James Burnett, Lord Monboddo

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo
Lord Monboddo, pencil sketch by John Brown, circa 1777

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (25 October 1714 – 26 May 1799) was a Scottish judge, scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher and deist. 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. As such, Burnett adopted an honorary 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. 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).[1]


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 from where he graduated in 1729. He also studied at University of Edinburgh and the University of Groningen. At Edinburgh University he graduated in 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, Archibald James Edward Douglas, 1st Baron Douglas, 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.

The old Parliament House, housing the Court of Session

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 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 that he was aware of the advantages to those peoples who could develop superior language skills. This quasi-evolutionary idea, whilst common today, was then unusual. Burnett himself was deeply religious and often digressed to credit God with the divine first mover concept as argued in a similar vein by Aristotle.

Lord Monboddo's original inkwell circa 1760 preserved intact to present day

Monboddo studied in great detail the languages of peoples colonised by Europeans, including those of the Carib, Eskimo, Huron, Algonquian, Peruvian (Quechua?) and Tahitian peoples. He was the first to see the preponderance of polysyllabic words, where some of his predecessors had 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 led Monboddo to perceive 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 came up the idea that primitive languages are generally vowel rich and that correspondingly, very late advanced languages such as German and English are vowel starved. According to Burnett, this disparity partially 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 evidence of his thinking on the topic of the evolution of Man.

Evolutionary theorist

Monboddo analyzed man's relation to other species

Monboddo is considered by some scholars (Cloyd 1972; Gray 1929; Lovejoy 1933; Watt 1985; Bailey 2005; and Encyclopædia Britannica) as a precursive thinker in the theory of evolution. However, modern evolutionary historians do not give Monboddo an equally high standing in the influence of history of evolutionary thought.[1][2][3]

"Monboddo: Scottish jurist and pioneer anthropologist who explored the origins of language and society and anticipated principles of Darwinian evolution." Encyclopædia Britannica
"With some wavering, he 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." Lovejoy.

Charles 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 verse:

"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 writers (Cloyd 1972; Gray 1929) consider Monboddo's analysis as precursive to the theory of Evolution. Whether Charles Darwin read Monboddo is not certain. Monboddo debated with Buffon regarding man's relationship to other primates. Charles Darwin did not mention Monboddo,[4] but commented on Buffon: "the first author who in modern times has treated [evolution] 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: he sometimes referred to the anthropoidal ape as the "brother of man". Monboddo suffered a setback, in his standing on evolutionary thought, because he stated at one time 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.

Bailey's 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." Henderson says:

"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." [5]

Monboddo may be the first person to associate language skills evolving from primates and continuing to evolve in primitive man (Monboddo, 1773). He writes 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.

L>R: Lord Kames, Hugo Arnot
and Lord Monboddo, by John Kay

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. Monboddo was a vigorous opponent of other scientific thinking that philosophically questioned the role of God (see Monboddo's prolific diatribes on Newton's theories).

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. This suggests that Monboddo understood the role of natural processes in evolution; artificial selection was the starting-point for many of the proto-evolutionary thinkers, and for Darwin himself.

Monboddo struggled with how to "get man from an animal" (Cloyd) without divine intervention. This is typical of the kind of thinking which is called deist. 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.

Against all this, Monboddo's contribution to evolution is today regarded by historians of evolution as being notable.

Bowler acknowledges his argument that apes might represent the earliest form of humanity (Monboddo 1774), but continues:

"He [Monboddo] regarded humans (including savages and apes) as quite distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. The first suggestion that the human species was descended via the apes from the lower animals did not come until Lamarck's Philosophie Zoologique of 1809." [1]

The history of the theory of evolution is a relatively modern field of scholarship.


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 was "an annual ceremony, with which, as an alien, he had nothing to do".

Burnett in his earlier years suggested that the orangutan was a form of man, although some analysts think that some of his presentation was designed to entice his critics into debate.

Lord Monboddo, a caricature

The orangutan was at this time a generic term for all types of monkeys. The Swedish explorer whose evidence Burnett accepted was a naval officer who had viewed 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 process as one slow and difficult to achieve.

At one time he said that humans must have all been born with tails, which were removed by midwives at birth. His contemporaries ridiculed his views, and by 1773 he had retracted this opinion (Pringle 1773). Some later commentators have seen him as anticipating evolutionary theory. He appeared to argue that animal species adapted and changed to survive, and his observations on the progression of primates to man amounted to some kind of concept of evolution. 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 orangutan as human as his sources indicated it was capable of experiencing shame. The notion that human identity can be defined by emotion is debatable.

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, adding that it is not a literal depiction.

Lord Monboddo's descendant, Jamie Burnett of Leys, has sponsored a stage work 'Monboddo-The Musical' which is a biographical re-enactment of the life of his ancestor. It received a first run at The Aberdeen Arts Centre in September 2010.

In her short story "The Monboddo Ape Boy," Lillian de la Torre depicted a slightly fictionalized Monboddo meeting Samuel Johnson, and being presented with a supposed "wild boy."


  1. ^ a b c Bowler, Peter J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea. 3rd ed California. p51
  2. ^ Larson E.J. 2004. Evolution: the remarkable history of a scientific theory. Modern Library N.Y.
  3. ^ Mayr E. 1982. The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution and inheritance. Harvard.
  4. ^ Darwin, Charles 1866. The origin of species by means of natural selection. Murray, London, 4th and subsequent editions, in the preliminary 'Historical sketch'.
  5. ^ Henderson, Jan-Andrew 2000. The Emperor's Kilt: the two secret histories of Scotland. Mainstream Publishing.

Writings of Lord Monboddo

  • Of the Origin and Progress of 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 20 June 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)


  • 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 Grey, Scottish Men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century, A.& C. Black, London (1901), pp 188–198
  • 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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