Ashley Montagu, a seminal--and maverick--figure in American anthropology for more than 50 years, died Friday evening at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 94.
An educator, prolific lecturer and author with more than 60 books to his credit, Montagu attacked several popularly held myths in his writings. One of those myths was that races were unequal.
"His work on race at mid-century is extremely important, not only in terms of the world of science and its understanding of racial equality but to the public at large," said Dr. Susan Sperling, who teaches medical anthropology at UC San Francisco and is writing a biography of Montagu. "It is his most significant contribution."
That contribution began in the late 1930s, as Nazi troops were imposing Hitler's brand of racial superiority throughout Europe. Montagu countered by publishing what is perhaps his most influential and important book, "Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race."
In it he argues forcefully against the belief that race is an absolute term that depicts something about a human being's character and intelligence. He offers persuasive evidence that there is more genetic variability within each race than among races.
A decade later, Montagu argued against the commonly held belief that women were physically inferior and less original, capable, creative and financially astute than men. In the book "The Natural Superiority of Women" he advanced the idea that women were biologically superior because they had two X chromosomes.
A keen student of questions involving "nature versus nurture," Montagu argued in the 1960s that man was not inherently violent. In a Saturday Review critique of one of Montagu's works, critic D.M. White commented that "[Montagu] sees the real source of man's aggression [is] 'the unsound values by which in a highly competitive, overcrowded, threatening world, man so . . . disoperatively attempts to live.' "
Born in 1905 into a working-class Jewish immigrant family in London's East End, Montagu haunted the used bookstores of his youth, collecting the works of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. By age 10 he was observing the differences in language usage and accent between his Cockney neighbors and educated university students who were often taken in as lodgers by his parents. From those experiences he developed a lifelong interest in the influence of the environment upon the individual, a theme that was to resonate throughout his writings on human behavior.
The East End during Montagu's youth, after World War I, was a vibrant laboratory of ideas. Reformist and revolutionary movements were in vogue and such speakers as Vladimir Lenin could be heard at the local Socialist Club.
Montagu was sensitive to the struggle of the working classes in England during the '20s, and decided to leave for America after a general strike in 1926 was crushed by British authorities.
Immigrating to the U.S. wrought profound change.
"I was brought up as a stuffed shirt Englishman. I wasn't very human," he said. "What America did for me was humanize me, democratize me. Coming over here with all the prejudices of an Englishman, I soon discovered that this was where I wanted to be and where my work could best be done."
Attracted to the "Culture and Personality" school at Columbia University founded by Franz Boaz, the teacher of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Montagu enrolled in the graduate program there in 1934.
"Many of his early works were scientific and cultural treatises on primate anatomy, human evolution and the history of evolutionary science," Sperling, his biographer, said.
He rose to prominence in the late 1930s with his debunking of the race concept as biologically meaningless.
That culminated with "Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race," which was followed in 1951 by his appointment as lead writer of the first UNESCO statement on race, a controversial document for its time in the degree to which it asserted that race is a social construct rather than a biological category.
During the '40s and '50s, Montagu may have been the best-known professor in America. He taught and started the anthropology department at Rutgers; he was a favorite guest on radio and television programs.
But in the mid-1950s, Montagu's career in academia took a rocky turn, in large part because of the progressive nature of his ideas at a time when America was in a decidedly conservative mood. He left Rutgers in 1955 and would never hold a full-time academic position again.
Two years later he published "The Natural Superiority of Women," arguing for the equality of the sexes. The book was criticized by men and some women, including a critic writing in the New Republic who saw Montagu as "profoundly conservative," called his belief in the superiority of women "a staple of the 19th century" and criticized his "atavistic" attachment to the womb.
In the '60s, Montagu joined Dr. Benjamin Spock and other figures in the sciences in protesting the Vietnam War. He also supported the civil rights movement.
Montagu wrote a number of books criticizing the increasing anonymity and automation of postindustrial life.
He wrote some more accessible books as well, including a volume on the history of swearing and the first modern account of the life of Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man," who, like Montagu, had grown up in London's East End.
Montagu is survived by his wife, Marjorie; daughters Audrey Murphy of Sutton, Mass., and Barbara Johnstone of Princeton; son Geoffrey Montagu of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. The family requests that memorial donations be sent to Planned Parenthood of America.