natural selection always rules out their invention or transmission. Outside human society, language cannot evolve. It lacks precedents in nature because under Darwinian social conditions – that is, in a world free of moral principle or law – there will always be insufficient honesty, hence insufficient trust.

A theory of everything?

If this perspective is accepted, it follows that there can be no such thing as ‘a theory of the origins of language’. Instead, what we need is a ‘theory of everything’ – a theory capable of explaining human cognition, communication and social co-operation taken as a whole. That is why my work focuses on topics that other specialists in human origins tend to ignore – topics such as sex and kinship, laughter and play, myth and ritual, dance and trance. To study such topics is to investigate how our hunter gatherer ancestors succeeded in managing and transcending conflict, forging relationships of egalitarianism, reciprocity and trust. It is to discover how our ancestors succeeded in liberating human potential – and began speaking to one another for the first time.

See also: The Science of Solidarity
See also various articles on the origins of language

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Publications List

Full cv

Book reviews of Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture.
Collated reviewers’ comments
Caroline Humphrey’s review in the London Review of Books.

See below for PDF files.

Recent publications

Knight, C. and J. Lewis (2017). Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language. Current Anthropology Volume 58, Number 4, August 2017.

Knight, C. (2016). Puzzles and mysteries in the origins of language. Language and Communication 50: 12–21.

Knight, C. (2016). Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics. London & New Haven: Yale University Press.

Knight, C. (2014). Language and symbolic culture: an outcome of hunter-gatherer reverse dominance. In D. Dor, C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds), The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 228-246.

Knight, C. (2012). Review of Robin Dunbar, Clive Gamble and John Gowlett (eds), ‘Social brain, distributed mind.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 18, 205-206.

Knight, C. and C. Power (2011). Social conditions for the evolutionary emergence of language. In M. Tallerman and K. Gibson (eds), Handbook of Language Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 346-349.

Knight, C. (2010a). The Origins of Symbolic Culture. In U. Frey, C. Stormer and K. P. Willfuhr (eds), Homo Novus – A human without illusions. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, pp. 193-211.

Knight, C. (2010b). The Enigma of Noam Chomsky. Radical Anthropology, 4, pp. 22-30

Knight, C. (2008). Early Human Kinship Was Matrilineal. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 61-82.

Power, C. and C. Knight, (2012). Arrest for Attempted Street Theatre. Anthropology Today 28, 1, pp. 24-26.

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Earlier publications

Knight, C. (1975). Past, Future and the Problem of Communication in the Work of V V Klhebnikov. Forward Chapter 1-10 Chapter 11-20 Appendix Bibliography 

Knight, C. (1978). The origins of woman: A marxist-structuralist view of the genesis of culture. Critique of Anthropology 3: 59-87.

Knight, C. (1983). Lévi-Strauss and the dragon: Mythologiques reconsidered in the light of an Australian Aboriginal myth. Man (N.S.) 18: 21-50.

Knight, C. (1985). Menstruation as medicine. Social Science and Medicine 21: 671-683.

Knight, C. (1987), Menstruation and the origins of culture. A reconsideration of Lévi-Strauss’s work on symbolism and myth. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of London, London.

Knighy, C. (1988). Menstruation and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake. In T. Buckley and A. Gottlieb (eds), Blood Relations. The Anthropology of Menstruation. California : University of California Press.

Knight, C. (1991). On the dragon-wings of time. In I. Cardigos (ed.) Maidens, Snakes and Dragons. Cecil Papers 1, Kings College Press.

Knight, C. (1994). Why ritual? Introduction to C. Knight & C. Power (eds), Ritual and the origins of symbolism. Papers presented to the Human Evolution Interdisciplinary Research Unit conference on ritual and the origins of culture. London: University of East London Sociology Department, pp. 1-3.

Knight, C. (1994). Ritual and the origins of language.  In C. Knight & C. Power (eds), Ritual and the origins of symbolism. Two papers presented to the Human Evolution Interdisciplinary Research Unit conference on ritual and the origins of culture. London: University of East London Sociology Department, pp. 4-19.

Knight, C. (1995). Tools, language and cognition. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1 (2).

Knight, C. (1995). Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. New Haven and London : Yale University Press.

Knight, C. (1996). Darwinism and collective representations. In S. Shennan and J. Steele (eds), The Archaeology of Human Ancestry: Power, Sex and Tradition. London : Routledge, pp. 331-346.

Knight, C. (1996). ‘Menstruation’. In A. Barnard and J. Spencer (eds), Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London : Routledge.

Knight, C. (1996). ‘Taboo’. In A. Barnard and J. Spencer (eds), Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London : Routledge.

Knight, C. (1996). ‘Totemism’. In A. Barnard and J. Spencer (eds), Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London : Routledge.

Knight, C. (1997). The Wives of the Sun and the Moon. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3 (1): 133-153.

Knight, C. (1998) Introduction: Grounding language function in social cognition. In J. Hurford, M. Studdert-Kennedy and C. Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 9-16.

Knight, C. (1998) Speech/ritual co-evolution: A selfish gene solution to the problem of deception [PDF 115KB]. In J. Hurford, M. Studdert-Kennedy and C. Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 68-91.

Knight, C. (1999). Sex and language as pretend play. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight and C. Power (eds), The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, pp. 228-247.

Knight, C. (2000). Introduction: the evolution of cooperative communication [PDF 42KB]. In C. Knight, J. Hurford and M. Studdert-Kennedy (eds), pp. 19-26.

Knight, C. (2000). Play as precursor of phonology and syntax. In Chris Knight, M. Studdert-Kennedy and J. R. Hurford, (eds), The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 99-119. Download PDF

Knight, C. (2000). Culture, cognition and conflict. Review article. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10(1): 189-97.

Knight, C. (2001). Does cultural evolution need matriliny? Commentary on Rendell & Whitehead, Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, Vol. 24 (2): 339-340.

Knight, C. (2002). Language and revolutionary consciousness. In A. Wray (ed.), The Transition to Language. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Knight, C. (2003). Noam Chomsky: Politics or Science? What Next? Marxist Discussion Journal. 26: 17-29.

Knight, C. (2003). Trauma, Tedium and Tautology in the Study of Ritual. Review article. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 13 (2): 293-5 (2003).

Knight, C. (2004). Decoding Chomsky. European Review 12 (4): 581-603.

Knight, C. (2004). We need behavioural ecology to explain the institutional authority of the gods. [PDF 124KB]. Commentary on Atran and Norenzayan: Religion’s evolutionary landscape. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27(6): 30.

Knight, C. (2006a). Language co-evolved with the rule of law. In A. Cangelosi, A. D. M. Smith and K. Smith (eds) The evolution of language. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference (EVOLANG6). New Jersey & London: World Scientific Publishing, pp. 168-75.

Knight, C. 2006b. The Science of Solidarity. Weekly Worker 636. Thursday August 3.

Knight, C. (2007) The Chomsky Enigma. Weekly Worker 655, Thursday January 11. Communist Party of Great Britain, on-line.

Knight, C. (2007). Revisiting Matrilineal Priority. In J. Lasségue (ed), Émergence et évolution de la parenté. Paris: Éditions Rue d’Ulm/Presses de l’École normale supérieure, pp. 25-43.

Knight, C. (2008a). Language co-evolved with the rule of law. Mind and Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, 7 (1): 109-128.

Knight, C. (2008b). Early Human Kinship Was Matrilineal. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James (eds.), Early Human Kinship. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 61-82.

Knight, C. (2008c). Comment on Arbib, M., K. Liebal and S. Pika, Primate Vocalization, gesture and the evolution of human language. Current Anthropology, 49 (6): 1064-1065.

Knight, C. (2008d). Honest fakes and language origins. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15(10-11): 236-48.

Knight, C. (2009a). Introduction: perspectives on the evolution of language in Africa. In R. Botha and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-15.

Knight, C. (2009b). Language, ochre and the rule of law. In R. Botha and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 281-303.

Knight, C. (2010a). The Origins of Symbolic Culture. In U. Frey, C. Stormer and K. P. Willfuhr (eds), Homo Novus – A human without illusions. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, pp. 193-211.

Knight, C. (2010b). The Enigma of Noam Chomsky. Radical Anthropology, 4, pp. 22-30

Knight, C. (submitted). Language, lies and lipstick: a speculative reconstruction of the Middle Stone Age ‘human revolution’. In: P. Kappeler (ed), Primate Behavior and Human Universals. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

Knight, C. (in preparation) The Human Conspiracy: Deception, Speech and the Selfish Gene. Yale: Yale University Press.

Jointly authored publications

Knight, C. and C. Maisels (1994). Fertility Rights. Times Higher Educational Supplement September 23.

Knight, C. and C. Maisels (1994). An instinct for revolution. Anthropology Today 10 (6): 20-22.

Knight, C., C. Power and I. Watts (1995). The human symbolic revolution: A Darwinian account. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5 (1): 75-114.

Knight, C. and C. Power (1995). Ochre and Sexual Deception. British Archaeology 2.

Knight, C. and C. Power (1998). The origins of anthropomorphic thinking. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 (1): 129-131.

Knight, C., C. Power and R. Dunbar (1999). An evolutionary approach to human culture. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight and C. Power (eds), The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, pp. 1-11.

Knight, C., M. Studdert-Kennedy and J. R. Hurford, (2000). Language: A Darwinian Adaptation? In C. Knight, J. Hurford and M. Studdert-Kennedy (eds), The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-15.

Rafiki, Y., C. Knight and C. Power (eds), 2002. An Arusha Declaration for 2002. Anthropology Today Vol. 18, No 4.

Knight, C. and C. Power (2005). Grandmothers, politics, and getting back to science. In E. Voland, A. Chasiotis and W. Schievenhövel (eds), Grandmotherhood: The evolutionary significance of the second half of female life. New Brunswick,, New Jersey & London: Rutgers University Press, pp. 81-98.

Knight, C. and C. Power (2006). Words are not costly displays: Shortcomings of a testosterone-fuelled model of language evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(3): 290-291.

Knight, C. and C. Power (2008). Unravelling digital infinity. In A. D. M. Smith, K. Smith and R. F. i Cancho (eds), The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference (EVOLANG 7).  New Jersey & London: World Scientific, pp. 179-185 

Knight, C. and C. Power (2011). Social conditions for the evolutionary emergence of language. In M. Tallerman and K. Gibson (eds), Handbook of Language Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 346-349.

Knight, C. and C. Power (2012). Arrest for Attempted Street Theatre. Anthropology Today Vol 28 No 1, pp. 24-26.

Edited volumes

Hurford, J., M. Studdert-Kennedy and C. Knight (eds) (1998). Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Studdert-Kennedy, M., C. Knight and J. Hurford (1998). Introduction: new approaches to language evolution. In J. Hurford, M. Studdert-Kennedy and C. Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-5.

Dunbar, R., C. Knight and C. Power (eds) (1999). The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press.

Knight, C., J. Hurford and M. Studdert-Kennedy (eds) (2000). Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Volume 2. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) (2009a). The Prehistory of Language. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) (2009b). The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Reviews and commentaries

Review of P. Garlake ‘The Hunter’s Vision’. British Archaeology (1995).

Review of T. Megarry ‘Society in Prehistory’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (4): 738-739 (1996).

Conference Review, ‘Evolution of Language Conference’. Anthropology Today 12 (6) (1996).

Review of V. Morrell ‘Ancestral Passions’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3 (2): 387-388 (1997).

Review, T. Taylor ‘The Prehistory of Sex’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 (1): 137-137 (1998).

Commentary on N. Humphrey ‘Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind’. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 8 (2): 183 (1998).

Commentary on N. Humphrey, ‘Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind’. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6: 132-133 (1999).

Review of T. Deacon, ‘The Symbolic Species’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5 (1): 105‑106 (1999).

Review of D. Bickerton, ‘Language and human behaviour’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5 (4): 655-656 (1999).

Review of A. Carstairs-McCarthy, The origins of complex language.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6 (2): 339 (2000).

Review of L. Cronk, That complex whole.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6 (4): 727-728 (2000).

Review of Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7 (2): 380-382 (2001).

Review of K. Coe, ‘The ancestress hypothesis’. The Quarterly Review of Biology 79(1): 115 (2004).

Review of P. Carruthers and A. Chamberlain (eds), Evolution and the human mind.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7(4): 805-806 (2001).

Review of M. P. Ghiglieri, The dark side of man: tracing the origins of male violence.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(3): 591-592 (2002).

Review of W. G. Runciman (ed.), The origin of human social institutions [PDF 104KB]. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8(4): 807-808 (2002).

Review of L. Barrett, R. Dunbar and J. Lycett, Human evolutionary psychology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(1): (2003).

Review of J. Marks, What it means to be 98% chimpanzee: apes, people, and their genes.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(2): 386-87 (2003).

Review of W. Stoczkowski, Explaining human origins: myth, imagination and conjecture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(4): 813-814 (2003).

Review of R. G. Fox and B. J. King (eds), (2002). Anthropology beyond culture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(3) 608-609 (2003)

Review of R. N. McCauley & E. T. Lawson, Bringing ritual to mind: Psychological foundations of cultural form. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 13 (2): 293-5 (2003).

Review of S. Atran, In gods we trust: the evolutionary landscape of religion. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(1): 199-200 (2004).

Review of P. Valentine, Cultures of multiple fathers. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(1): 206-07 (2004).

Review of M. H. Christiansen and S. Kirby (eds), Language evolution [PDF 48KB]. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(4): 929-930 (2004).

Review of R. Mace, C. Holden and S. Shennan (eds), The evolution of cultural diversity: phylogenetic approaches [PDF 56KB]. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, 13 (2): 227-228 (2007).

Review of N. Henrich and J. Henrich, Why humans cooperate: a cultural and evolutionary explanation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14(3): 695-696 (2008).

Review of K. Hawkes & R. R. Payne (eds), The evolution of human life history.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14(3): 708-709 (2008).

 

Conference papers and presentations (since 1992)

Call-systems, deception and protolanguage: Towards a theory of the emergence of symbolic behavior. Paper delivered to the Human Evolution Interdisciplinary Research Group, University of Sheffield (March 1992).

Menstruation and the origins of culture. Paper delivered to the Department of Anthropology, University of Kent (November 1992).

Darwinism and collective representations. Paper delivered to the Theoretical Archaeology Group, Southampton (December 1992).

The origins of symbolic culture. Panel display, Paleolithic and Mesolithic Day Meeting, British Museum, London (February 1993).

In defence of science. Paper delivered to the Haringey Miners’ Support Group, London (April 1993).

Darwinism and the origins of language. Panel presentation, Evolution and Human Sciences Conference, London School of Economics (June 1993).

A testable theory of symbolic cultural origins. Conference on Gesture, Speech, Time and Contract, Michigan (July 1993).

Science as revolutionary knowledge. UEL Sociology Debate: Jordan v Knight, University of East London (November 1993).

The origins of language. Paper delivered to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Conference, Southampton University (December 1993).

The emergence of symbolic behaviour. Paper delivered to the Ritual and the Origins of Culture Conference, School of African and Oriental Studies, London (March 1994).

An instinct for revolution? Selfish genes and the origins of language. Paper delivered to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Conference, Bradford University (December 1994).

Evolution of Language. CIBA Foundation/Royal Society Discussion Meeting, London (March 1995).

Darwinism and the emergence of language. Paper delivered to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, Santa Barbara (July 1995).

Can Darwinism explain the origins of culture? UCL Anthropology Society Debate: Ingold v Knight, University College London (March 1996).

Blood magic: Menstruation and the origins of culture. Paper delivered to the Department of Social Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast (March 1996).

Can Darwinism explain the origins of culture? Paper delivered to the South Place Ethical Society, London (May 1996).

Ritual/speech co-evolution: A selfish gene solution to the problem of deception. Paper delivered to the Evolution of Language Conference, University of Edinburgh (April 1996).

Speech/ritual co-evolution: A ‘selfish gene’ explanation of the emergence of symbolic culture. Paper delivered to the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society Conference, Northwestern University, Illinois, USA (June 1996).

Speech/ritual co-evolution: A ‘selfish gene’ explanation of the emergence of symbolic culture. Paper delivered to the World Archaeological Congress, Forli, Italy (September 1996).

The world’s first picket line: Women and the emergence of morality. Paper delivered to the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards Committee, Transport House, Liverpool . (November 1996).

The sociobiology of deception. Paper delivered to the Oxford Human Sciences Symposium 1996, Oxford University (November 1996).

The origins of language: Current theories. Paper delivered to the Department of Human Sciences, Oxford University (December 1996).

Ritual/speech co-evolution: A Darwinian model. Paper delivered to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Conference, Liverpool University (December 1996).

Evolution of language. Paper delivered to the Consciousness Studies Society, University of London (March 1997).

The current revolution in the life sciences: Prelude to social revolution. Paper delivered to the ‘Has science gone far enough’ Conference, University of East London (March 1997).

Evolution of language. Paper delivered to the European Sociobiological Society Conference on Ingroup/Out-group Behaviour, Ghent, Belgium (July 1997)

The dragon and the origins of art. Paper delivered to the 21st International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, Washington DC (November 1997)

Ritual and the evolution of syntactical speech. Paper delivered to the 2nd International Conference on the Evolution of Language, London (April 1998)

Ritual, ochre and the evolution of modern human speech. Paper delivered to the Dual Congress 1998 International Association for the study of Human Palaeontology and International Association of Human Biologists, Sun City, South Africa (July 1998)

Darwinism and the origins of language. Paper delivered to the International Youth Conference, Bergama, Turkey (August 1998)

The evolution of brideservice. Paper delivered to the Marriage, Morality and Emotions – Updating Edward Westermarck International Symposium, Helsinki, Finland (November 1998)

Laughter and the evolution of language. Paper delivered to The Institute for Cultural Research, London (April 1999)

Ritual and the evolution of culture. Keynote address, International Conference on Ritual and the Evolution of Culture, Bratislava (September 1999).

From ‘Nursing Poke’ to syntactical speech. Paper delivered to the Third International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Paris (April 2000).

Human Origins and the ‘Primitivism’ Debate. Paper delivered in the ‘Mind Benders’ session, ‘Reclaim the Future’, London (September 2000).

African Genesis: The Evolutionary Emergence of Language. Invited lecture, Dartmouth College, Department of African and African-American Studies, Hanover, U.S.A. (October 2001).

Language and Laughter. Paper delivered to the Annual Conference of the Folklore Society, London (April 2001).

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language. Research Seminars on Anthropological Theory, London School of Economics (invited guest lecturer, February 2002).

Play, Laughter and the Origins of Language. Invited public lecture, Ecole Normal Superieur, Paris (June 2002).

Menstruation and lunar timekeeping in African hunter-gatherer traditions. Paper delivered to the Association of Social Anthropologists Conference, ‘Perspectives on Time and Society: Experience, Memory, History’ (Arusha, Tanzania, 2002).

Seven Paradoxes in the Evolution of Language. Paper delivered to the Fourth International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Harvard University, Boston (April 2002).

Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool Dockers. Invited talk and video interview, Precursors to Seattle. Annual Conference of the London Socialist Historians’ Society, University of London (May 2002).

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language. Invited lecture, Department of Psychology, University of St. Andrews (October 2002).

Speech: An exception to the handicap principle? Contribution to the ‘Costly signaling and the evolution of culture’ symposium, Human Behaviour and Evolution Society annual conference, London (June 2001).

Matrilineal priority reconsidered. Invited lecture, Atelier ‘Emergence de la parenté’, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris (November 2003).

The Human Revolution. Invited speaker, Morris Symposium on the Evolution of Language, Stony Brook University, New York, U.S.A (October 2005)

‘How the Moon got its spots’: a new look at Claude Lévi-Strauss. Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, Sheffield University, Sheffield (December 2005).

Language evolution among artificial embodied agents and populations of ancestral humans. Joint presentation by Chris Knight and Luc Steels: ‘Language, Culture and Mind’ conference, École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications (ENST) Paris (July 2006).

Human Social Evolution. Invited lecture, Summer School on Evolutionary Anthropology, Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Delmenhorst (August 2006)

Language, ochre and the rule of law. Invited keynote address to the ‘Cradle of Language’ conference, Stellenbosch, South Africa (November 2006).

Ochre and the rule of law. Presentation to interdisciplinary symposium, ‘How Did the Brain Become Social?’ Autonomous University of Barcelona (February 2007).

Panel discussion: How Did the Brain Become Social? Centre for Contemporary Culture (CCCB), Barcelona (February 2007).

Invited lecture: Climate change and the earth-moon system: a perspective from hunter-gatherer ethnography and archaeology. British Museum Study Day on Archaeology and Climate Change, London (February 2008).

Media activities

Academic consultant to BBC2 Science Features (1994/5).

Interview for Greater London Radio, Magic, Myth and Folklore (January 1996).

Interview for Carlton Television’s ‘Shift’ programme (February 1996).

Academic consultant to BBC, The Seven Ages of Life (March 1996).

Academic consultant to Lara Owen (independent film producer), Her Blood is Gold (April 1996).

Academic consultant for BBC TV’s ‘ Stonehenge ‘ programme (January 1998)

Interview for Norwegian State Radio on Language Evolution (April 1998)

Interview for Danish radio programme on Language Evolution (April 1998)

Interview for RTVE (Spain) on the origins of culture (February 2007).

Other contributions

Principal lecturer at the weekly Radical Anthropology Group evening class, London.

Session Organiser: The Origins of Language, Gender and Culture: Darwinian Approaches to the ‘Human Revolution’, Theoretical Archaeological Group Annual Conference, Bradford University (1994).

Co-Organiser with J. Aitchison ( Oxford University ) and J. Hurford ( Edinburgh University ) of the International Evolution of Language Conference, Edinburgh University (1996).

Symposium Organiser: Language and the Arts: Implications of Evolutionary Theory, Human Behaviour and Evolution Society Conference, Tuscan, Arizona, USA (1997).

Local organiser with J. Aitchison (Oxford University) and J. Hurford (Edinburgh University) of the International Evolution of Language Conference, University of East London (1998).

Co-organiser with J. Aitchison ( Oxford University ), J.-L. Dessalles, (CRNS, Paris) and J. Hurford ( Edinburgh University ) of the International Evolution of Language Conference, Paris (2000).

Co-organiser with Tecumseh Fitch ( Harvard University ), J. Hurford ( Edinburgh University ) and J.-L. Dessalles (CRNS, Paris) of the International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Harvard (2002).

Co-organiser with Jean-Louis Dessales (E.N.S.T.), “Modélisation de l’émergence du langage” workshop ( Paris 2002).

Co-organiser with Bernard Comrie (Max Planck Institute, Leipzig), Jean-Louis Dessalles (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, Paris), Tecumseh Fitch (Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin; University of St Andrews), James R Hurford (University of Edinburgh), Michael Studdert-Kennedy (Haskins Laboratories), Maggie Tallerman (University of Durham) and Alison Wray (Cardiff University) of the International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Leipzig (2004)

Co-organiser with Angelo Cangelosi (University of Plymouth), Bernard Comrie (Max Planck Institute, Leipzig), Jean-Louis Dessalles (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, Paris), Tecumseh Fitch (University of St Andrews), James R Hurford (Edinburgh University), Maggie Tallerman (University of Newcastle upon Tyne), Domenico Parisis (ISTC-CNR, National Research Council Rome) and Alison Wray (Cardiff University) of the 6th International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Rome (2006).

Scientific committee member, Language, Culture and Mind conference, École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications (ENST) Paris (2006).

Scientific panel member, The Cradle of Language conference, Stellenbosch University, South Africa (2006)

Co-organiser with Ramon Ferrer i Cancho (University of Barcelona), Angelo Cangelosi (University of Plymouth), Jean-Louis Dessalles (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, Paris), Tecumseh Fitch (University of St Andrews), James R Hurford (Edinburgh University) and Maggie Tallerman (University of Newcastle upon Tyne) of the 7th International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Barcelona (2008).

Activism

Knight, C. (1992). The Human Revolution. Socialist Organiser, August 13.

Knight, C. (1992). Who’s afraid of science? Labour Briefing, September.

Knight, C. (1996). Fighting the new Irrationalism. Labour Left Briefing, February issue.

Knight, C. (1996). A female conspiracy? Labour Left Briefing, May.

Knight, C. (1996). Life without faith? Labour Left Briefing, July.

Knight, C. (1996). Ourselves alone. Labour Left Briefing, November.

Knight, C. (1996). The world’s first picket line. Labour Left Briefing, December.

Knight, C. (1997). The Human Revolution. The Workers International Press, March.

Knight, C. (1997). The origins of human society. Towards 2012 Part III: Culture and Language, June.

Knight, C. (2006). The science of solidarity. Weekly Worker 636 August 3.

Knight, C. (2006). Solidarity and sex. Weekly Worker638 August 31.

Knight, C. (2006). The science of Marxism. Weekly Worker 642 September 28.

Knight, C. (2006). Marxism and scientific revolutions. Weekly Worker 643 October 5.

Knight, C. (2006). Lessons of October. Weekly Worker 646 October 26.

Knight, C. (2007). The Chomsky enigma. Weekly Worker 655 January 11.

Knight, C. (2007). U.S. establishment anarchist. Weekly Worker 656 January 18.

Knight, C. (2007). Chomsky’s parallel lives. Weekly Worker 657 January 25.

[Chomsky, N. (2008). Human nature and the origins of language. Radical Anthropology 2, pp. 19-23.]

Letters to the Editor

(2008) Letters. October Theses. Weekly Worker 740 October 9.

(2008) Letters. Opportunism. Weekly Worker 741 October 16.

(2008) Letters. Weekly Worker 742 October 23.

(2008) Letters. Weekly Worker /em>743 October 30.

(2008) Letters. Weekly Worker 745 November 13.

(2008) Letters. Weekly Worker 747 November 27.

Membership of professional and research organizations

Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth since 1990

British Association for Social Anthropology in Policy and Practice since 1991

European Association of Social Anthropologists since 1990

Human Behavior and Evolution Society since 1990

Radical Anthropology Group since 1985

Royal Anthropological Institute since 1977

The Primate Society since 1991

Slovak Association of Social Anthropologists (honorary member) since 2008

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Chris Knight (1995). Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.).

“A most important, novel, well-argued and monumental piece of work.”
J. D. Lewis-Williams, Rock Art Research Unit, University of the Witwatersrand

“This book may be the most important ever written on the evolution of human social organization. It brings together observation and theory from social anthropology, primatology, and paleoanthropology in a manner never before equalled. The author, Chris Knight, who teaches social anthropology at the University of East London, is up to date on all these fields and has achieved an extraordinary synthesis. His critiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss on totemism and myth are a sheer tour de force.”
Alex Walter, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University

“Blood Relations is an extraordinary work, in which imaginary creatures and magical events are orchestrated on a global scale, from Australia to Amazonia, into a single vision of how humans created humanity….Though Knight does tend to resemble a shaman with a spread-sheet, he is not concocting some syncretic religious brew of Darwinism and tribal initiation rites. He is every bit as materialist as Dennett or Dawkins – ultra-Darwinian, in Stephen Jay Gould’s terms – but unlike them, he has an intuitive understanding of the sacred. The trick here is to retain one’s sense of magic after one stops believing in it. Blood Relations appreciated the importance of sacred ritual, and of sociobiology, the better for being able to stand outside them. Writing under the influence of Primate Visions, Donna Haraway’s feminist interpretation of primatology, Knight felt able to refer to his own narrative as myth, and free to bring his own props to the sociobiology show. ‘If you could have calculating, maximising capitalists operating in human origins narratives, why could you not also have militant trade unionists?’ he asked. ‘If you could have profits and dividends, why not also industrial action, pay bargaining and strikes?’ Culture, he proposed, was the settlement that followed the world’s first strike.”
Marek Kohn, Science correspondent, Independent on Sunday

“The Most Brilliant Anthropological Study Ever Written. The many words used to describe Chris Knight’s ‘Blood Relations’ include, monumental, encyclopedic, brilliant, original, ingenious, and a tour-de-force. It is all of these and more! This work is simply the most brilliant and imaginative book about human cultural development ever written. Its range is astonishing. Its arguments are cogently made with great detail. Its synthesis of primatology, sociobiology, and anthropology are compelling. Where others have depicted women as the victims of a dominant male hierarchy, Knight reveals how the sex roles and behavior of both men and women developed together in a dialectic relationship. Where others have stressed the loss of oestrus and continuous sexual receptivity in the female, Knight spotlights menstruation and its associated marital and other cultural taboos. Where others stress man the hunter and woman the gatherer, Knight envisions paleo-women as evolving an increasing solidarity to shape the structure of both hunting and gathering. Women are not the passive creatures that are so often depicted by the radical feminists who have an interest in portraying women as the victims of dominant males. Females have been active participants in shaping culture, behavior, and human destiny…Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago, Knight believes, a massive social, sexual, and cultural explosion occurred and he does an ingenious job of providing us with insight into how this may have happened. A major change in reproductive strategy had to take place before males could take off as hunters and leave their women behind. Women synchronized their ovulatory cycles with one another; the concept of the “sex-strike” is the heart of the book. Blood as a symbol of menstruation provides a key to much of human culture and Knight uses it to explain the inner logic of many of mankind’s myths and taboos. Because the disruptive effects of sex can be enormous, these controls have played an important role in the development of human culture. The riches of this deeply learned book cannot simply be conveyed in a brief review. It is a work to be read over and over and contemplated. The many insights into human culture and the relationships among the sexes will surely provide any open minded person with a new perspective as to why we are the way we are”.
Amazon.com reviewer Dec 25 2000 (Cincinnati, Ohio U.S.A.)

“Chris Knight’s model is one of the rare successful attempts to solve the many apparent contradictions between anthropological universals and what we expect from evolution through natural selection. His great achievement is to put logic in what, otherwise, looks like a vast mess of anecdotal anthropological facts.”
Jean-Louis Dessalles, Télécom ParisTech

“This book was a revelation to me. Having struggled through numerous turgid anthropological works by the likes of Lévi-Strauss, Róheim etc., it was thrilling to read such an ambitious clear-sighted and compelling account of the origins of human culture, together with an excellent critique of much current anthropological thinking. ….a wonderfully stimulating book”.
Mick Hartley, Amazon.com

“A man writing about menstruation as empowering not polluting; a Marxist analysis in which sex solidarity and class analysis assume equal explanatory power; a fully social and revolutionary account of our human cultural origins that privileges women; an explicitly political narrative of science in the first person; an interweaving of anthropology, biology, history of ideas, and philosophy; an attempt not just to interpret the world but to change the world: Blood Relations is all this and more”.
Diane Bell, American Ethnologist

“Ignoring this book is a mistake. It is a very readable, witty, lively treasure-trove of anthropological wisdom and insight….Chris Knight has taken on the task of explicating not only the whys and hows of human cultural evolution, but also vast constellations of cultural behaviour covering Australia, Africa, Europe and all of the Americas.In this endeavour he is extraordinarily cross-disciplinary in his approach, utilizing insights from cultural anthropology, sociology, sociobiology and palaeo- and ethno-archaeology.In short,Knight is a complete anthropologist, one who realizes the value of exploring all corners of his field to synthesize disparate work into a cohesive whole. His deep commitment to such synthesis should give pause to those of us who refuse to look outside our own areas of expertise for support or contradiction of our theories. His Marxist perspective, while of questionable practical value, is metaphorically rich. And his scholarship is impeccable. While many of us rarely bother to read ‘the greats’ of our field any more, Knight delves deep into Durkheim, Frazer and Lévi-Strauss and many others, coming up with long-forgotten insights and providing his readers with an enormously useful review of a century of evolutionary theory and ethnographic data…In fact, as a feminist, I would very much like it if Knight’s story turned out to be true, since it gives so much credit to women’s collective solidarity, strike power and biological and intellectual creativity…. Best of all, it’s a story that’s ‘good to think with’. It made me review in my mind everything I ever learned about evolution and rethink it in a new way.”
R. E. Davis-Floyd, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Revolutions in science seldom appear ready made…. But I suspect that the basis of a new synthesis between anthropology and biology may well lie within the pages of this book.”
Robin Dunbar, Times Higher Educational Supplement

“Imagine a time when women lived together, worked together, sang and danced together, and our lives, work rhythms, songs and dance rhythms were all governed by the cycles of the moon. Imagine a time when all our skins were dark, Europeans having newly arrived from Africa. Imagine a time when women had the power and solidarity to make men leave their warm hearth-sides, go out into the howling wastes of Ice Age Europe to hunt giant and ferocious mammoths and then transport their kills proudly back to the women’s camp.This is not a feminist matriarchalist dream. This happened somewhere between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, according to the latest scientific account of human cultural origins given by male Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight in Blood Relations. The ‘Human Revolution’, as archaeologists call it, sparked an explosion of symbolic culture that was carried from Africa into Europe, Asia and all the way to Australia 40,000 years ago, and later all over the planet.”
Camilla Power, Everywoman

“No, this is not another Man the Hunter origins myth, with man simultaneously inventing technology, culture and the nuclear family, and teaching it all to his dumb wife sitting at home with baby, waiting for the bacon. On the contrary. First it is not about Man or even Woman: it is about women organising in solidarity with one another. Yes, it is about culture: how women’s solidarity was at the core of it. And yes, it is also about the family: how women’s solidarity exploded the ‘natural family’ of most primate societies, in which the females are the sexual possessions of the male or males. Knight argues that the first human societies were communist. For him, as for Friedrich Engels, this means something historically specific (and nothing whatsoever to do with the monstrosity of Stalinism). Communism meant a society in which women – as never before or since – were free. Women collectively said No to rape, and men obeyed. Responsibility for children belonged to the whole community. Women’s rule – matriarchy – in this sense meant freedom for everyone. Language, co-operation and science replaced physical coercion, animal individualism, and the rule of genes.”
Liz Dalton, Sulfur Magazine

“Read this book and be changed. It is another of the great books of our time whose far-reaching influence in modern culture has not even begun to be felt. BLOOD RELATIONS is beautiful.”
Earl Hazell, Amazon.com

“Chris Knight has produced a book of absorbing interest. The author likens himself to the palaeoanthropological storytellers and it is a fascinating tale that he has to tell. His setting is some 40,000-45,000 years ago…Recommended for health sociologists and students, especially those interested in the gender order of society and in the social significance of biological processes. The book is a narrative, best read through from cover to cover, and this is an agreeable and thought-provoking task.”
Agnes Miles, Sociology of Health and Illness

“One of Knight’s chapters is headed ‘The Revolution’…, but his whole book might well have had this in the title for his thesis has revolutionary implications for modern scholarship as well as hypothesising a revolution in the remote past.”
Emily Lyle, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

“A refreshing alternative to the plethora of prosaic and sexist variations on the ‘Man-the-Hunter’ theory of the origins of human culture.”
Cris Shore, Dept. of Social Anthropology,Goldsmiths’ College London

“Blood Relations is magnificent. Comprehensive in design, powerfully informed in execution – this book clarifies not only the problems of the past, but posits the need for a new cultural leap if we are to survive the present.”
M.R.A.Chance, Department of Anthropology, University College London

“Chris Knight in Blood Relations has this ‘extraordinary resolve’. His is an immense work of documentation and close argument. For all its obvious risks, the model offers no hypothesis which is not rigorously testable. Not only this, but it appears to solve most of the outstanding conundrums in contemporary anthropology.”
Peter Redgrove, Times Literary Supplement

“Blood Relations points us all in a refreshingly new direction.”
Clive Gamble, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton

“Encyclopaedic in scope, this is a seminal work that will certainly stand as a classic example of the application of the Marxist anthropological model to an examination of the origin of human culture…”
Choice, American Library Association

“Chris Knight has a political agenda, and he is not going to hide it from us. He is a good Marxist (‘old fashioned’ as some readers are bound to conclude), believing in class struggle, trade-union activism, workers’ solidarity, and most of all in Engels’s version of primitive communism and the early matriarchate….This theory is designed to cock a snook at every premise which sleeps undisturbed in our current assumptions….The result is an exhilaratingly original edifice of astonishing range.”
Caroline Humphrey, London Review of Books

“Blood Relations is an incredible work of scholarship, and in particular of Marxist scholarship – a vindication of scientific socialist theory at a time when Marxism is supposed to be dead. Here we have the actual proof that Marxist theory works. Not by ignoring facts that don’t fit – but by putting the facts first. The facts are sacred. The theory must fit the facts. We’re so used to having paraded before us Marxism and Marxism-Leninism as it was prostituted by the Soviet Union – where if the facts didn’t fit they were ignored – that we’ve forgotten what Marxism really means.Chris’ book is based on the facts. These facts were well-known within a variety of scientific disciplines – sociology, anthropology, archaeology. You look at these facts, and a lot of them seem completely inexplicable. They appear bizarre. Why do women co-ordinate their menstrual cycles? Why do so many religions have taboos onmenstruation? Why do they have taboos on eating bloody meat? And this is not just in one or two societies, but all round the world, in societies which appear to have very little else in common.Now, men were not very interested in these facts. They just seemed to be bizarre things that primitive societies did. Their importance is that they’re the key to understanding how we became human….Chris’ theory may not be 100 per cent correct. But so far, it explains all the known facts. None of the other theories did. And I don’t think it’s too strong to say that in time to come it will be seen as significant perhaps in the way Darwin was seen as significant, in really changing the way we look at what it is to be human.”
Dorothy Macedo, Vice-Chair, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy

“A quite remarkable contribution to our subject.”
Marilyn Strathern, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

“From the evidence of burials and symbolic objects, rituals and religious beliefs probably go back more than 100,000 years, but could they actually have been central to the origins of modern humans? A British anthropologist, Chris Knight, certainly thinks so, and in a wide-ranging synthesis of data from present-day anthropology, primatology and sociobiology, together with archaeology, he and his collaborators have argued that women collectively produced a social revolution in Africa over 100,000 years ago. The symbolic use of red ochre began as part of a female response to accumulating social and reproductive stresses caused by the increasing demands of pregnancy, infant and child care, and the need for male provisioning. The blood-red pigment was deployed by menstruating and non-menstruating women, speared on their bodies to spread the taboo on menstruation across alliances of female kin. This instituted a “sex-strike”, which could only be broken when the men returned from collaborative hunts with food to share. Female rituals evolved around the sex-strike, male rituals around the hunt (begun under a dark moon, returning at full moon, thus linking menstrual and lunar cyucles and the blood of women and of animals), and tribal rituals of celebration and feasting would follow the return of the successful hunters.”
Chris Stringer, London Natural History Museum

“From apparently modest beginnings, this is the most ambitious project on the origins of culture to have emerged for decades.The effort to establish a collectivist point of departure for the theory of human communication has had to struggle against the individualist assumptions that dominate cognitive science, but this very struggle makes the book original and important”.
Mary Douglas, C.B.E., F.B.A.

“I suspect that it will be a slow burning classic, revived from time to time, but then discarded because it repudiates bourgeois metaphysics.” Keith Hart, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

“As women all over the world fight for control over their own sexuality and fertility, Chris Knight in Blood Relations has performed a service. We can now prove that we’re demanding nothing new. We once had collective control over our own bodies; our fight now is to regain it.”
Leonora Lloyd, Secretary, National Abortion Campaign

“Chris Knight is reconstructing a human revolution that occurred many thousands of years ago. Whether his argument is true or not I am not qualified to judge. But what I want to convey here is the excitement – and the quite extraordinary sense of homecoming and comradeship – which this magnificent book has caused me. But also relief, such relief: as if I am at last in the presence of an understanding which allows something hard and knotted and perverse and intrinsically unshareable, to unfold, stretch, breathe. The release of tension as I read page after page of the detailed, passionate and ironic argument was extraordinary, and something for which I still feel great waves of gratitude.”
David Holt, Lecture to The Guild of Pastoral Psychologists

“This book is a revolutionary textbook for socialists and feminists. It turns upside down the reactionary developments in biology and evolutionary theory that dominated the1980s….Communism – the ideas of revolutionary change, of solidarity, of feminism and of a society organised for the benefit of everyone – is not only still the spectre that haunts Europe, but it is the very thing that created us as human beings…”
Keith Veness, Labour Briefing

“How did human language and culture first emerge? The answer has now been found. It points us back to the very place where we all learned our craft. Human solidarity and culture began on the picket line.”
Jim Perry, Secretary, Cannock Chase & Littleton National Union of Mineworkers

“Blood relations is a bold, panoramic and, in my opinion, easily the most persuasive account of the human revolution. Like any great work there are gaps and unfinished lines of thought – doubtless they will stimulate scholars in the years to come. However, Knight has made the decisive breakthrough which anyone who wants to be taken seriously must develop … or decisively disprove.”
Jack Conrad, Weekly Worker

“What we find most remarkable in Knight’s work is precisely this effort to bring together genetic, archaeological, paleontological and anthropological data in a ‘theory of everything’ for human evolution, analogous to the efforts of the theoretical physicists who have given us super-string or quantum loop gravity theory.”
‘Jens’, International Review

“Knight offers us a model of the birth of culture which, born in practices and needs which are firmly rooted in our biological nature, nevertheless takes form in the real will of our ancestors to impose a collective and liberatory solution to a common problem.”
Timothy Mason, University of Paris

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The revolution which worked

WOMEN INITIATED CULTURE

A review of Chris Knight, 1991. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Women initiated culture. It was they who opened the door to human history. They did so through a sex strike whose banner was the blood of menstruation.

This is Chris Knight’s claim in ‘Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture’ (London & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). It is the story of More on The revolution which worked

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Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.

Chris Knight. Menstrual synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake. In T. Buckley & Alma Gottlieb (eds), Blood Magic: The anthropology of menstruation. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 232-55

Over much of Aboriginal Australia men exercise ritual power through ceremonies (stated in myths once to have been the prerogative of women) in which they symbolically “menstruate” and “give birth.” The resultant power is conceptualized as a rainbowlike snake, which is said to be the source of life and which “swallows” humans and then “regurgitates” them, now “reborn.” This chapter discusses examples of such rituals and beliefs. It suggests that Australian Aboriginal culture in certain regions exhibits a phenomenon known in Western medical science as “menstrual synchrony,” and that such synchrony has been conceptualized traditionally as “like a rainbow” and “like a snake.” More on Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.

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Play as Precursor of Phonology and Syntax

CHRIS KNIGHT

From The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: social function and the origins of linguistic form, eds Chris Knight, Michael Studdert-Kennedy & James R Hurford. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0 521 78696 7. 2000

The theme of language as play suggests inquiries into non-cognitive uses of language such as that found in riddles, jingles, or tongue twisters — and beyond this into the poetic and ritual function of language, as well as into parallels between language and ritual, language and music, and language and dance. It also provides an explanation for the obvious fact that so much in language is non-optimal for purposes of communicating cognitive information. Morris Halle (1975: 528)

Primate vocalisations are irrepressible, context-bound indices of emotional states, in some cases conveying additional information about the sender’s condition, status and/or local environment. Speech has a quite different function: it permits communication of information concerning a shared, conceptual environment — a world of intangibles independent of currently perceptible reality.

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Ritual/speech coevolution: a solution to the problem of deception

Chris Knight

From Approaches to the Evolution of Language, ed James R Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy & Chris Knight.
1998. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, ISBN 0 521 63964 6. 1998

1 Introduction: the Darwinian paradigm

Darwinism is setting a new research agenda across the related fields of palaeoanthropology, evolutionary psychology and theoretical linguistics (Dunbar 1993; Hurford 1989, 1992; Pinker & Bloom 1990; Steele & Shennan 1996). It is now widely accepted that no other theoretical framework has equivalent potential to solve the major outstanding problems in human origins research. Rival paradigms from the human and social sciences — Freudian, Piagetian, Chomskyan, Lévi-Straussian — cannot explain evolved human mentality because they already assume this as a basic premise. Tried and tested as a methodology applicable to the social behaviour of all living organisms (Dawkins 1976; Hamilton 1964; Trivers 1985), Darwinism makes no such assumptions, thereby avoiding circularity.

Modern Darwinism seeks to harmonize research into human life with the rest of scientific knowledge. This project depends, however, on accounting for the emergence of symbolic culture, including speech, a system of communication unparalleled elsewhere in biology. While Darwinians confidently expect an explanation (Pinker & Bloom 1990), it has to be admitted that, to date, no compelling account has been advanced.

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