Some might consider Ashley Montagu to be the original sociobiologist, but either they misunderstand the subject or they misunderstand the man. Actually, many of his numerous publications were critical analyses exposing the pseudobiology underlying sociopolitical issues such as racism, sexism, and ageism as well as more general questions about human nature, the nature-nurture controversy, and war and peace. For example, Montagu edited a volume of critiques called Sociobiology Examined (1980). Likewise, he was critical of any attempt to rationalize inequality on biological grounds, including eugenics and ideas about the biological basis of criminality. He was a prolific author and/or editor of more than 80 books, and he wrote hundreds of articles. Moreover, many of these publications addressed a general audience as well as an academic one. Thus, he was a pioneer in the arena of public anthropology, often as a penetrating social critic. For instance, he contributed a regular column to the Ladies Home Journal. These publications reflect an unparalleled breadth and diversity of scientific interests without sacrificing depth and accuracy, distinguishing him as a rare Renaissance scholar of the 20th century.
Montagu was born in London in 1905. In 1922, he entered the University College of London to study psychology and anthropology, with courses in the latter subject by Grafton Elliot Smith. Subsequently, he pursued social anthropology at the London School of Economics with Bronislaw Malinowski, Charles Seligman, and others. As the first student of Malinowski, his teacher’s functionalism is apparent in some of Montagu’s writings. (Fellow students included E. Evans-Pritchard and Raymond Firth.) Next, Montagu studied cultural anthropology at Columbia University with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Boas’s influence on Montagu’s ideas about race is also apparent. Montagu’s doctorate was completed in 1937 with a dissertation on concepts of sexuality and reproduction among Australian Aborigines. Accordingly, Montagu emerged as an anthropologist during the second and third decades of the 20th century as anthropology itself emerged as a scientific and academic profession and at two universities that were primary paradigmatic centers.
Never limited to anthropology, Montagu’s omnibus interests and contributions spanned anthropology, biology, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. This is also reflected in his friendship with other great individuals, including Albert Einstein, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Arthur Keith, Bertrand Russell, and Benjamin Spock. By working for most of his life outside universities with their disciplinary compartmentalization of knowledge, he was able to avoid the arbitrary specialization and reductionism that so often stifle other careers, not to mention understanding itself.
Montagu found academic employment at New York University (1931-1938), the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia (1938-1949), and Rutgers University (1949-1955). However, in a public lecture, some blunt criticisms of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts did not endear him to some administrators at Rutgers, and he was fired in 1956. Also, Montagu resigned from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in 1953 and from the American Anthropological Association in 1955 due to the inaction of these organizations in the face of the House Un-American Activities Committee that persecuted him. After Rutgers, Montagu never held a regular teaching post. However, he did lecture in various positions, including the New School for Social Research (1931-1959), Harvard University (1945), the University of California, Santa Barbara (1962), and Princeton University (1978-1983).
Throughout his life, Montagu was a staunch critic of race as a biological idea and of the social phenomenon of racism as well as an advocate of racial equality and integration. In part, this reflects his recurrent personal experience with anti-Semitism throughout his life. For example, Montagu even changed his name from Israel Ehrenberg to avert some of the prejudice. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Montagu off and on from the early 1950s into the late 1970s on the assumption that his ideas and actions against racism, his support of civil rights, and his views against war and for peace might be subversive. There was never any evidence that Montagu had any association with communism or socialism or, for that matter, that his work was even influenced by Marxism. Also, by persistently criticizing ideas about race that were current in early physical anthropology, Montagu alienated establishment personages such as Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution and Earnest Hooton of Harvard University. In 1939, Montagu introduced a motion at the annual convention of the AAPA asserting that science provided no basis for discrimination based on race, religion, or language, but it was rejected. Nevertheless, eventually Montagu’s ideas won out, as evidenced in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. This classic was first published in 1942 and was revised in a sixth edition in 1996. Another indication that he won the battle is his 1951 book Statement on Race related to his collaborative work with UNESCO. Montagu was not simply being politically correct (or for some, politically incorrect); rather, he was being rigorously scientific, often more so than his opponents in heated exchanges in print and at the annual meetings of the AAPA. At the same time, Montagu’s research and writings about race and racism certainly challenged the status quo of American society during the 1940s and beyond.
The genius of Montagu as a didactic scholar and writer, as well as his acute sociopolitical relevance, is mirrored in the marvelous titles of his books, many of which he edited, such as On Being Human (1950), Darwin, Competition, and Cooperation (1952), The Natural Superiority of Women (1953), Education and Human Relations (1958), Prenatal Influences (1961), Dolphins in History (with John Lilly, 1963), Up the Ivy (1966), The Anatomy of Swearing (1967), The Concept of the Primitive (1968), The American Way of Life (1970) , The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971) , Immortality, Religion, and Morals (1971), Touching: The Human Significance of Skin (1971), The Endangered Environment (1974), Race and IQ (1975), The Nature of Human Aggression (1976), Learning Non-Aggression (1978), Growing Young (1981), The Dehumanization of Man (with Floyd Matson, 1983), Science and Creationism (1984), and The Peace of the World (1988). In 1980, one of his own books became the basis for David Lynch’s celebrated movie The Elephant Man. Another one, The Natural Superiority of Women, remains a classic in feminism and gender studies. These books reflect Montagu’s dedication to the adventure of ideas, as Alfred North Whitehead phrased it.
At the same time, Montagu regularly contributed significant purely academic works as well, including a monograph on the pioneering comparative primate anatomist Edward Tyson in 1943. Montagu also published a comprehensive and authoritative textbook, Introduction to Physical Anthropology (1945,1951, and 1960 editions), which was widely used for decades and set a standard for successors. In particular, Montagu was a proponent of the concept of neoteny, that is, the theory that human evolution selected for the retention of a prolonged period of infant dependency and maturation that allowed for educability and in turn contributed to the plasticity and adaptability of Homo sapiens. This was a central part of his book Growing Young. On the perennial issue of nature versus nurture, Montagu pursued an interactionist position, viewing the individual and group as a product of the interplay of their distinctive biology, culture, and history. He celebrated human potential and the opportunity for the individual to realize it instead of any simplistic biological or genetic determinism and constraints. Montagu also pioneered in studying evolutionary, cultural, and other aspects of aggression, war, nonviolence, peace, and cooperation. Such contributions were officially recognized by the AAPA in 1994 when it presented Montagu with the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Clearly, Montagu was an idealist, a humanist, a moralist, a liberal, and an internationalist—all in the best sense of the terms. His positions were not simply rhetorical; he also put them into practice, for example, in protesting the war in Vietnam in various ways. Also, he was a member of many liberal organizations and an ardent supporter of civil rights for African Americans, Native Americans, women, and others. He was a persistent voice of rationality in a society that was often dangerously irrational and unjust. His professionalism, scholarship, and activism led to appearances as a guest on television programs such as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Phil Donahue Show. Like Margaret Mead, he played a prominent role in public anthropology.
Montagu died at 94 years of age in 1999 in Princeton, New Jersey. However, the substantial body of scientific, scholarly, and public works that he created have not died; they are as relevant today as they ever were, considering the many elemental and perennial questions he addressed.
- Harnad, S. (1980). Ashley Montagu biographical essay. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 18, 535-537.
- Lieberman, L., Lyons, A., & Lyons, H. (1995). An interview with Ashley Montagu. Current Anthropology, 36, 835-844.
- Marks, J. (2000). Ashley Montagu, 1905-1999. Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(3), 111-112.
- Price, D. H. (2004). Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Reynolds, L. T., & Lieberman, L. (Eds.). (1996). Race and other misadventures: Essays in honor of Ashley Montagu in his ninetieth year. Dix Hills, NY: General Hall.
- Sperling, S. (2000). Ashley Montagu (1905-1999). American Anthropologist, 102, 583-588.
- Sperling, S. (2005). Love forms the bones: Ashley Montagu biography. New York: Oxford University Press.