Anthropologist and educator Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) focused on human bio-social evolution and maintained throughout his long career that cultural phenomena are not genetically predetermined. In more than 50 books published for both an academic and general readership, Montagu broadened understanding of human social evolution. His topics ranged from human aggression and the use of profanity to infant nurturing, the importance of touch, and the nature of human love.
Montagu committed himself to popularizing the findings of modern science in the hopes of improving civil society and the quality of life. He brought his message to the public not only in books, but also in college classrooms, lecture halls, articles appearing in periodicals ranging from the Washington Post to Ladies' Home Journal, and appearances on popular television talk shows.
The son of Jewish tailor Charles Ehrenberg and his wife, Mary Plot Ehrenberg, Montagu was born Israel Ehrenberg on June 28, 1905. He was raised in London's working class East End neighborhood. It is not known why he decided to change his name, but it may have been due to prejudice against East End Jews in those days. The young boy's decision to take the aristocratic name Ashley Montagu distanced him from his father's Polish and his mother's Russian ethnic roots.
By age ten Montagu was a keen observer of human behavior, and he closely studied the linguistic differences between his Cockney neighbors and the more educated university students who rented rooms in his parents' home. Anatomy was another interest—one that would continue throughout Montagu's life—and in 1917 he made an unannounced visit to British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, hoping Keith would help him identify a skull Montagu found. Keith was so impressed that he invited the 12-year-old to visit him at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons and continue his study of anatomy.
Many adults encouraged young Montagu's intelligence and curiosity, and he read philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche at a relatively young age. His interests included biology, psychology, and anthropology. When he was 15, Montagu won a literary contest and chose as his prize a book titled Introduction to Social Psychology. His early interest in the relationship between environment and behavior foreshadowed Montagu's long career in the social sciences.
After completing his secondary education in London, in 1922 Montagu enrolled at the University of London and spent the next three years studying anthropology. Witnessing the British government's harsh treatment of striking workers during a general labor strike in 1926 prompted the idealistic 21-year-old to leave England. In late 1927 he arrived in New York City and took several classes at Columbia University. He was quoted in a Los Angeles Times obituary as once commenting: "I was brought up as a stuffed shirt Englishman. I wasn't very human. What America did for me was humanize me, democratize me." Traveling to Italy in 1928, he took classes in ethnography and anthropology at the University of Florence, broadening his knowledge and developing the framework for his compelling arguments against biologically determined concepts of race. In 1931, while working as an assistant professor of anthropology at New York University, Montagu married Marjorie Peakes; the couple would have two daughters, Audrey and Barbara, and a son, Geoffrey. In 1934, Montagu resumed his studies at Columbia and earned his Ph.D. there in 1936 under noted professors Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1940.
In 1937 Montagu published his first book, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines, which was based on his dissertation. As a newly graduated Ph.D., he left New York University and joined the staff of Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia in 1938. While at Hahnemann, he published a number of papers on the topic of race. With the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism and the persistence of American racial segregation, Montagu decided that his ideas would be valuable to the public, and he condensed them in the seminal 1942 work Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. In it, he challenged the then largely accepted notion that characteristics based on race were a biological construct. He argued that since humans in all parts of the world developed in hunter-gatherer societies, the challenges they faced in order to survive were similar and their mental capacities equivalent. Given similar genetic traits, differences in the development of human cultures in different parts of the globe must have been caused by external conditions, such as geography, climate, and the availability of natural resources, he argued.
Man's Most Dangerous Myth was highly influential, and Montagu's argument revolutionized the perception of race. In 1949 he was asked to serve on a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) task force and became the principal author of that committee's "Statement on Race." Montagu was not, however, an ardent UN backer. He once commented: "Most of the United Nations is really a forum for the exhibition of national prejudices on a hitherto unprecedented scale. … It's a colossal disaster. What it reflects, of course, is the dehumanization of human beings as human beings." Man's Most Dangerous Myth was revised several times, including in the 1990s to incorporate Montagu's thoughts on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and several African nations and the debate over IQ testing, affirmative action, and race. Considered a classic, the book remained in print 60 years after it was first published. Others expanded on Montagu's ideas in the 1975 book Race and IQ, a collection of essays edited by Montagu.
Montagu became involved in many projects that brought scientific findings to mass audiences. Involved in drafting the bill creating the National Science Foundation in 1946, he also wrote, directed, and produced the documentary film One World, or None. In 1948, Montagu organized an archaeological dig in Kent, England. Leaving Hahnemann Medical College in 1949, he became professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and chair of the department.
In addition to teaching, Montagu continued to spark discussion with a number of books on sociology. One topic that fascinated him was the role of love in the formation of personality. For Montagu, the benefits of encouraging a caring, committed love for others far outweighed those of organized religion. 1950's On Being Human and 1955's The Direction of Human Development: Biological and Social Bases are among books Montagu wrote about the scientific basis and social manifestations of love. In a 1981 interview for Contemporary Authors, he commented: " … in our modern societies, especially in America, … we have a great deal of talk about love, but it's love of an unloving kind, an absence of the real love behind the show of love, which literally means that children and others are being unloved to death."
While at Rutgers, Montague wrote perhaps his most famous work: 1953's The Natural Superiority of Women. First serialized in the mainstream Saturday Evening Post, the essay takes a somewhat humorous tone in discussing men, who possess "the bruited advantages of larger size and muscular power" that in a modern society of desk workers has led some of them to become psychopaths, drug abusers, and barroom brawlers. Examining each sex from an anthropological perspective, Montagu concluded that women are superior because their genetic "bag of tricks" has enabled them to survive both as individuals and in a group during the evolution from a hunter-gatherer to a technological society. For its time, The Natural Superiority of Women was a radical work: Montagu suggested that women should receive equal pay for doing equal work. However, it angered feminists, who took umbrage at Montagu's views that women should stay home to raise their children rather than leaving the home to work.
Montagu's decision to leave Rutgers in 1955 was guided by his continued success as an author. At 50, he wanted to devote more attention to writing. He continued to teach, however, as a visiting professor at universities such as Harvard and Princeton. Montagu increased his involvement in the public sector by serving as the director of the New Jersey Committee on Physical Growth and Development from 1951 to 1957, as chairman of the Anisfield-Wolf Award Committee on Race Relations, and as an advisory consultant to the International Childbirth Education Association and the Peace Research Institute. He continued to attract acclaim and detractors with outspoken criticism of prominent theorists whose works he considered harmful to society.
In his later career, Montagu broadened his sociological scope to include anatomy, heredity, marriage, sex, and even the history of cursing, drawing on current scientific research to support his humanist position. He encouraged modern mothers to return to breast-feeding in 1971's Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. That same year, his book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity inspired the Tony Award-winning play and a later motion picture with its compelling history of a horribly disfigured man in Victorian England.
Montagu's 1976 work, The Nature of Human Aggression, presents the argument that, unlike animals, humans are without instincts and therefore possess no aggressive instincts. In contrast to the position of such ethnologists as Konrad Lorenz, he maintained that all human behavior is learned behavior; while man has the potential for aggressive action, Montagu argued, he has an equal potential for a non-aggressive response.
After retiring from the academic world, Montagu continued to write, revising his earlier books as new scientific studies provided additional insights and reflecting on his own life and career. In his 1981 book, Growing Young, he encouraged readers to cultivate the qualities of curiosity, imagination, and the desire to learn, all inborn traits suppressed in adulthood due to time constraints and stress. Montagu remained a strong advocate of play and spent his free time in book collecting and vegetable gardening at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Stricken with heart disease while working on completing his memoirs, Montagu was hospitalized in March 1999 and died on November 26, 1999, in Princeton, at age ninety-four.
American Anthropologist, October 1951; February 1969; October 1969.
American Journal of Sociology, January 1952.
Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 1968.
Commonweal, August 4, 1950.
Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1999.
National Review, November 28, 1967.
New York Times, November 29, 1999.
Psychology Today, August 1977.
Skeptical Inquirer, January 2000.
Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.galenet.com/ (October 30, 2001). □