Chris Knight (anthropologist)

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Chris Knight, August 2021, in support of Extinction Rebellion

Chris Knight (born 1942) is a British anthropologist and political activist.



Following an MPhil in Russian Literature from the University of Sussex in 1975,[1] Knight gained his PhD in 1987 at the University of London for a thesis on Claude Lévi-Strauss's four-volume Mythologiques. He became a lecturer in anthropology at the University of East London in 1989 and a professor at the same institution in 2000.[2] Knight is a founding member of the "Radical Anthropology Group" (RAG).[3] He is currently a senior research fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London.[4]

Since graduating from the University of Sussex in 1966, Knight has been exploring the idea that language and symbolic culture emerged in the human species through a process of Darwinian evolution culminating at a certain point in revolutionary change. Becoming human was, according to this theory, a classic instance of a dialectical process, i.e. one in which quantitative change culminates eventually in a qualitative leap. In pursuing this line of thought, Knight takes inspiration not only from modern Darwinian theorists such as Eörs Szathmáry and John Maynard Smith but also from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who in their later years were fascinated by what was then the new science of anthropology.[5]

In 1996, Knight co-founded the EVOLANG series of international conferences on the origins of language, since when he has become a prominent figure in debates on the origins of human symbolic culture and especially the origin of language. In recognition of his contribution to evolutionary linguistics, Knight was awarded the Evolutionary Linguistics Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award at an event held in Vienna in April 2014.[6]


Initially a supporter of Militant, Chris Knight was later a founder editor of the journal Labour Briefing[7] (he remains on the board)[8] and has a long record of political activism.[9] Knight defines himself intellectually as a Marxist.[10]

During the build-up to the 2009 G-20 Summit in London, he was involved in a street theatre group known as The Government of the Dead. Statements he made at this time in an interview[7] for the London Evening Standard[11] (and the PM programme[12]) led the Corporate Management Team at the University of East London to charge him with 'advocating violence' and 'bringing the university into disrepute'. He was suspended on 26 March 2009[2] and, despite a petition signed by over 700 academics and others, was 'summarily dismissed' on 22 July 2009.[citation needed]

On 28 April 2011, Knight was one of three people arrested "on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace". The three were planning a mock execution of the Duke of York (Prince Andrew) in Central London the following day, to coincide with the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. All three were later released without charge.[13][14][15][16] On 30 November 2011, Knight was one of 21 'Occupy London' activists arrested and later charged with public order offences for occupying the Haymarket (Central London) offices of the mining company Xstrata in a protest against the company's diversion of the McArthur River in the Northern Territory of Australia, violating sites held sacred by the Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrawa and Gurdanji Traditional Owners of the region. On 8 August 2012, following a hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court, Knight and his co-defendants were all found not guilty.[17]

In 2017, Knight supported Ken Livingstone in a controversy over allegedly anti-Semitic remarks made by the former London Mayor in 2016.[18]

Selected works[edit]

Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture[edit]

Published in 1991, Knight's first full-length book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture was favourably reviewed in 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 4 Woman’s Hour, a front-page news report in The Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph and coverage in many other periodicals.[19] The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute described Blood Relations as ‘a very readable, witty, lively treasure-trove of anthropological wisdom and insight.’[20] In April 1998, the Independent on Sunday featured a two-page article on Knight's work by science correspondent Marek Kohn, who described his approach as ‘drawing together some of the most dynamic lines of argument in current British evolutionary thought’.[21]

The sculptor Anish Kapoor drew inspiration from Knight's thesis, later recalling how his explorations of the colour red – for example, the celebrated sculpture Blood Relations took inspiration from Knight's 'wonderful theory' that the world's first art was produced when women began decorating themselves with red ochre cosmetics.[22][23]

Although Knight's ideas remain controversial, in the years since Blood Relations was published, it has become central to an increasing body of archaeological research and debate on how symbolic culture emerged in the human species.[24][25][26][27]

Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics[edit]

Knight's most recent book, Decoding Chomsky is a sustained critique of Noam Chomsky's approach to science and its relationship to politics. Its publication in October 2016 sparked instant public controversy. A reviewer for the US The Chronicle of Higher Education hailed it as perhaps 'the most in-depth meditation on "the Chomsky problem" ever published', recommending it as 'a compelling read'.[28] In Britain, The New Scientist described Knight's controversial account as 'trenchant and compelling.'[29] Chomsky responded dismissively to Knight's book in both The New York Times[30] and The London Review of Books.[31]

Other books[edit]

  • (ed. with R. Dunbar and C. Power) The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 1999. ISBN 0-7486-1076-6.
  • (ed. with M. Studdert-Kennedy and J. R. Hurford) The Evolutionary Emergence of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-78157-4.
  • (ed. with R. Botha) The Prehistory of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-954587-2.
  • (ed. with R. Botha) The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-954585-8
  • (ed. with D. Dor and J. Lewis) The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-966533-4


  1. ^ Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power (eds), The Evolution of Culture: an Interdisciplinary View (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. viii
  2. ^ a b Richard Rogers and Paul Lewis, "Professor suspended over claims he incited G20 violence" The Guardian, 27 March 2009
  3. ^ A Brief History of RAG. Retrieved 30 April 2011
  4. ^ "UCL - London's Global University".
  5. ^ Frederick Engels, 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
  6. ^ "ELA Lifetime Achievement Award".
  7. ^ a b David Cohen, "Meet Mister Mayhem", Archived 20 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine Evening Standard ( website), 25 March 2009
  8. ^ "About Labour Briefing" Archived 14 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 30 April 2011 (Labour Briefing is the present title)
  9. ^ "The wilderness years: how Labour's left survived to conquer". The Guardian. 3 November 2017.
  10. ^ "Interview for Ready Steady Book". 2 March 2006. Archived from the original on 21 April 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
  11. ^ Melanie Newman, "UEL suspends 'Mr Mayhem' and cancels alternative G20", Times Higher Education, 2 April 2009
  12. ^ Fiona Hamilton, "Anarchist professor Chris Knight suspended after G20 'threat'", The Times, 26 March 2009
  13. ^ David Batty, "Royal wedding protest: three anti-capitalist activists arrested" The Guardian, 28 April 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2011
  14. ^ Zombie Wedding invitation Archived 29 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 29 April 2011
  15. ^ Robert Booth, Sandra Laville and Shiv Malik, "Royal wedding: police criticised for pre-emptive strikes against protesters" The Guardian, 29 April 2011. Retrieved 30 April 2011
  16. ^ Knight, C. and C. Power 2012. Arrest for Attempted Street Theatre. Anthropology Today, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 24–26.
  17. ^ 16 Occupy London activists found not guilty Archived 1 December 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Letter to The Guardian 12-April-2017
  19. ^ Reviews of Chris Knight, 1991. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture.
  20. ^ R. E. Davis-Floyd, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  21. ^ Marek Kohn, 'Survival of the Chattiest.' Independent on Sunday, 4 April 1998.
  22. ^ Anish Kapoor, Surge. 2019. Listado de Obras en Exhibitión, p. 82
  23. ^ Interview. Anish Kapoor on vaginas, recovering from breakdown and his violent new work: ‘Freud would have a field day’. Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, September 31, 2021.
  24. ^ Knight, C.; Power, C.; Watts, I. (April 1995). "The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian Account" (PDF). Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 5 (1): 75–114. doi:10.1017/S0959774300001190. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 August 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2009.
  25. ^ Watts, I. 2009. Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre. In R. Botha and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 62-92.
  26. ^ Power, C. 2010. Cosmetics, identity and consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 17, No. 7-8, pp. 73-94.
  27. ^ Watts, I. M. Chazan and J. Wilkins, 2016. Early Evidence for Brilliant Ritualized Display: Specularite Use in the Northern Cape (South Africa) between ~500 and ~300 Ka. Current Anthropology Volume 57, Number 3, pp. 287-310.
  28. ^ Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 October 2016
  29. ^ New Scientist, 2 November 2016
  30. ^ New York Times, 31 October
  31. ^ London Review of Books 1 June 2017

External links[edit]