George Romanes

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George Romanes
George Romanes.jpg
George Romanes, by Elliott & Fry.
Born (1848-05-20)20 May 1848
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Died 23 May 1894(1894-05-23) (aged 46)
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
Citizenship British
Fields evolutionary biology
Known for comparative psychology
Influences Charles Darwin

George John Romanes FRS (20 May 1848 – 23 May 1894) was a Canadian-born English evolutionary biologist and physiologist who laid the foundation of what he called comparative psychology, postulating a similarity of cognitive processes and mechanisms between humans and other animals.

He was the youngest of Charles Darwin's academic friends, and his views on evolution are historically important. He invented the term neo-Darwinism, which is still often used today to indicate an updated form of Darwinism. Romanes' early death was a loss to the cause of evolutionary biology in Britain. Within six years Mendel's work was rediscovered, and a whole new agenda opened up for debate.

Early life[edit]

George Romanes was the last born in a line of three children in 1848, into a wealthy, well educated family. During his early life he aspired to involve himself with religion by becoming a clergyman. During Romanes's adolescent years he was influenced by extensive travel and intellectual environments. His parents soon moved from his birthplace in Kingston Ontario to Cornwall Terrace in United Kingdom. This had set Romanes on the path to develop a fruitful and lasting relationship with Charles Darwin. During his youth, Romanes often traveled to and shortly resided in Germany and Italy, cultivating his fluency in both languages along the way. When Romanes decided to take up his study in science, abandoning his prior ambition to be a clergyman, he began his work on evolution. Romanes's friend, Charles Darwin, had a great influence on his studies and served as a mentor.[1] Forging a relationship with Darwin was not difficult for Romanes with his inherited “sweetness of temper and calmness of manner” from his Father, reported in his book The Life and Letters of George John Romanes. Romanes's early education was inconsistent and was often in the public schools. Consequently, he was home schooled for half of his education. At this time he developed a love for pottery and music which he excelled at. However, his true passion resided elsewhere; he soon began his study of medicine and physiology at Cambridge University(1867–1873). Romanes was not fully educated and struggled to flourish. This did not hinder his university experience as a whole because he still remained heavily involved in extracurricular activities such as boating and debate club.


Romanes was born in Kingston, Ontario, the third son of George Romanes, a Scottish Presbyterian minister. When he was two years old, his parents returned to England, and he spent the rest of his life in England. Like many English naturalists, he nearly studied divinity, but instead opted to study medicine and physiology at Cambridge University. Although he came from an educated home, his school education was erratic. He entered university half-educated and with little knowledge of the ways of the world.[1] He graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge with the degree of BA in 1871,[2] and is commemorated there by a stained glass window in the chapel.

It was at Cambridge that he came first to the attention of Charles Darwin: "How glad I am that you are so young!" said Darwin. The two remained friends for life. Guided by Michael Foster, Romanes continued to work on the physiology of invertebrates at University College London under William Sharpey and Burdon-Sanderson. In 1879, at 31, Romanes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of his work on the nervous systems of medusae. However, Romanes' tendency to support his claims by anecdotal evidence (rather than empirical tests) prompted Lloyd Morgan's warning known as Morgan's Canon:

"In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development".[3]

As a young man, Romanes was a Christian, and some, including his religious wife, later claimed that he regained some of that belief during his final illness.[4] In fact, he became an agnostic due to the influence of Darwin.[5] In a manuscript left unfinished at the end of his life he said that the theory of evolution had caused him to abandon religion.[6]

Romanes founded a series of free public lectures – still running today – the Romanes Lectures. He was a friend of Thomas Henry Huxley, who gave the second Romanes lecture.

Towards the end of his life, he returned to Christianity.[7]

Professional life[edit]

Romanes's and Darwin's relationship developed quickly and they became close friends. This relationship began when Romanes became Darwin's research assistant during the last eight years of Darwin’s life. The association Romanes had with Darwin was essential in Darwin's later works. Therefore, Darwin confided volumes of unpublished work which Romanes later used to publish papers. Like Darwin, Romanes's theories were met with skepticism and were not accepted initially.[1] The majority of Romanes's work attempted to make a connection between animal consciousness and human consciousness. Some problems were encountered during his research that he addressed with the development of physiological selection. This was Romanes's answer to three questions raised about Darwin’s isolation theory. The questions were: species characteristics that have no evolutionary purpose, the widespread fact of inter-specific sterility, and the need for varieties to escape the swamping effects of inter-crossing after permanent species are established. At the end of his career the majority of his work was directed towards the development of a relationship between intelligence and placement on an evolutionary tree.[8] Romanes believed that the further along an organism was on an evolutionary standpoint, the more likely that organism would be to possess a higher level of functioning.


Romanes was the last child born of three children from George Romanes and Isabella Gair Smith. The majority of his immediate and extended family were descendant from Scottish Highland tribes. His father, Reverend George Romanes, was a professor at Queens College in Kingston, Canada and taught Greek at the local university until the family moved back to England. Romanes and his wife Ethel Mary Duncan were wed on February 11, 1879. Both Romanes' mother and father were involved in the Protestant and Anglican Church during his childhood. Romanes was baptized Anglican and was heavily involved with the Anglican teachings during his youth, despite the fact his parents were not heavily involved with any religion.[9] Speculated by Elizabeth J. Barns in the paper The Early Career of George John Romanes, Darwin may have been viewed as a father figure to Romanes. Darwin did not agree with the teachings of the catholic church because of the fundamental teachings were not supported by his scientific findings at the time. This could explain Romanes' conversion to agnosticism. Surely this is not the only reason for Romanes altered belief, for Romanes had to poses some element of free thinking.

Philosophical and political views[edit]

When Romanes attended Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, Ontario, he entered into an essay contest on the topic of “Christian Prayer considered in relation to the belief that Almighty governs the world by general laws".[7] Romanes didn't have much hope in winning, but much to his surprise he took first place in this contest and received the Burney prize. After winning the Burney prize, Romanes came to the conclusion that he could no longer be faithful to his Christianity religion due to his love and commitment for science. This is interesting due to the fact that when Romanes was growing up, his father was a Reverend. Therefore, Romanes went into great detail about religion and how all aspects of the mind need to be involved to be faithfully committed to religion in his book Thoughts on Religion. He believed that you had to have an extremely high level of will to be dedicated to God or Christ.[10]

Romanes on evolution[edit]

Romanes tackled the subject of evolution frequently. For the most part he supported Darwinism and the role of natural selection. However, he perceived three problems with Darwinian evolution:

  1. The difference between natural species and domesticated varieties in respect to fertility. [this problem was especially pertinent to Darwin, who used the analogy of change in domesticated animals so frequently]
  2. Structures which serve to distinguish allied species are often without any known utilitarian significance. [taxonomists choose the most visible and least changeable features to identify a species, but there may be a host of other differences which though not useful to the taxonomist are significant in survival terms]
  3. The swamping influence upon an incipient species-split of free inter-crossing. [Here we strike the problem which most perplexed Darwin, with his ideas of blending inheritance. It was solved by the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, and later work showed that particulate inheritance could underlie continuous variation: see the evolutionary synthesis]

Romanes also made the acute point that Darwin had not actually shown how natural selection produced species, despite the title of his famous book (On the origin of species by means of natural selection). Natural selection could be the 'machine' for producing adaptation, but still in question was the mechanism for splitting species.

Romanes' own solution to this was called 'physiological selection'. His idea was that variation in reproductive ability, caused mainly by the prevention of inter-crossing with parental forms, was the primary driving force in the production of new species. The majority view then (and now) was that geographical separation is the primary force in species splitting (or allopatry) and secondarily was the increased sterility of crosses between incipient species.

Published works[edit]

When Charles Darwin died, Romanes took over Darwin’s theories and solved many of the criticisms that were proposed by other psychologists about Darwin’s theories. He did so by going further into Darwin’s studies and theories. The most famous theories that Romanes studied further into was Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. In result of these theories Romanes was able to define a discipline of psychology known as comparative psychology which is the study of similarities and differences of the cognitive and physical functions in humans and various animals. In which he wrote many successful books and articles on. One of the most famous books written by Romanes on this theory was called Animal Intelligence. Where it goes into great depth of his theories and his findings on the cognitive function of various animals.[11] Romanes also wrote a book on Mental Evolution in Animals. This is where he defined his studies and findings on the evolution of the cognitive and physical functioning of various animals over many years. Romanes believed that the intelligence and instincts of animals have evolved through positive reinforcement over the years.[12] Following this book he wrote and published Mental Evolution in Man which was more focused on how the cognitive and physical functions among man has evolved over the years.[13] Romanes also received this idea from Darwin. Therefore, Romanes authored and published Darwin, and After Darwin in 1890.[14]

Romanes was looking specifically at the relationship between science and religion when he died. All of his notes on this subject were left to Charles Gore. In which Gore published them under George Romanes and edited by Charles Gore in a book titled Thoughts on Religion.[10] Another famous book that is all about Romanes's life is The Life and Letters of George Romanes.[1] This book was written and edited by his wife talking about Romanes' entire life. This insightful book gives insight about his life from the beginning to the very end. These are just a handful of the many inspiring and intellectual books and articles written by George Romanes over his lifetime.



  1. ^ a b c d Romanes, Ethel 1896. Life and letters of George John Romanes. Longmans, Green, London. p3
  2. ^ "Romanes, George John (RMNS867GJ)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Epstein R. 1984. The principle of parsimony and some applications in psychology. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 5 119–130
  4. ^ 'Physicus' [Romanes G.J.] 1878. A Candid Examination of Theism. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London.
  5. ^ Darwin’s Disciple: George John Romanes, A Life in Letters, was published July 2010 by Lightning Rod Press at the American Philosophical Society.
  6. ^ Romanes G.J. 1895. Thoughts on Religion. ed Charles Gore. Open Court, Chicago. p169
  7. ^ a b McGrew T. 2009. "A Pilgrim's Regress: George John Romanes and the Search for Rational Faith" The Christendom Review 2 (2).
  8. ^ Romanes, G. J., & Robinson, D. N. (1977). Animal intelligence. Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America.
  9. ^ Barnes, Elizabeth 1998. The Early Career of George John Romanes. Newnham College, London
  10. ^ a b Romanes, G. J., & Gore, C. (1902). Thoughts on religion (5th ed.). Chicago, Ill.: Open court Pub. Co
  11. ^ a b c Abbott, C. (n.d.). George Romanes. Psychology History.
  12. ^ Romanes, George, (1893). Mental Evolution in animals. London: Degan Paul, trench, Trubner & Co
  13. ^ 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Romanes, George John. (n.d.). Wikisource.
  14. ^ Romanes, George, (1897). Darwin and after Darwin. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co
  15. ^ Rees, L. (2011, November 2). The Romanes Lecture - Lord Rees. - University of Oxford.
  16. ^ a b c Marcum, A., & Bradley, M. (n.d.). Psyography: Biographies on Psychologists. Psyography: Biographies on Psychologists.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lesch, John E. "The Role of Isolation in Evolution: George J. Romanes and John T. Gulick," Isis, Vol. 66, No. 4, Dec., 1975.
  • McGrew, Timothy. “A Pilgrim’s Regress: George John Romanes and the Search for Rational Faith,” The Christendom Review, Vol. II (2), 2009.
  • Morganti, Federico. "Intelligence as the Plasticity of Instinct: George J. Romanes and Darwin's Earthworms," Theoretical Biology Forum", Vol. 104, N°. 2, 2011.
  • Romanes, Ethel Duncan. The Life and Letters of George John Romanes, Longmans, Green and co., 1896.
  • Schwartz, Joel S. "George John Romanes's Defense of Darwinism: The Correspondence of Charles Darwin and His Chief Disciple," Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1995.
  • Schwartz, Joel S. "Out from Darwin's Shadow: George John Romanes's Efforts to Popularize Science in 'Nineteenth Century' and Other Victorian Periodicals," Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 2002.
  • Schwartz, Joel S. Darwin's Disciple: George John Romanes, A Life In Letters, Diane Publishing Company, 2010.
  • Schultz, D., & Schultz, S. A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
  • Tollemache, Lionel A. Mr. Romanes's Catechism, C.F. Hodgson & Son, 1887.




External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Arthur Gamgee
Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by
Victor Horsley