Ashley Montagu and the genetics of race

Having no time for ambiguous terms in biology, Patrice Jones was led to Ashley Montagu, who fought for race to be dropped as a biological distinction at a time when it was embedded in culture.

 Illustration by  Meg Gough-Brooks

Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks

Model Specimens is a monthly column that explores the role models who inspired today's scientists. This month, Patrice Jones discusses her admiration for Ashley Montagu, a man who challenged the biological concept of race at a time when it was used to reinforce discrimination.

More often than not, our most celebrated scientists are those who developed and introduced new theories and technologies. But great scientists are also those men and women who worked to discredit and remove broken concepts from science, preventing future generations from straying down paths with dead ends.

My recent work in population genetics led me to be inspired by such a scientist. Ashley Montagu, a great anthropologist and vigorous integrationist, sought to tear down the concept of race during a time when it was heavily abused. His work taught me to consider the impact of language when conveying my research to others, and inspired me to work to change people's ideas around human differences.

Montagu’s race crusade

Much of the allure of Ashley Montagu was not particularly what he did, but more so when he did it. Ashley Montagu – born Israel Ehrenberg – was born in 1905 into a Jewish immigrant family living in London’s East End. The cynical world in which he lived sparked a career’s worth of interest into human behaviour. He lived his childhood through WWI and was a student of social anthropology in the post-war period, when current anthropologists continued to teach the unsound, nineteenth-century view of race, which often included use of terms such as ‘lower' or ‘inferior’ races.  

Following his undergraduate studies, Ehrenberg skipped seas to America where he took up the name Ashley Montagu - Montague Francis Ashley Montagu in full. The name drew from past influential writers, his last name - Montagu - was taken from a prominent 18th century feminist Lady Mary Montagu. This change was thought to be driven by Montagu’s initial belief that it would allow him to be easily accepted into academia. At first, Montagu no doubt saw his heritage as an obstacle, also initially lying about his parents’ careers and his upbringing.

"As far as research and observation have been able to prove, the chromosome number of all the human races is the same, and all of the five, seven, or ten races (depending on who we follow) are inter-fertile. The blood of all races is built of the same pattern of agglutinins and antigens, and the appropriate blood type from one race can be transfused into any other without untoward effect. Thus in spite of the questionable physical differences between groups of people, an imposing substrate of similarity underlies these differences." 

— Ashley Montagu highlighting the futility of racial categories in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.

Montagu received a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University in 1936, having studied the beliefs of Aboriginal Australians around sexuality and reproduction, and began his long and inspiring career at the onset of WWII. He taught at various medical schools, and was the founding chairman of the anthropology department at Rutgers University in 1949. But his academic positions were just a small part of his career.

Montagu actively contributed to the conversation around major social issues and rapidly became a controversial figure. His outspoken nature was not well tolerated by his colleagues and led him to be rejected by the academic world. In 1955 he was driven to resign from his position at Rutgers, never to take on another academic position. This turned out to be just a small bump in his road, Montagu stopped seeking approval from within academia and turned his focus to writing. He proceeded to publish over 60 books on a wide range of topics in science, a repertoire that earned him a title as one of the great academic generalists of his time.

  Ashley Montagu was well ahead of his time in his writings on questions of race and gender.   Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Ashley Montagu was well ahead of his time in his writings on questions of race and gender. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

It was through Montagu’s books that I came to know of him. Having stumbled across several inspiring quotes of his, I visited a number of my university’s libraries to collect his books on the subject. A wearying effort, this included journeying to several campuses and convincing librarians that a very roughed-up, unreadable piece of plastic was at some point my library card.  

He began his assault on race at the beginning of WWII, when the social myth of race was at its peak and becoming increasingly politicised. During the war, Montagu presented a motion to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists that there was no scientific basis for discriminating based on race in anthropology. At the time, racial categories were heavily used in anthropological studies and consequently the motion did not pass. Montagu turned his attention to first tearing down the concept of race itself.

After several papers on the subject (which bordered on attacking the anthropologists of the time) he wrote the first book by a natural scientist that argued race as an outdated term to explain human variability, as it is a social myth rather than a biological construct. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, published in 1942, received a mound of negative reviews but surprisingly became a bestseller, revealing just how mixed the view on race was at this time. This is one of the books by Montagu I frantically searched my university library for. My impression of the book was that it was bold, in every sense of the word - with Montagu past shying away from his criticism on race and those who used it. These were my thoughts reading the book some 70 years after it was published, overlooking that it was first printed during an era of peak racism. At this time, the book would have surpassed being bold and been more an act of bravery.

Montagu did not argue that populations of different physical characteristics do not exist, but that the term race corresponds to nothing definite in biology, with no clear-cut differences in the biology of individuals of these different races. He spoke of races like omelettes: in the same way omelettes are made from smashing together largely varied ingredients, racial categories had been constructed through a haphazard process of averaging varying characteristics and forcing individuals together. There was, therefore, huge ambiguity in what defined a ‘race’.

“In science, as in life, it is good practice to attach from time to time a question mark to the facts one takes most granted.”

— Ashley Montagu in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race

Humankind does not naturally fall into groups, but exists as a continuum of individuals differing in frequency of genes, whether for our most striking features, like our skin or hair colour, or our more subtle musculature. The use of race in the study of human variability is therefore outdated, because race assumes explicit differences when we are actually dealing with fluid or fluctuating variation. This was highlighted in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, which drew upon what was known about human variability to reveal the lack of biological basis behind race, aspiring the abolish its use in research as well its abuse in legitimizing a social hierarchy between populations at the time.

Unsurprisingly, Montagu emerged as one of the most prolific scientists addressing racial issues during the war. Following WWII, it was evident that racial prejudice remained a source of worldwide tension, and he naturally found himself at the centre of public discussion on the issue. Montagu acted within a panel of scientists examining human variability to draft the UNESCO statement The Race Question, the first of four UNESCO statements issued through the 1950s and 60s that clarified what was known around human variability in efforts to condemn racism.

Montagu promoted public discussion on racial prejudice and mistreatment late into his career.

Part of my revere for Montagu came from watching footage of such discussions, where I observed Montagu as a man bold in both appearance and manner; a man with contrasting white hair and black thick-framed glasses and a dynamic but polished tone. He made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and in the 1970s formed part of a panel discussing potential contact with extraterrestrials alongside Carl Sagan. During the panel he highlighted how important our initial communication would be, but hinted at the past mistreatment of our own species and stated that “before we can communicate with others successfully, we must first learn to communicate with ourselves successfully, and we are long way from achieving that”.

 

Ashley Montagu was a famous intellectual in the 1970s, often appearing on talk shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 

 

Montagu received many honours throughout his life, awarded many distinguished titles from anthropology and humanity groups as recognition for his work. In 1994, Montagu received the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists - eventually being praised by the same association that obstructed his crusade on race decades before.

Race vs modern genetics

A huge part of my admiration for Ashley Montagu comes from his publishing his ideas at a time when they were far from accepted. His crusade on race was fueled by the facts and he continued to build on his previous works as new evidence arose. There have been six editions of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, a remarkable statement on its lasting significance. Sadly, Montagu passed away in 1999, and missed out on an abundance of evidence that would have no doubt shaped a great seventh edition.

The turn of the 21st century brought with it masses of data for the exploration of human differences, in the form of completion of the Human Genome Project. Data from this project revealed races as far from genetically homologous, and consequently planted a huge red cross over the use of race as a biological concept.

It is the mark of the cultured man that he is aware of the fact that equality is an ethical and not a biological principle.

— Ashley Montagu

By virtue of Montagu and of the mounting evidence, the view of the average scientist on how populations should be grouped in research has shifted. Researchers now use terminology such as ethnicity and ancestry in their description of populations, as these consider cultural differences and mixed heritage. Editorials in journals Nature and Science have called for the complete phasing out of racial terminology, with academic journals withdrawing from the use of race and issuing guidelines for population classifications in their published research.

As a newbie scientist, just beginning my PhD marathon this year, I spend a great deal of time stressing about elements of my research: questioning the validity of my methods, analysis and conclusions in an effort to produce sound results. In science, we believe the only authority is that of the evidence, but Montagu’s journey revealed that evidence does not always speak for itself. He revealed the impact ambiguous language can have on how researchers and the public alike perceive human differences, and therefore taught me to also consider the soundness of my language when conveying my research to others.

Montagu made an example of how much of the meaning of a word is in the action it produces. Race remains a trigger word for emotional response, despite our past efforts in defining it. He inspired me to believe it is now the task of the scientist exploring human variation to convey the facts, and change people’s ideas around human differences. Ashley Montagu’s work reveals that if we put ourselves into distinct groups, we forfeit our ability to make sense of the meaning of our differences. The big mistake lies in not remembering to recognize ourselves as just variations of the same grand picture, both within our research and society.

Edited by Tessa Evans and Nicola McCaskill