This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

May 2003


26 May 1799:   James Burnet, "Lord Monboddo," Scottish pioneer of evolution, died.

For most of his life, James Burnet was known as a distinguished Scottish jurist, but his career in law got off to a distinctly odd start. Returning home to Scotland from his legal studies in Holland in 1736, he arrived in Edinburgh, as luck would have it, on the very night the Porteous Riots erupted against English taxation. Moreover, he happened to be staying in the very epicenter of the riots in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket. When he ventured outside to see what the sudden ruckus was about, he was fingered as a ringleader and nearly landed in the nearby jail.

Despite this dubious incident, he quickly rose through the Scottish legal system, which by the Act of Union remained separate from the English system. He became Lord of Session in 1767, and acquired thereby the curious title of Lord Monboddo, so named after the town of his birth.

However well-regarded he was as a presiding judge, it was Monboddo’s philosophical interests that made him controversial, ridiculed, and eventually famous. His lifetime’s work, The Origins and Progress of Language, published in three volumes between 1771 and 1776, was a pioneering work, anticipating, though in some odd ways, later discoveries in anthropology, biology, and zoology. He daringly ignored the current religious-based belief that human language was bestowed fully developed as a divine gift, and instead held that it was something that slowly evolved over a long period of time.

Most remarkable, though, was his observation of the humanoid features of the orangutang, in his day still a little-known primate. Monboddo daringly suggested that the orangutang might be related to humans. Anticipating Charles Darwin by generations, this offhand observation only brought down ridicule. The situation wasn’t helped either by some other strange observations in the book, such as his belief that a race of humans with tails existed somewhere around the Bay of Bengal.

Monboddo also had the reputation of being a bit of an eccentric. Like his contemporary, Benjamin Franklin, he was a believer in the efficacy of taking daily “air baths,” which for Monboddo meant running about the house naked with the windows wide open, exposing himself, as it were, to occasional scandal. He also kept a useful complexion by anointing himself nightly with a concoction he invented that may have been an early version of cold cream.

Towards the end of his life, in 1785, he was visiting the King’s Bench court in London when a rickety balcony prompted the sudden evacuation of the chamber. While others made haste to depart, Monboddo sat calmly and Mr. Magoo-like through the uproar. Asked later why he didn’t join the stampede, he cooly replied that he “thought it was an annual ceremony, with which, being an alien, he had nothing to do.”

It was almost exactly sixty years after his death that Alfred Russell Wallace’s paper on natural selection and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species were published, restoring Lord Monboddo and his prescient observations on the orangutang to a position of scientific respect.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, available soon from the Celtic League American Branch.

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