George Romanes

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George Romanes
George John Romanes, photograph by Elliott & Fry.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 born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1848, the youngest of three children, all boys, in a well-to-do and intellectually cultivated family. His father was George Romanes, a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Two years after his birth, his parents moved to Cornwall Terrace in United Kingdom, which would set Romanes on the path to a fruitful and lasting relationship with Charles Darwin. During his youth, Romanes resided temporarily in Germany and Italy, developing a fluency in both German and Italian. His early education was inconsistent, undertaken partly in public schools, and partly at home. He developed an early love for pottery and music, at which he excelled. However, his true passion resided elsewhere, and the young Romanes decided to study science, abandoning a prior ambition to become a clergyman like his father.


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 studied medicine and physiology, graduating 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. [1] Forging a relationship with Darwin was not difficult for Romanes, who reputedly inherited a “sweetness of temper and calmness of manner” from his father. 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, the Romanes Lectures, which continue to this day. 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 objections to Darwin’s isolation theory of speciation. These 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, 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 defended Darwin’s theories by attempting to rebut criticisms and attacks levied by other psychologists against the Darwinian school of thought. Perhaps most notably, Romanes expanded on Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection by advancing a theory of behavior based on comparative psychology. In Animal Intelligence, Romanes demonstrated similarities and dissimilarities between cognitive and physical functions of various animals.[11] In Mental Evolution in Animals, Romanes illustrated the evolution of the cognitive and physical functions associated with animal life. Romanes believed that animal intelligence evolves through behavioral conditioning, or positive reinforcement.[12] Romanes then published Mental Evolution in Man, which focused on the evolution of human cognitive and physical functions.[13]

In 1890, Romanes published Darwin, and After Darwin,[14] where he attempted to explain the relationship between science and religion. All of his notes on this subject were left to Charles Gore. Gore used the notes in preparing Thoughts on Religion, and published the work under Romanes's name.[10] The Life and Letters of George Romanes, offers a semi-autobiographical account of Romanes's life.[1]



  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