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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/341

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SOME EIGHTEENTH CENTURY EVOLUTIONISTS.

minds. In order to promote intellectual conviviality among his learned fellow townsmen, Monboddo introduced the innovation of late dinners—for his literary suppers, we are told by one who attended them, 'had all the variety and abundance of a principal meal,' and were modeled after the symposia of the ancients. In this society, so distinguished for scientific attainments and for original theories in natural science and philosophy, Monboddo had the reputation of being one of the most learned and most original. His speculations about the origin of language were only less notable, as a piece of pioneering in a new science, than was the work of Smith, of Hutton and of Black; and he had the insight to suggest—though only in a private letter—the theory of the common descent of the European tongues and Sanscrit, a language then newly made known to the Occident by his correspondent, Sir William Jones. But it was felt by most of Monboddo's British contemporaries that he pushed originality in theorizing to the point of fantastic absurdity when he declared that civilized man is akin to the orang-outang and a descendant of progenitors that lacked speech and possibly had tails. The Judge's chapters on the orang-outang sent learned Britain into inextinguishable laughter, and many were the poor witticisms made at his expense. The most vigorous and most amusing of all his critics was the great representative of a commonsense conservatism, Dr. Johnson. Gibes and invectives directed against the author of so ludicrous and so scandalous a doctrine are constantly recurring in the pages of Boswell: "Sir, it is as possible that the orang-outang does not speak, as that he speaks. However, I shall not contest the point; I should have thought it impossible to find a Monboddo; yet he exists." "It is a pity," said Johnson again, "to see Lord Monboddo publish such notions as he has done; a man of sense and of so much elegant learning. There would be nothing in a fool doing it; we should only laugh; but when a wise man does it, we are sorry. Other people have strange notions, but they conceal them; if they have tails, they hide them; but Monboddo is as jealous of his tail as a squirrel." But Johnson's final objection is expressed in these words: "Sir, it is all conjecture about a thing useless even if it were known to be true. . . . Conjecture as to things useful is good; but conjecture as to what it would be useless to know, such as whether man went on all four, is very idle." The intellectual history of the century that followed constitutes an ironical commentary on this dictum of the great eighteenth century conservative.

Monboddo's opinions concerning the descent of man are expressed most at length in the first volume of the 'Origin and Progress of Language,' published in 1773; some further hints of them may be found here and there in the letters of Monboddo recently collected and