ASHLEY MONTAGU (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu, born Israel Ehrenberg in East London in 1905, was one of those rare men of learning who succeeded in making substantive scholarly contributions to their academic disciplines while at the same time maintaining contact with the educated layman, indeed contributing substantively to the latter's learning. In addition, he was a dedicated and articulate social critic, concerned with bringing the findings of the social and biological sciences to bear upon the betterment of man's lot, while subjecting some of those very findings to critical social scrutiny. His accomplishments in these three domains, the scientific, the public-educational, and the socioethical, will be treated as a unity in what follows, in accordance with what was clearly the spirit of the program that guided his life's work.

Although Montagu's contributions span a variety of fields in the social and biological sciences -- including work on problems as diverse as Australian aborigines' concepts of sexuality and reproduction, the measurement of internal anatomical landmarks on the heads of intact living human beings, adolescent infertility in girls, the role of cooperative behavior in evolution, and the biological and cultural factors in aggression and in sex roles -- his principal legacy will indisputably consist of his critical analysis of the concept of race.

The problem of race preoccupied Montagu from the beginning of his intellectual career (Montagu 1925; 1926), more than a quarter century before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483), which heralded the civil rights activism that has since followed in America. Montagu's work played a role in that Supreme Court decision, as well as in shaping the social consciousness that ushered it in and has attended it ever since. If some of his ideas, as they are discussed below, appear to be relatively uncontroversial and a matter of common knowledge and assent, let it not be forgotten that that very knowledge and assent is in some measure due to the work and efforts of Montagu, and that he was also forcefully expounding those ideas at an earlier time, when they were far from accepted, and indeed being brutally violated on a scale unparallelled in human history (Montagu 1939; 1941a).

Montagu's papers on race in the late 1930s, culminating in his book "Man's Most Dangerous Myth; The Fallacy of Race" (1942a) and followed by a series of works (including Montagu 1951; 1964; 1975), had the effect of upsetting the traditional concept of race accepted by most anthropologists in that it challenged the reality of anything corresponding to that notion. Montagu emphasized that gene-frequency analysis of traits would tell us more about the evolution of human populations, arguing that the omelet conception of racial mixing was totally artificial and did nothing to explain the origins and consequences of the differences between populations. Since men were all originally gatherer-hunters, wherever they were, the environmental challenges faced by different populations tended to be very similar; hence, one would not expect mental differences. This theory, as set forth in an article coauthored with the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1947), subsequently became generally accepted by anthropologists. Montagu was also asked to draw up the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations Statement on Race (1951) in 1950.

In addition to his work on race, Montagu was among the first to present a number of views, since widely accepted, on such familiar social and psychological themes as aggression and war (1946b; 1976), social factors in crime (Montagu & Merton 1940), women's rights (1953b), psychoanalysis and psychiatry in anthropology (194 1b), love (1953a), home birth and prenatal care (1950; 1962), AfroAmerican studies (1944), sociobiology (1940), birth order (1948), privacy (1956a), and even smoking (19421) and natural foods (1958). In these and other works Montagu was always a strong advocate of gene-environment interactionism (1926; 1940; 1956b; 1959; 1962), stressing that heredity is not biologically given in the genes, and that man's constitution is a dynamic process arising out of the interaction between his unique experiential history and the constraints and potential encoded in his genetic material.

This interactionist stance allowed Montagu to be an effective exponent of the often polarized realms of cultural and biological anthropology. He could adduce evidence on behalf of the biosocial nature of man (1956b) while at the same time showing the virtually limitless capacity of education and culture to shape that very nature (1962). His interactionism attempted to reconcile these two poles, not only in terms of the history of the dual influences acting during one man's lifetime, but also those in mankind's evolutionary history. Montagu emphasized social cooperation and love (1953a; 1974) as critical selectional factors in evolution -- ideas that considerably predated the sociobiological preoccupation with altruism (in the new inclusive fitness sense) in the late 1970s.

Other works by Montagu had fewer social repercussions, but still represented important contributions to anthropology. "Coming Into Being Among the Australian Aborigines" (1937) is one of the classic works on this subject and continues to be a useful source, treating such topics as awareness of the facts of maternity and paternity and the significance of ritual sexual mutilation. This was not only a pioneer study which served to stimulate many students and research workers, but its approach systematized a field which, aside from Bronislaw Malinowski's Sexual Life of Savages (1929), had been only vaguely and poorly understood previously. In addition, Montagu's work on the adolescent sterility period (1946a) solved a perplexing problem encountered by many anthropologists -- most notably by Malinowski in his studies on the Trobrianders (1929) -- that although adolescent girls engaged in extensive premarital sexual relations, they rarely became pregnant.

Montagu also worked on technical problems in anthropometry. He established certain craniometric reference points on the scalp and devised measuring instruments to determine homologous points on the underlying skull in living subjects (1960). His anatomical work on nonhuman primates and on fossils culminated in the publication of one of the earliest textbooks of physical anthropology (1945), which continued for a long time to be a widely used and authoritative work on the subject. Montagu's other texts include reference works on heredity (1959) and anatomy and physiology (Montagu's & Steen 1959), an excellent biography of Edward Tyson (1943), and a large variety of elegant and informative books written for the educated layman.

Montagu's doctorate in anthropology was conferred by Columbia University in 1937. His early academic and intellectual background had been as richly varied as his later contributions. After a long-standing childhood interest in skulls, fossils, and medical matters, fostered by encouragement from the anatomist - anthropologist Arthur Keith, of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Montagu enrolled at 17 years of age at University College London, for a diplomate in psychology, with a view to transferring to anthropology. Among his professors in psychology were C. E. Spearman and the father of modern statistics and biometrics, Karl Pearson; in anthropology he was taught by Elliot Smith and C. G. Seligman. At that time in Europe the new anthropology was just developing, with the functional school of Malinowski. The earlier sticks/stones/bones approach was being replaced by an analysis of the functional interrelations among the elements of culture. Montagu became Malinowski's first student, and surely bears the latter's imprint (along with an even stronger one, some feel, from his other great teacher, Franz Boas); but he soon diverged in favor of a strong biological orientation, particularly in matters pertaining to psychology. (Montagu was one of the first exponents of Sigmund Freud in anthropology, although he later became a critic of the psychoanalytic approach.)

C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, feels that "Montagu has done more than anyone except Margaret Mead to bring the findings of anthropology to the attention of the public." Weston LaBarre of Duke University describes him as "the most prolific and effective popularizer of humanistic subjects since H. G. Wells." Not all anthropologists take such a favorable view of popularization, however; and this may have adversely affected Montagu's own intradisciplinary popularity; yet more than one of his colleagues have suggested that this negative attitude may well reflect sour grapes.

Popularization has not been the only factor diminishing Montagu's professional popularity. According to Marcus Goldstein of Tel Aviv University: "The reason for this, in my opinion, has been his forthrightness, his fearless and blunt attack on works and issues that he felt were scientifically wrong, and perhaps more important, were or could be socially harmful. Two examples come to mind. At one of the early meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, he sharply criticized Prof. E. A. Hooton's work on a typology of U.S. criminals, a virtual return to Lombrosoism. One must remember in this connection that Hooton was the revered teacher of nearly all of the young physical anthropologists of the day! In a subsequent paper co-authored with Robert Merton (Crime and the anthropologist," 1940), Hooton's premises and methodology were systematically demonstrated to be invalid. At another meeting of the Association, Montagu proposed a motion to censure the German anthropologists who were patently misusing the discipline to conform with the vicious Nazi ideology. The motion was defeated, yet the following year the very man instrumental for its defeat proposed the same motion, which passed unanimously."

The final arbiter as to the value of popularization will of course have to be history. Whether in the mid- to later part of the twentieth century, with its unprecedently well-educated and well-informed general population and its pervasive and powerful communications media it was still possible for scientists, particularly social scientists, to pursue their research, particularly on socially sensitive or otherwise significant topics, without simultaneously assuming an advocates, or at least an exegete's role vis-a-vis the educated populace, is an empirical question that only the actual turn of events can answer. In any case, it is clear that Ashley Montagu cast his lot with the new dual role of the social scientist, and fulfilled both aspects of it admirably.




1925 The Colour Question. Vincula (Journal of the University of Londons Student Union) Dec. 14: 66 only.

1926 Intelligence Tests and the Negro in America. Wasu (Journal of the West African Students Union of Great Britain) 1, no. 1:57.

(1937) 1938 Coming Into Being Among the Australian Aborigines. New York: Dutton. -- -> Includes a foreword by Bronislaw Malinowski,

1939 Race and Kindred Delusions. Equality 1, no. 7: 2024.

1940 The Soclo-biology of Man. Scientific Monthly 50:483490.

1940 MONTAGU, ASHLEY; and MERTON, ROBERT K. Crime and the Anthropologist. American Ant hropologist 42:384408.

l941a The Concept of Race in the Light of Genetics. Journal of Heredity 32:243247.

1941b Nescience, Science, and Psycho-analysis. Psychiatry 4:4560.

1942a Mans Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. ---> A paperback edition was published in 1974 by Oxford University Press.

1942b Nothing Can Be Said in Favor of Smoking. In Fact 4, no. 10:23.

1943 Edward Tyson, M.D., F.R.S., (16501708), and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy in England. Philadeiphia: American Philosophical Society.

1944 The African Origins of the American Negro and His Ethnic Composition. Scientific Monthly 58: 5865.

1945 An Introduction to Physical Anthropology. Springfield, Ill,: Thomas.

1946a Adolescent Sterility. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas.

1946b Racism, the Bomb, and the Peoples of the World. Asia and the Americas 46:533 535.

1947 MONTAGU, ASHLEY; and DOBZHANSKY, THEODOSIUS Natural Selection and the Mental Capacities of Mankind. Science 105:587590.

1948 Sex-order of Birth and Personality. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 18:351 353.

1950 Constitutional and Prenatal Factors in Infant and Child Health. Supplement 2, pages 130 in Problems of In fancy and Childhood. New York: Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation.

(1951) 1972 Statement on Race. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1953a MONTAGU, ASHLEY (editor) The Meaning of Love. New York: Julian.

(1953b) 1974 The Natural Superiority of Women. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan.

1956a The Annihilation of Privacy. Saturday Review Mar. 31:911, 32.

1956b The Biosocial Nature of Man. New York: Grove Press.

1958 Are We Forgetting How to Eat? House and Garden 114:178179.

1959 Human Heredity. New York: World Publishing.

1959 MONTAGU, ASHLEY; and STEEN, EDWIN B. Anatomy and Physiology. 2 vols. New York: Barnes & Noble.

1960 A Handbook of Anthropometry. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas.

1962 MONTAGU, ASHLEY (editor) Culture and the Evolution of Man. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1964 The Concept of Race. New York: Free Press.

1974 Culture and Human Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

1975 MONTAGU, ASHLEY (editor) Race and IQ. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1976 The Nature of Human Aggression. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Publications of Ashley Montagu