Monboddo, James Burnett, Lord

Monboddo, James Burnett, Lord

Monboddo, James Burnett, Lord, 1714-99, English writer, b. Scotland. A pioneer in anthropology, he wrote Of the Origin and Progress of Language (6 vol., 1774-92), in which he anticipated Darwin and much of modern evolutionary theory. His Antient Metaphysics (6 vol., 1779-99) is a defense of Greek philosophy.
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (October 25, 1714 - May 26, 1799) was a Scottish judge, scholar of language evolution and philosopher. He is most famous today as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics (Hobbs,1992). In 1767 he became a judge in the Court of Session. Thence Burnett adopted a title based on his father's estate, Monboddo House. Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of evolution, and some credit him with anticipating in principle the idea of natural selection that was developed into a scientific theory by Charles Darwin (Watt, 1985), (Bailey, 2005), (Cloyd, 1972).

Early years

James Burnett was born in 1714 at Monboddo House in Kincardineshire, Scotland. After his primary education at the parish school of Laurencekirk, he studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen where he was graduated in 1729. He also studied at Edinburgh University and the University of Groningen. At Edinburgh University he was graduated at law and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1737.

Burnett married Elizabethe Farquharson and they had two daughters and a son. Burnett's youngest daughter Elizabeth Burnett was an Edinburgh celebrity, known for her beauty and amiability. Tragically she died of consumption at the age of 25. Burnett's friend Robert Burns had a romantic interest in Eliza and wrote a poem, Elegy on the late Miss Burnet of Monboddo, referencing her beauty and which ultimately became her elegy.

His early work in practising law found him in a landmark litigation of his time, called the Douglas case. The matter involved the inheritance standing of a young heir and took on the form of a mystery novel of the era, with a complex web of events spanning Scotland, France and England. Burnett, as the solicitor for the young Douglas heir, was victorious after years of legal battle and appeals.

Later years as patron of the arts and Court of Session Justice

From 1754 until 1767 Monboddo was one of a number of distinguished proprietors of the Canongate Theatre. He clearly enjoyed this endeavour even when some of his fellow judges pointed out that the activity might cast a shadow over his sombre image as jurist. Here he had occasion to further associate with David Hume who was a principal actor in one of the plays. He had actually met Hume earlier when Monboddo was a curator of the Advocates Library and David Hume served as keeper of that library for several years while he wrote his history.

In the era after Monboddo was appointed to Justice of the high court, he organised "learned suppers" at his house on 13 St John Street (Grant, 1880), where he discussed and lectured about his theories. Local intellectuals were invited to attend attic repasts, regular guests including Burns, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Henry Home, Lord Kames was conspicuously absent from such socializing; while Kames and Monboddo served on the high court at the same time and had numerous interactions, they were staunch intellectual rivals. Monboddo rode to London on horseback each year and visited Hampton Court as well as other intellectuals of the era; the King himself was fond of Monboddo's colourful discussions (Watt, 1985). Monboddo is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh along with his daughter Eliza.

Historical linguistics

In The Origin and Progress of Language he painstakingly analyses the structure of primitive and modern languages that argues that mankind had evolved language skills in response to his changing environment and altering social structures. His work in language evolution departed radically from then existing theories. This analysis was totally remarkable, since Burnett was partially deaf. He was intrigued with the systematics he discovered in codifying a multitude of primitive languages. Burnett was the first to discover that primitive languages actually create unnecessarily lengthy words for rather simple concepts. He reasoned that in early languages there was an imperative for clarity, so that redundancy was built in and seemingly unnecessary syllables added. He concluded that this form of language evolved as a method of survival when clear communication might be the determinant of avoiding danger. He demonstrated at many junctures in his analysis that he was aware of the concept of evolution and of natural selection of those peoples who could develop superior language skills. This concept, while transparent in current times, bordered on heresy. Ironically, Burnett was deeply religious and often digressed to credit God with the divine first mover concept as argued in a similar vein by Aristotle.

Monboddo studied in great detail a number of languages of peoples colonised by the Europeans, including those of the Carib, Eskimo, Huron, Algonquin, Peruvian (Quechua?) and Tahitian peoples. He was the first to see the preponderance of polysyllabic words, where most of his predecessors had summarily dismissed primitive language as a series of monosyllabic grunts. He also made the astute observation that in Huron (or Wyandot) the words for very similar objects are astoundingly different. This fact made Monboddo to understand that primitive peoples needed to communicate reliably regarding a more limited number of subjects than in modern civilizations, which led to the polysyllabic and redundant nature of many words. He also was apparently the first to establish that primitive languages are generally vowel rich; correspondingly, very late advanced languages such as German and English are in the opposite sense vowel starved. Partially this disparity arises from the greater vocabulary of modern languages and the decreased need for the polysyllabic content.

Monboddo also traced the evolution of modern European languages and gave particularly great effort to understanding the ancient Greek language, in which he was proficient. He argued that Greek is the most perfect language ever established because of its complex structure and tonality, rendering it capable of expressing a wide gamut of nuances. Monboddo was the first to formulate what is now known as the single-origin hypothesis, the theory that all human origin was from a single region of the earth; he reached this conclusion by reasoning from linguistic evolution (Jones, 1789). This theory is further evidence of his advanced thinking on the topic of the evolution of man.

Evolutionary theorist

Monboddo is considered by a number of scholars (Cloyd, 1972), (Gray, 1929), (Lovejoy, 1933), (Watt, 1985), (Bailey, 2005), (Encyclopædia Britannica) as a precursive thinker in the theory of evolution. Some modern evolution historians do not give Monboddo an equally high standing in the influence of history of evolutionary thought. Encyclopædia Britannica credits Monboddo with pioneering evolutionary thought, defining him as a:

Scottish jurist and pioneer anthropologist who explored the origins of language and society and anticipated principles of Darwinian evolution.

Lovejoy clearly states that Monboddo had suggested the concept of organic evolution in his work:

[Monboddo] has developed the [evolutionary] ideas far more fully; by most educated persons in Great Britain in the [17]80s he was probably looked upon as their originator; and he with some wavering extended Rousseau's doctrine of the identity of species of man and the chimp into the hypothesis of common descent of all the anthropoids, and suggested by implication a general law of evolution.

Charles Neaves, Lord Neaves, one of Monboddo's successors on the high court of Scotland believed that proper credit (Neaves, 1875) was not given to Monboddo in evolutionary theory development. Neaves wrote in poetic form:

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.

Erasmus Darwin notes Monboddo's work in his publications (Darwin, 1803). Later scholars and historical writers knowledgeable of evolutionary theory, such as E.L. Cloyd (Cloyd, 1972) and W. Forbes Gray (Gray, 1929) consider Monboddo's analysis as precursive theory to the theory of Evolution. In any event, Monboddo along with Pierre Louis Maupertuis is known to have outlined the basic principles of natural selection in advance (mid to late 1700s) of others. Whether Charles Darwin read Monboddo is not certain, although his grandfather's understanding (Darwin, 1803) of Monboddo's thought is an indication that Charles Darwin may have drawn ideas from him, and it is known that Charles Darwin was influenced by the writings of Erasmus Darwin in his evolutionary thinking, though Erasmus barely hinted at the idea of natural selection. In regard to his contemporaries, Monboddo debated with Buffon regarding man's relationship to other primates. It may be noted that Charles Darwin, in his foreword to the 6th edition of the Origin of Species, credited Aristotle with foreshadowing the concept of natural selection, and stated that "the first author who in modern times has treated it in a scientific spirit was Buffon". Buffon thought that man was a species unrelated to lower primates, but Monboddo rejected Buffon's analysis and argued that the anthropoidal ape must be related to the species of man. Partly because of Monboddo's deeply religious thought, it was difficult for him to place the apes on an equal plane with man, so he sometimes referred to the anthropoidal ape as the "brother of man". Monboddo suffered a setback in his standing on evolutionary thought, because he claimed that men had caudal appendages; some historians failed to take him very seriously after that remark, even though Monboddo was known to bait his critics with preposterous sayings.

In terms of more recent evolutionary analysis the 2005 publication of The Holly and the Horn (Bailey, 2005) states that "Charles Darwin was to some degree influenced by the theories of Monboddo who deserves the title of Evolutionist more than that of Eccentric." Further Jan-Andrew Henderson states in his publication The Emperor's Kilt: The Two Secret Histories of Scotland that Monboddo was the first to articulate the theory of natural selection:

"He [Monboddo] was a minor celebrity in Edinburgh because he was considered to be very eccentric. But he actually came up with the idea that men may have evolved instead of being created by God. His views were dismissed because people thought he was mad and in those days it was a very controversial view to hold. But he felt it was a logical possibility and it caused him a great deal of consternation. He actually did not want to believe the theory because he was a very religious person."

In his linguistic analysis, he is probably the first person to associate language skills evolving from primates and continuing to evolve in primitive man (Monboddo, 1773). He writes specifically about how the language capability has altered over time in the form not only of skills but physical form of the sound producing organs (mouth, vocal cords, tongue, throat), suggesting he had formed the concept of evolutionary adaptive change.

He also elaborates on the advantages created by the adaptive change of primates to their environment and even to the evolving complexity of primate social structures. In 1772 in a letter to James Harris, Monboddo articulated that his theory of language evolution (Harris, 1772) was simply a part of the manner that man had advanced from the lower animals, a clear precedent of evolutionary thought. Furthermore, he established a detailed theory of how man adaptively acquired language in order to cope better with his environment and social needs. He argued that the development of language was linked to a procession of events: first developing use of tools, then social structures and finally language. this concept was quite striking for his era, because it departed from the classical religious thinking that man was created instantaneously and language revealed by God. In fact, Monboddo was deeply religious and pointed out that the creation events were probably simply allegories and did not dispute that the universe was created by God.

As an agriculturist and horse-breeder, Monboddo was quite aware of the significance of selective breeding and even transferred this breeding theory to communications he had with James Boswell in Boswell's selection of a mate. Monboddo has stated in his own works that degenerative qualities can be inherited by successive generations and that by selective choice of mates, creatures can improve the next generation in a biological sense.

It is also noteworthy that Monboddo, although he never denied the existence of God, referred to the Adam and Eve account as an allegory. That is a strong indication that Monboddo understood the role of natural processes in evolution, since Monboddo was a vigorous opponent of other scientific thinking that philosophically questioned the role of God (See particularly Monboddo's prolific diatribes on Newton's theories.)

It is interesting as Cloyd notes that Monboddo struggled with how to "get man from an animal" without divine intervention, because of his religious beliefs. He developed an entire theory of language evolution around the Egyptian civilization to assist in his understanding of how man descended from animals, since he explained the flowering of language upon the spinoff of the Egyptians imparting language skills to other cultures. Monboddo cast man in his primitive state to be a wild, solitary, herbivorous quadruped. He believed that contemporary man suffered many diseases because he had removed himself from his natural state in the environment of being unclothed and exposed to extreme swings in climate.

Burnett wrote of numerous races of man in primitive areas (mostly based upon accounts of explorers); for example, he described the semi-human races "insensibles" and "wood eaters" in Of the Origin and Progress of Language. He was fascinated by the nature of these peoples' language development and also how they fit into the evolutionary scheme.


In Antient Metaphysics, Burnett claimed that man is gradually elevating himself from the animal condition to a state in which mind acts independently of the body. He was a strong supporter of Aristotle in his concepts of Prime Mover. Much effort was devoted to crediting Isaac Newton with brilliant discoveries in the Laws of Motion, while defending the power of the mind as outlined by Aristotle. His analysis was further complicated by his recurring need to assure that Newton did not obviate the presence of God.

An eccentric

Burnett was widely known to be an eccentric. He often asserted that he followed practices of the ancient Greeks to keep in good physical condition. Accordingly when he came out of court one day in a downpour, he calmly placed his wig in his sedan chair and walked home. Habitually he rode on horseback between Edinburgh and London instead of journeying by carriage. Another time after a decision went against him regarding the value of a horse, he refused to sit with the other judges and assumed a seat below the bench with the court clerks. When Burnett was visiting the King's Court in London in 1787, part of the ceiling of the courtroom started to collapse. People rushed out of the building but Burnett who, at the age of 71, was partially deaf and shortsighted, was the only one not to move. When he was later asked for a reason, he stated that he thought it "an annual ceremony, with which, as an alien, he had nothing to do".

Finally one must remark that Burnett seemed strangely obsessed with man's relation to other primates. In his earlier years he clearly believed that the orangutan was a form of man; furthermore, he accepted an account of a Swedish explorer that reported one primitive tribe had tails.

The orangutan was at this time a generic term for all types of monkeys. The Swedish Explorer who's evidence Burnett accepted was a Naval officer who had veiwed a group of monkeys and thought they were human. Burnett may simply have taken the view that it was reasonable for people to assume the things they do and the word of a Naval officer trained to give accurate reports was a credible source. Burnett was indeed responsible for changing the classical definition of man as a creature of reason to a creature capable of achieving reason although he viewed this processes as a slow and difficult to achieve.

Most astonishingly, he at one time said that humans must have all been born with tails, that were simply removed by midwives at birth. By 1773 he disavowed this view (Pringle, 1773). His contemporaries ridiculed his views, but many later commentators have seen him preceding the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. In any case, in his serious analysis he clearly argued that animal species adapted and changed to survive, and his observations on the adaptive progression of primates to man underscored his clear concepts of evolution.

To modern eyes some of his views and sources are indeed astonishing but this have perhaps been overplayed by critics. Burnett also examined Feral children and was the only thinker of his day to accept them as human rather than monsters. He viewed in these children the ability to achieve reason. He identified the orangutang as Human as his sources indecated to him that it was a creature capable of experiencing shame. The notion that Human identity can be defined by emotion has recently once again become the subject of much debate.

If we place James Burnett in his own age and context his views are not so astonishing for their eccentricity as they are for their insight. He was an original thinker and as Herder viewed him one of the most humane men of his age. A resonable creature with a love of reason.

In popular culture

In his 1981 dystopian novel Lanark, Alasdair Gray names the head of the mysterious Institute Lord Monboddo. He makes the connection explicit in a margin note, however adds that it is not a literal depiction.

Publications of Lord Monboddo

  • The Origin and Progress of Man and Language (6 volumes, 1773-1792)
  • Antient Metaphysics (6 volumes, 1779 - 1799)
  • Decisions of the Court of Session (1738-1760)
  • British Museum, James Burnett to Cadell and Davies, 15 May, 1796, A letter bound into Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of William Robertson, D.D., F.R.S.E, 2nd ed., London (1802). Shelf no.1203.f.3
  • Letter from Monboddo to James Harris, 31 December, 1772; reprinted by William Knight 1900 ISBN 1-85506-207-0
  • Letter from Monboddo to Sir John Pringle, 16 June, 1773; reprinted by William Knight 1900 ISBN 1-85506-207-0
  • Letter of Lord Monboddo to William Jones dated June 20, 1789 reprinted by William Knight, Lord Monboddo and some of his contemporaries,, Thoemmes Press, Bristol, England (1900) ISBN 1-85506-207-0
  • Yale University Boswell Papers, James Burnett to James Boswell, 11 April and 28 May, 1777 (C.2041 and C.2042)

Publications about Lord Monboddo

  • Bailey, Eileen A. FSA, James C.A. Burnett, Charles J. Burnett and Christopher Croly, The Holly and the Horn, Leys Publishing, Banchory (2005) ISBN 0-9538640-2-2
  • Brown, M.P., ed. ''General Synopsis of the Decisions of the Court of Session, 5 vols. (William Tait, Edinburgh. 1829 'Decisions Collected by Lord Monboddo' V, 651-941
  • Boswell, James, The Essence of the Douglas Case, J. Wilke, London (1767)
  • Cloyd, E.L., James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1972)
  • Darwin, Erasmus, The temple of nature, J. Johnson, London (1803)
  • Encyclopædia Britannica
  • James Grant Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland (1880-1887)
  • Gray, W. Forbes, A Forerunner of Darwin, Fortnightly Review n.s. CXXV pp 112-122 (1929)
  • Graham, Henry Gray, Scottish men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century, A.& C. Black, London (1901)
  • Hobbs, Catherine, Rhetoric on the Margin of Modernity, Vico, Condillac, Monboddo, Southern Illinois University Press (1992)
  • Johnson, Samuel and James Boswell, A Tour to the Hebrides, Oxford University Press, first published in 1773, reprinted 1930. 1933, 1948
  • Knight, William Angus, Lord Monboddo and some of his contemporaries John Murray, London (1900) ISBN 1-85506-207-0
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O., Monboddo and Rousseau, Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore, 1948) p61, first appearing in Modern Philogy XXX, pp 275-96, Feb, 1933
  • Neaves, Charles, Lord Neaves, Songs and Verses, Fourth Edition, London p5 (1875)
  • Nichols, W.L., Lord Monboddo Notes and Queries VII, 281 (1853)
  • Watt, Archibald, A Goodly Heritage, Halcon Printing Ltd., Stonehaven, UK (1985)

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