Dickens on Evolution

During those rare moments when I am not doing mathematics or blogging, I am usually reading. I read a lot of nonfiction, mostly books related in some way to science or mathematics. I also read a lot of fiction, and here I generally stick to a steady diet of mysteries, horror, science fiction and political thrillers.

But every once in a while I get the urge to read something good. A Les Miserables or a Moby Dick. That sort of thing. Recently I got it into my head that I really ought to read some Dickens. I’ve never read any of his novels. Theoretically I read Great Expectations in high school. But that came well in to senior year, when even reading the Cliff’s Notes seemed like too much trouble.

So I marched over to the local public library and found pretty much his entire ouvre waiting for me. Which to choose? I decided I would go whole hog and dive into one of his long novels. That left out A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times, among others. I also wanted to read one of his more obscure novels, so that I could more easily enter into things with an open mind. So much for Bleak House or Great Expectations

Eventually I walked out of the library with a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit.

I’ve tried at various times beofre to read Dickens. He certainly had a way with words, and there’s no one better with a clever turn of phrase. But, goodness! So. Many. Words. That might have worked at a time when there was little else to do, but nowadays we have movies to see and television to watch. Who has time for people who take ten pages to cross the street?

But this time I would not be denied. So I plunked down in my favorite chair, set the lights just right, and plunged into chapter one. Five pages later I came to this:

At present it contents itself with remarking, in a general way, on this head: Firstly, that 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.

Monboddo? Who’s Monboddo?

Chuzzlewit was serialized in 1843 and 1844, well before Darwin came on the scene. This Monboddo was apparently of sufficient renown that Dickens felt he could insert a casual reference to him and have his readers know what he was talking about. Yet I don’t recall seeing this name in any of the various histories of evolutionary thought that I have read. Perhaps he was there but the name just didn’t mean anything to me at the time.

Anyway, google to the rescue. Wikipedia tells us what we need to know:

Monboddo is considered by a number of scholars (Cloyd, 1972), (Gray, 1929), (Lovejoy, 1933) as a precursive thinker in the theory of evolution. Most modern evolution historians do not give Monboddo an equally high standing in the influence of history of evolutionary thought. Encyclopaedia Brittanica credits Monboddo as the genesis of evolutionary thought defining Monboddo as a:

Scottish jurist and pioneer anthropologist who explored the origins of language and society and anticipated principles of Darwinian evolution.

Lovejoy clearly states that Monboddo has suggested the concept of organic evolution in his comparison to Rousseau:

[Monboddo] has developed the [evolutionary] ideas far more fully; by most educated persons in Great Britain in the [17]80s he was probably looked upon as their originator; and he with some wavering 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.

Charles Neaves, Lord 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 poetic form:

Though Darwin now proclaims the law
And sreads 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.

How come no one defends his friends in verse anymore?

There follows an interesting discussion of whether Monboddo has been unfairly forgotten in the history of evolution:

Erasmus Darwin notes Monboddo’s work in his publications (Darwin, 1803). Later scholars and historical writers knowledgeable of evolutionary theory, such as E.L. Cloyd (Cloyd, 1972) and W. Forbes Gray (Gray, 1929) consider Monboddo’s analysis as precursive theory to the theory of Evolution. In any event, Monboddo along with Maupertuis is known to have outlined the basic principles of natural selection in advance (mid to late 1700s) of others. Whether Charles Darwin read Monboddo is not certain, although his grandfather’s understanding (Darwin, 1803) of Monboddo’s thought is an indication that Charles Darwin may have drawn ideas from him, and it is known that Charles Darwin was heavily influenced by Erasmus Darwin in his evolutionary thinking. In regard to his contemporaries, Monboddo debated with Buffon regarding man’s relationship to other primates. 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. Partly because of Monboddo’s deeply religious thought, it was difficult for him to place the apes on an equal plane with man, so he sometimes referred to the anthropoidal ape as the “brother of man”. Monboddo suffered a setback in his standing on evolutionary thought, because he claimed 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.

Cool stuff. Wikipedia has much more beyond what was quoted here.


  1. #1 Karl
    July 26, 2006

    Dang, Jason. You keep going like this and you’re going to sound like Gould.
    That’s what was so fascinating about his writing – the breadth and depth of the connections that he found.
    Keep it up.

  2. #2 Donald
    July 26, 2006

    I read somewhere that Witgenstein’s favorite Dickens book was Sketches by Boz.

  3. #3 Doc Bill
    July 26, 2006

    Tale of Two Cities. Definitely.

  4. #4 kerry_cunningham@mac.com
    July 26, 2006

    for the sheer joy of the language, nothing beats pickwick. and they get darker as he gets older, so stay early if you want to chortle.

  5. #5 Mark Van Cleve
    July 26, 2006

    Dickens got paid by the word, and was always highly interested in the commercial aspects of his craft. Doesn’t in any way take away from his achievement, but, bottom line, he got paid by the word.

  6. #6 coturnix
    July 26, 2006

    As a kid I read (unabridged) Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield (twice). I need to get back to Dickens one of these days – I recently bought a copy of the Tale Of Two Cities, so perhaps it will happen.

    This piece of historical knowledge is really interesting – I’ll look around to see if there are any more references anywhere to this guy.

  7. #7 grubstreet
    July 26, 2006

    Strictly speaking,Dickens was not paid by the word, but he did produce his work in installments of a fixed length:


  8. #8 TRACY
    July 27, 2006

    Next time check out Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann In VietNam”.
    Forget the HBO movie, it sucked.

  9. #9 Dom
    July 27, 2006

    Buffon is an interesting character, too. He is the Buffon of Buffon’s needle. Drop a needle on a floor with wood planks. What is the probability that it will fall on a line between two planks? It’s a good Monte Carlo way of calculating PI. The game was played by a soldier in the American Civil War as a way of idling away his time in captivity. And someone (anyone know who?) claimed he calculated PI out to several digits this way, but it is widely thought to be a hoax.

    Buffon got into a little snit with Thomas Jefferson, because he (Buffon) believed that Native Americans were “less evolved” than Europeans, and Jefferson explained that Buffon did not know the meaning of “evolution”. He explained this in very modern terms. You can read about it in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia.

  10. #10 acne treatment
    September 19, 2009

    This piece of historical knowledge is really interesting – I’ll look around to see if there are any more references anywhere to this guy.???