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Lord Monboddo: An Eccentric Genius

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A Scottish Polymath

James Burnett (Lord Monboddo) was born in Kinkardineshire, Scotland in 1714. He was a man of exceptional intelligence who proposed ideas about evolution before Charles Darwin offered his theory of natural selection. He was also a man given to somewhat bizarre behaviors.

A portrait of Lord Monboddo in a pensive mood by John Kay.

A portrait of Lord Monboddo in a pensive mood by John Kay.

James Burnett studied law at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Groningen, Holland. In 1737, he hung out his shingle as a lawyer in Edinburgh, and came to prominence over a famous inheritance case.

Archibald Douglas, 1st Duke of Douglas (1694–1761) owned vast estates in Scotland. According to the Douglas Archives “He was virtually illiterate, took no part in the affairs of the nation, lived as a recluse, died childless, and may well have been insane.” Without an obvious heir to inherit the great wealth, an almighty squabble broke out over the spoils.

Complex family relationships produced two contestants. Archibald Douglas was the son of the 1st duke's sister, his opponent was the family of the Dukes of Hamilton. The legal battle went back and forth with court rulings favoring the Hamiltons, only to be overturned on appeal. The affair gripped the nation with nasty allegations, riots, a duel, and death threats adding colour to the proceedings.

James Burnett was one of the lawyers on the Archibald Douglas team that eventually prevailed in a trial in the House of Lords. Burnett's skill as an advocate was noted by higher authorities and he was made a judge in 1767.

In Scottish judicial practice judges assume the title of “Lord” followed by their surname or the name of a place. James Burnett assumed the title Lord Monboddo after the place of his birth in eastern Scotland.

Edinburgh's Old Parliament and Court of Sessions where Lord Monboddo practiced law.

Edinburgh's Old Parliament and Court of Sessions where Lord Monboddo practiced law.

An Evolution Pioneer

Over a period of 19 years (1773 to 1792), Burnett published a massive work on the evolution of language. In the six volumes of The Origin and Progress of Man and Language he argued that the language of our primitive ancestors changed to meet the needs of their changing environments. This was groundbreaking stuff in an age when it was popularly believed that language was a divine gift from God to humans.

His analysis has been called by some a precursor to the work of Charles Darwin.

The notion of humans and apes being related was thought to be preposterous by the majority of educated people in the 18th century. Burnett debated the issue with the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who was of the unswerving belief that humans were created as a species alone by God.

However, Burnett did rather shoot himself and his scientific theories in the foot when he spoke about humans having tails and that orangutans were human. This gave opponents ammunition with which to ridicule the man and his proposals about evolution.

(There's a postscript that Burnett would have enjoyed because he had a robust sense of humour. Sandra is an orangutan who lived for many years in a zoo in Argentina. In 2015, she “was granted ‘legal personhood’ (CNN)” by a Buenos Aires judge. She now lives in a Florida sanctuary).

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Some experts argue that Burnett is given undue credit for his early thoughts on evolution. Scottish Judge Lord Charles Neaves did not share those reservations. After Burnett's death he wrote this poem:

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.

Monboddo was mocked for suggesting orangutans were human (he may have been joking) just as Darwin was mocked for saying apes and humans had a common ancestor.

Monboddo was mocked for suggesting orangutans were human (he may have been joking) just as Darwin was mocked for saying apes and humans had a common ancestor.

The Oddities of Lord Monboddo

His lordship contended that humans, monkeys, and beavers were the only animals capable of creating civilizations and that beavers and monkeys had somehow failed to make the most of the advantages conferred on them. It's been suggested that Monboddo was really pulling everybody's legs with that assertion.

One eccentricity that wasn't tongue-in-cheek was his belief in the therapeutic benefits of “air bathing.” This involved parading past his open windows without a stitch of clothing on. This was in Scotland, remember. Long before the concept of central heating came along to pamper those living in cool climates. He became so famous for his naked wanderings that in the early 20th century a German nudist society used his name in its title.

In one story, Monboddo was walking home from the law courts in his regalia when it started to rain. Not wishing to get his wig wet, he hailed a sedan chair, placed his hairpiece inside, and continued his journey in the downpour.

Edinburghlive.co.uk tells us that “Being hard of hearing, he once assumed while delivering a speech to a roomful of English lawyers, that their leaving the room and running for the exits was simply an odd national custom—in fact, the floor was about to cave in.”

Lord Monboddo was, without question, highly intelligent and eccentric, two characteristics that are often associated with one another.

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo.

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo.

Bonus Factoids

  • Lord Monboddo championed the rights of feral children. These were youngsters who had been abandoned by their parents and were viewed by society as wild and stupid. He took the view, not popular among contemporary thinkers, that these children were not monstrous animals but humans capable of learning and reasoning.
  • With his wife Elizabethe Farquharson, Lord Monboddo had a son and two daughters. The youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was a great beauty and she caught the eye of the poet Robert Burns. Sadly she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 and this prompted Burns to write his poem Elegy on The Late Miss Burnet of Monboddo.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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