A few days back I read the following very interesting lines in Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy”:
“As a rule, the man who first thinks of a new idea is so much ahead of his time that every one thinks him silly,
so that he remains obscure and is soon forgotten. Then, gradually, the world becomes ready for the idea, and the
man who proclaims it at the fortunate moment gets all the credit. So it was, for example, with Darwin; poor Lord
Monboddo was a laughing-stock.”
After reading these lines my curiosity about Lord Monboddo was aroused. I read about him and thought that I
should share this knowledge with the VERITAS group.
Lord James Burnett Monboddo was a judge, philosopher and linguist. He is also regarded as some to be the first
person to propose the idea of Natural Selection and therefore, theory of biological evolution.
He was born in 1714 at Monboddo House in Kincardineshire, Scotland. After his education he joined the Scottish bar
in 1737. He was involved with a number of interesting and landmark court cases of those times. In 1767 he was
appointed as a judge under the title of Lord Monboddo.
However in this VERITAS article we are not so concerned about his life as a judge. We will focus on his interests
in Linguists, Evolution and his reputation as an Eccentric.
In his book “The Origin and Evolution of Languages” he does a analysis on the structure of modern and primitive languages
to understand how languages have evolved and what led to this evolution. He argued that our primitive ancestors
had to communicate about a small number of subjects but had to do it with great reliability. That is why these
languages have complex polysyllabic words for even simple subjects. He suggested that as languages evolved,
the vocabulary became vast and the need for reliability reduced, this resulted in small monosyllabic words for
even complex ideas. He said that newer languages like English tend to be vowel-starved precisely for this reason.
Primitive languages, on the other hand tend to be vowel rich.
Notice Lord Monboddo’s reasoning abound evolution of languages. Evolutionary theories are very common today but
in those days they were a novel idea.
Lord Monboddo studied several languages to understand their evolution and structural differences. His favorite
was the Greek language. He believed that this was the best language in terms of structure and the ability to
communicate a vast range of ideas easily and efficiently.
Lord Monboddo was also the first person to propose that the entire population of the world has a common origin.
He did this by examining languages where he found all of them to have evolved from a common root.
Now let’s turn to his theory of biological evolution. Lord Monboddo was perhaps the first to suggest that man
is related to other apes and that they have evolved from a common ancestor. He suggested that as man evolved from
primitive apes he invented tools and language to cope better with his environment and social needs.
He was a horse breeder and knew how certain characteristics could be passed on or removed from subsequent
generations by a careful selection of mates.He used this knowledge in his evolutionary theories.
Lord Monboddo was very religious and therefore had to somehow reconcile his evolutionary theories to his belief
that God created the world. He could do that because he was a deist i.e a believer that God exists but does not
alter the laws of nature based on human affairs. In other words a deist believes that God has created the natural
laws and does not change them to suit humans.
Though he was the pioneer of evolutionary thought, he was never taken seriously. One of the reasons was that
he had a habit of saying absurd things. For example once while defending his theory about man and ape having a
common origin he remarked that man, just like apes has a caudal appendage( tail). He even said that all humans
are born with tails but are removed by midwives soon after birth. These kind of remarks made him the laughing stock
of the biologists of the day.
He was quite well known as an eccentric. He had so much reverence for the ancient Greeks that he would try to
imitate their manners and lifestyle. So, for example, he traveled on horseback and never in a carriage because that is
what the ancient Greeks did.
Here is a little 19th century poem about lord Monboddo by his successor in the high court of Scotland:
“Though Darwin now proclaims the law
And spreads it far abroad, O!
The man that first the secret saw
Was honest old Monboddo.
The architect precedence takes
Of him that bears the hod, O!
So up and at them, Land of Cakes,
We’ll vindicate Monboddo.”