Ashley Montagu (June 28 1905 - November 26, 1999), was an English anthropologist and humanist who popularized issues such as race and gender and their relation to politics and development. Born into a Jewish family, he changed his name to Ashley Montagu early on in order to be accepted in academic circles. Finally, however, his own outspoken character led him to be rejected by the academic world, and he turned to popular writing and speaking. He sought not personal fame and glory, but rather pursued relentlessly the course of making human evolutionary science known to the public. He adamantly opposed racial segregation, arguing that any biological basis for racial differences in intelligence was false, and authored the UNESCO statement on race of 1950. A brilliant scientist and articulate social critic, Montagu's vision was of humankind as a single family, diversified in virtually unlimited ways through educational and cultural experiences.
Born June 28, 1905 in London's East End as Israel Ehrenberg, he later changed his name to "Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu" and went by Ashley Montagu, he decided in childhood to learn everything he could to understand how some children could grow up to be so injurious to new children. He read whatever he could find in libraries and bookstores, focusing on physical and human sciences, and early on astonishing his teachers with his intellectual virtuosity. His interests gradually centered on the manifestations and human significance of love, the underlying focus much of his later work.
At age 12, he summoned the courage to make an impromptu visit to celebrated British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, Curator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, to request identification of an unfamiliar skull found in an excavation. The scientist was so impressed with the boy that he spent several hours with him and invited him to return at will to study anatomical collections at the museum he directed. The two remained friends for the rest of Keith's life.
In 1922, at the University of London (and later at the University of Florence) Montagu became a student of psychology and anthropology. As an example of his incomparable gifts, he was invited to present to the Critical Society at University College a pioneering course on psychoanalysis. In 1936, at Columbia University he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.
For twenty years Montagu taught anatomy in American medical schools, and then for six years he served as the chairman of the department of Anthropology at Rutgers. Resigning in 1949 to live in Princeton, he devoted himself to writing and teaching as visiting guest lecturer at such universities as Princeton, University of California at Santa Barbara, and Harvard, continuing to make signal scientific contributions while simultaneously becoming the most popular writer and lecturer on the human sciences.
Montagu is best known for his argument that aggression is not a natural human drive and for having discredited “race” as a specious and dangerous concept in the social sciences. Two appropriate quotes from Ashley Montagu are self-explanatory in this context: "The cultured man is an artist, an artist in humanity" and "Human beings are the only creatures who are able to behave irrationally in the name of reason" (Montagu 1942).
For his achievement, Montagu was honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award of The American Anthropological Association and the Darwin Award of the Society of American Physical Anthropologists. As for the latter, the power of his ideas about the health of babies and mothers (childbirth at home, breast-feeding, close physical contact) in his books and lectures, and his witty personality in his television appearances, as a guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and The Phil Donahue Show, and in print, such as The Ladies Home Journal, is attested to by the fact that the formerly uncommon name "Ashley" became one of the most frequently chosen names for girls in several ethnic groups.
Ashley Montagu died in Princeton, New Jersey on November 26, 1999.
In addition to his scientific prowess, Ashley Montagu 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.
One of his more memorable quotes encompasses his attitude towards the human work-span:
It is work, work that one delights in, that is the surest guarantor of happiness. But even here it is a work that has to be earned by labor in one's earlier years. One should labor so hard in youth that everything one does subsequently is easy by comparison. (Montagu 1947)
And his perceptive wit is also revealed in his maxim: The idea is to die young as late as possible (Montagu 1956).
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 sexualityand 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 gender roles—his principal legacy indisputably consists 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). 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 appear to be relatively uncontroversial and a matter of common knowledge and assent, that very knowledge and assent is in some measure due to the work and efforts of Montagu. He was expounding those very ideas at an earlier time, when they were far from accepted, and indeed brutally violated (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 (Montagu 1942), 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. When Carleton S. Coon published his controversial The Origin of Races in 1960, Montagu immediately challenged his theory of separate evolution, which was taken as justification for racism by segregationists.
Montagu emphasized that gene-frequency analysis of traits would tell us more about the evolution of human populations. Since men were all originally hunter-gatherers, 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 co-authored 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 (UNESCO) Statement on Race (1951).
His interactionist stance allowed Montagu to be an effective exponent of the often polarized realms of cultural and physical anthropology. He could adduce evidence on behalf of the biosocial nature of man (Montagu 1956), while at the same time showing the virtually limitless capacity of education and culture to shape that very nature (Montagu 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 humankind's evolutionary history: Science has proof without any certainty. Creationists have certainty without any proof. (Montagu 1962)
Montagu emphasized social cooperation and love (Montagu 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.
Montagu's anatomical work on nonhuman primates and on fossils culminated in the publication of one of the earliest textbooks of physical anthropology (Montagu 1945), which continued for a long time to be a widely used and authoritative work on the subject. He also worked on technical problems in anthropometry, establishing certain craniometric reference points on the scalp and devising measuring instruments to determine homologous points on the underlying skull in living subjects (Montagu 1960).
Montagu's other texts include reference works on heredity (Montagu 1959) and anatomy and physiology (Montagu & 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 other work had fewer social repercussions, but still represented important contributions to anthropology. Coming Into Being Among the Australian Aborigines (Montagu 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 (1929) Sexual Life of Savages, had been only vaguely and poorly understood previously.
In addition, Montagu's work on the adolescent sterility period (Montagu 1946a) solved a perplexing problem encountered by many anthropologists—most notably by Malinowski in his studies on The Trobriand Islands (1929)—that although adolescent girls engaged in extensive premarital sexual relations, they rarely became pregnant.
A world-renowned specialist in anthropology, Ashley Montagu, by transforming himself into integrator and interpreter of all sciences, also became one of the most significant generalists of the twentieth century. This same man who worked out the embryology of the upper jaw (now employed by surgeons to repair cleft palate), also contributed to practically every major social movement of the twentieth century.
Montagu received many awards and honors throughout his life. He received the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), shortly after the award was established, presented at the 1994 AAPA meeting by his long-time friend and co-author, Loring Brace. The following year, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year.
His former colleagues remarked that "Montagu has done more than anyone except Margaret Mead to bring the findings of anthropology to the attention of the public," describing him as "the most prolific and effective popularizer of humanistic subjects since H. G. Wells."
There will never be another like Ashley Montagu. He was a man of fascinating complexity, perhaps the last great general anthropological scholar, a tireless fighter for the best (and a victim of the worst) of what academics and the human sciences have to offer, and certainly the most quotable anthropologist of all time. (Marks, 2000)
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