Christopher Denis Knight

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Chris D. Knight, Professor of Anthropology, University of East London (UK).

"Before studying anthropology, I worked as a postman/van driver for the Post Office and then as a supply teacher in a South London comprehensive school. Trained as a social anthropologist under Professor Mary Douglas and Professor Andrew Strathern at University College London, I received my Ph.D. in 1987 for a reanalysis of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 4-volume study of Native American myths, Mythologiques...

"My research is focused on the evolutionary emergence of human language and symbolic culture. Unlike many others who have addressed such topics, I have resisted the temptation to choose between Darwinian perspectives and those of linguists and social anthropologists. Instead, I have subordinated my hypothesis building to the constraints of standard Darwinian theory while insisting that any model must be testable in the light of linguistic and symbolic cultural data. I am perhaps best known for having drawn attention to the centrality of reproductive strategies and sexual signalling in the evolution of symbolic culture. In particular, menstrual taboos are ubiquitous among extant hunter-gatherers and cry out for an explanation consistent with Darwinian theoretical premises. In agreement with Emile Durkheim and much early social evolutionist speculation, my proposal is that ritual prohibitions surrounding menstruation were an early feature of symbolic culture and that they served the fitness interests of evolving human mothers. I have advanced a speculative theory that alliance building and sexual signalling strategies pursued by human females interacted with male strategies in a process culminating in a social, sexual and political revolution – the so-called ‘human revolution’ in which our uniquely culture-bearing species was born.

"My writing and research on these and other topics has been described as “exhilaratingly original and interdisciplinary” (Caroline Humphrey, The London Review of Books). My first full-length book, Blood Relations, received unanimously favourable reviews – most prominently in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books; it also received publicity through an interview on the BBC World Service Science Now programme, a debate with Dr. Henrietta Moore on BBC Radio Woman’s Hour, a front-page news report in The Independent on Sunday and coverage in many other periodicals. Professor Alex Walter (Anthropology, Rutgers University): ‘This book may be the most important ever written on the evolution of human social organization’. In April 1998, the Independent on Sunday featured a two-page article on my work and that of my colleague, Camilla Power, by science correspondent Marek Kohn, who describes our research team as ‘drawing together some of the most dynamic lines of argument in current British evolutionary thought’. In 2000, I was awarded a Leverhulme Fellowship and in 2002 was appointed Professor of Anthropology at the University of East London.

"Reflecting the growing status of my theory of human origins, the popular science writer Marek Kohn made it the centrepiece of his 1999 book, As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind (London: Granta), while the magazine New Scientist in 2002 made it the focus of a four-page feature article. In 2005, following an encounter with Noam Chomsky in New York, I began collaborating with Professor Luc Steels of the Free University of Brussels. A designer of ‘linguistically’ self-organized robots, Steels is arguably the world’s foremost expert in artificial intelligence research. In July 2006, we attended the Language, Culture and Mind conference in Paris to present a paper entitled Language evolution among artificial embodied agents and populations of ancestral humans. In April 2007, Oxford University Press accepted my proposal – co-authored with Rudolf Botha of Stellenbosch University – for two major edited volumes on language evolution (The Prehistory of Language and The Cradle of Language). These are due for publication early in 2009. In December 2007, I was an invited keynote speaker at an international conference on primate behaviour and human universals featuring many of the most prominent figures in evolutionary science. This has led to a book to which I am contributing a chapter." [1]

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  1. CV, Chris Knight, accessed December 9, 2008.