During his era, Sir Arthur Keith was one of the world’s most prominent anatomists and defenders of Darwinism. As Keith himself noted in his autobiography, he seemed fated to espouse causes and theories that fail to carry conviction, a notion that became even more accurate than he realized when he wrote it in 1947.
Arthur Keith was born on February 5,1866, in Old Machar in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father was John Keith and his mother, Jessie, was from the Macpherson family, also from Aberdeenshire. The family was sufficiently prosperous for Arthur to receive a good education at Gordon’s College and Marishal College at Aberdeen University, where he graduated with first-class honors in 1888. Keith did postgraduate study at Leipzig before spending three years in Thailand, officially on business for a rubber company, but also to collect botanical specimens for Kew. While in Thailand, Keith studied the musculature of the native monkeys; his thoroughly documented work earned him a medical degree in Aberdeen, as well as the Struthers anatomy medal in 1894, and remained influential for decades to come. During this period, Keith also did groundbreaking research in malformations of the heart.
From 1895 until 1908 Keith taught anatomy at London Hospital Medical College. He was a popular and effective teacher, and he wrote what became the standard textbook for the subject, Human Embryology and Morphology (1898), released in six editions. In 1908 Keith moved on to the important post of Conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, a position he held until he retired in 1933. At the Hunterian, he set himself the task of reviving the scientific element of the College’s program, both by his own lecturing and publishing, and by his ability to attract respected colleagues to associate with the College. He also attracted some major anatomical collections.
During his tenure at the College, Keith turned his attention away from anatomy to broader issues surrounding human evolution, in particular the question of the origin of different races. Keith achieved international prominence through championing the greatest of his lost causes, Piltdown Man. While not in a position to have originated the hoax himself, Keith did become one of Piltdown Man’s most important advocates. In The Antiquity of Man, published first in 1915 and followed by seven impressions (two of them revised editions) Keith argued the case for Piltdown Man. He recognized fully the problems raised by the human-like skull and the simian mandible, as well as the difficulty in finding credible material of that age at the Piltdown site. But each problem was confronted honestly, relevant evidence was brought to light, and solutions were found. Keith was convinced not only that Piltdown Man was genuine, but also that he represented a common ancestor to Homo sapiens and Neandertal, which could be traced to the Pliocene. The only question Keith did not ask was whether the Piltdown findings were a hoax. Keith knew all the main players in the Piltdown affair and respected the professional integrity of each of them, even if his relations with Grafton Elliot Smith were strained.
Keith’s last major contribution to anatomy was his work during World War I on the treatment of soldiers’ wounds. His work in this area was published in 1919 as Memoirs of the Maimed, and it was reprinted in 1952.
As Keith approached retirement, he masterminded his last major project. Working with influential friends, Keith oversaw the creation of the Buckston Browne Research Farm at Downe, the village in Kent where Charles Darwin spent the greater part of his life. Keith and Browne (1850-1945) were also instrumental in converting Darwin’s house at Downe into a museum. When Keith retired from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1933, he and his wife moved to Downe, taking over management of the research farm and writing.
Much of Keith’s writing during the second half of his life was concerned with popularizing evolution for nonspecialist readers. In this he had the enthusiastic support of his friend Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), founder of Watts & Co. publishers and chairman of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA). Keith had been brought up a Christian, but his science training slowly eroded those beliefs. By 1925 when he first spoke publicly on religious issues, Keith was a naturalist and an agnostic. He became an Honorary Associate of the RPA in 1923 and was active in the organization for the rest of his life. When Watts & Co. decided to publish a series of works of popular science called the Forum Series in 1926, Keith supplied four titles, more than any other contributor: Concerning Mans Origin (1928), which included Keith’s 1927 presidential address to the British Association; Darwinism and What It Implies (1928); The Construction of Man’s Family Tree (1934); and Darwinism and Its Critics (1935).
Keith was a regular contributor to the Literary Guide (the RPA journal), and all of the books written during the last three decades of his life were published by Watts & Co. The major titles included A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948), Autobiography (1950), and Darwin Revalued (1955). A New Theory of Human Evolution featured another of Keith’s lost causes: the so-called amity-enmity principle of race competition as a feature of human evolution. Not surprisingly, the New Theory was reviewed positively in South Africa, but the irony was that Keith was not a white supremacist. While stressing the differences of the races, he never spoke in terms of superiority or inferiority. Keith dismissed white supremacism as “self flattery.” The amity-enmity principle can be traced to his 1930 Rectoral Address at Aberdeen University when he spoke of war as nature’s pruning hook. But once again, Keith was neither a Lamarckian, nor a Social Darwinist, at least not in the cruder sense of the term.
- Cooke, B. (2004). The gathering of infidels: A hundred years of the Rationalist Press Association. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Haddon, A. C. (1934). History of anthropology. London: Watts & Co.
- Keith, A. (1929 ).The antiquity of man. London: Williams & Norgate.
- Keith, A. (1948). Autobiography. London: Watts & Co.
- Stocking, G. W. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.