This morning I read the following 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 everyone 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.”
I’d never heard of Lord Monboddo, and because his name is so odd I wondered for a moment if Russell had invented him. He hadn’t.
Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) was a Scottish judge and a man of the Scottish Enlightenment, knowing David Hume and James Boswell. Wikipedia tells me that “He is most famous today as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics,” but he also proposed that humans are descended from the apes. This was long before Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of the Species in 1859. Monboddo made the mistake of suggesting that humans had once had tails and that midwives removed them. This may well have been a joke—as he enjoyed provoking people with jokes—but it caused many historians to think that he wasn’t serious.
Dickens refers to him in Martin Chuzzlewit, which began publication in 1844: “the Manboddo doctrine touching the probability of the human race having once been monkeys.”
The idea that humans are descended from apes was, of course, one of the three great ideas that have disturbed humanity. Copernicus showed us that we are not the centre of the universe; Darwin told us that we are animals and a step on the evolutionary road not its end; and Freud showed how we are driven by processes much deeper than rationality. So it’s hardly surprising that Monboddo with his weakness for jokes should not get the credit for his theory. Indeed, the idea of evolution is so disturbing that many educated people don’t accept it now. And Darwin did, of course, not simply describe the theory but backed it up with meticulous study.
But I’m grateful to Russell for pointing me to Lord Monboddo, who sounds as much fun as his name, and tonight I will raise a glass to him.