James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714 – 1799) was an eighteenth century oddity in a century of oddities. A Scottish judge and linguistic scholar, he also propounded ideas of human development which were very much like an early form of evolutionary theory. He was widely ridiculed for this departure from consensus by among many others, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.
Decades later, even Charles Dickens poked a stick at the memory of Monboddo in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Fifteen years after Chuzzlewit, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published and the consensus Johnson, Boswell and Dickens supported was left behind.
Yet Johnson and Dickens are still well-known, and in the case of Dickens, still famous, while Monboddo is much less widely known.
He [Samuel Johnson] attacked Lord Monboddo’s strange speculation on the primitive state of human nature, observing : “Sir, it is all conjecture about a thing useless, even were it known to be true. Knowledge of all kinds is good. Conjecture as to things useful is good; but conjecture as to what it would be useless to know, such as whether men went upon all four, is very idle.”
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson – published 1791
...it may be safely asserted, and yet without implying any direct participation in the Monboddo doctrine touching the probability of the human race having once been monkeys, that men do play very strange and extraordinary tricks.
Charles Dickens – Martin Chuzzlewit serialized 1843 -1844