Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Romanes, George John
ROMANES, GEORGE JOHN (1848–1894), man of science, third son of the Rev. George Romanes, was born at Kingston, Canada West, on 20 May 1848. His father, who held the professorship of Greek in the university of Kingston, belonged to an old lowland Scottish family settled since 1586 in Berwickshire. His mother, Isabella Gair, whose vivacity was in marked contrast with the reticence of her husband, was daughter of Robert Smith (d. 1824), minister of Cromarty. The father inherited a considerable fortune in 1848, and removed to England, settling at 8 Cornwall Terrace, Regent's Park, and visiting the continent from time to time. George's early education was desultory, his constitution being delicate, and his faculties slow in development. After reading for a time with a tutor, he entered in October 1867 at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, obtaining in the following year a science scholarship there. He graduated in the second class of the natural science tripos in 1870. Under the influence of Professor Michael Foster, he then worked at physiology, Francis Maitland Balfour [q. v.] being a fellow-student. An early wish to take holy orders was abandoned, and after winning the Burney prize at Cambridge in 1873, for an essay ‘On Christian Prayer and General Laws,’ he for a time read mathematics. Possessed of ample private means, he was under no necessity of working for a livelihood, and ultimately resolved to devote himself to scientific research. Darwin noticed an early contribution made by him to ‘Nature’ (viii. 101), and sent him an encouraging letter. This proved the foundation of a friendship which profoundly affected Romanes's studies, and lasted till Darwin's death.
From 1874 to 1876 Romanes studied under Professor (Sir) John Burdon Sanderson in the physiological laboratory at University College, London, and dated thence his first communication to the Royal Society, on ‘The Influence of Injury on the Excitability of Motor Nerves.’ He counted the advice, the teaching, the example, and the friendship of Professor Burdon Sanderson as among the most important determinants of his scientific career. In addition to the stimulus he received from Darwin in biological speculation, he was specially encouraged by him to apply the theory of natural selection to the problems of mental evolution. Darwin himself entrusted him with unpublished matter on instinct.
While associated with Professor Sanderson, Romanes initiated a series of researches on the nervous and locomotor systems of the medusæ and the echinodermata. He conducted his observations in a laboratory which he built for the purpose at Dunskaith on the Cromarty Firth. The first-fruits of this investigation were communicated to the Royal Society through Professor Huxley, and Romanes also made his results the subject of the Croonian lecture, which he was appointed by the Royal Society to deliver in 1876; the paper was published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ In the same year he read a paper before the British Association at Glasgow. A second paper, in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ followed in 1877, and a third, which concluded the researches on the medusæ, in 1880. In the investigation on the echinoderms Romanes was associated with Professor Cossar Ewart, and their joint work formed the subject of the Croonian lecture for 1881. These researches, the results of which were subsequently set forth in a volume of the ‘International Scientific Series’ (‘Jelly-fish, Star-fish, and Sea-urchins, Nervous Systems,’ 1885), established the position of Romanes as an original worker in science, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1879. Near the close of his life he contributed to the society a summary of an experimental inquiry on ‘Plant Excitability,’ showing that amid other work his interest in physiological investigation had not diminished.
Meanwhile other problems, scientific and philosophical, occupied his mind. At the Dublin meeting of the British Association in 1878 he delivered a lecture on ‘Animal Intelligence,’ by which he became known to the wider public that is interested in general scientific questions rather than in special lines of research. This lecture formed the starting-point of an important investigation. In 1881 he published in the ‘International Scientific Series,’ under the same title that he had given to his Dublin lecture, a collection of data, perhaps too largely anecdotal, respecting the mental faculties of animals in relation to those of man. This work was followed in 1883 by another on ‘Mental Evolution in Animals’ (with Darwin's posthumous essay on instinct), and in 1888 by the first instalment of ‘Mental Evolution in Man,’ dealing with the ‘Origin of Human Faculty.’ Further instalments, dealing with the intellect, emotions, volition, morals, and religion, were projected. Other lines of work, however, intervened, and the design was never completed. The keynote of the whole series is the frank and fearless application of the principles of evolution as formulated by Darwin to the development of mind.
In addition to his special researches in physiology and mental evolution, Romanes interested himself in the progress and development of the theory of organic evolution. A lecture on this subject delivered at Birmingham and Edinburgh was published in the ‘Fortnightly Review’ (December 1881), and republished as a volume in the ‘Nature Series.’ This essay, ‘On the Scientific Evidences of Organic Evolution,’ may be regarded as the germ from which were developed his course of lectures on ‘The Philosophy of Natural History,’ delivered at Edinburgh (1886–90) during his tenure of a special professorship, founded by Lord Rosebery, and his subsequent course on ‘Darwin and after Darwin,’ delivered as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution, a position which he held for three years (1888–91). The substance of these two courses of lectures was subsequently embodied in a treatise bearing the title of the Fullerian course, of which the first part was published in 1893; two other parts, completing the work, were left ready for publication at the time of his death. The first part deals with the ‘Darwinism of Darwin;’ the second part, which appeared with a portrait of the author in 1895, deals with those post-Darwinian problems which involve questions of heredity and utility; while the third part (at present unpublished) contains a discussion of the problems of isolation and of the author's theory of ‘physiological selection.’ This theory, which was regarded by Romanes as his chief substantive contribution to evolutionary doctrine, was first propounded by him in a paper contributed to the Linnean Society in 1886, the full title of which was ‘Physiological Selection: an Additional Suggestion on the Origin of Species.’ The suggestion is briefly as follows. It was part of the body of biological doctrine that when a group of animals or plants belonging to any species is isolated by geographical barriers, that group tends, under the influence of its specialised environment, to develop characters different from those of the main body of the species from which it is isolated. Eventually the divergence of characters may proceed so far as to render the isolated group reciprocally sterile with the original species, and thus to render it not only morphologically but also physiologically a distinct species. Romanes, in his Linnean paper, suggested that reciprocal sterility between individuals not otherwise isolated may be the primary event, the cause and not the effect; and that in this way a physiological barrier may be set up between two groups of the individuals originally belonging to one species and inhabiting the same geographical area. The essential feature of the suggestion is that this physiological barrier may be primary and not secondary. The title of the paper was unfortunate. ‘Physiological Isolation’ would have indicated the author's contention more accurately than ‘Physiological Selection,’ and would perhaps have more effectually guarded him from the attacks of those who charged him with the intention of substituting a new doctrine of the origin of species for that which was associated with the name of Darwin. The paper, which gave rise to much controversy, was unquestionably speculative, and the main contention was not supported by a sufficient body of evidence to carry conviction.
As early as 1874 Romanes suggested in letters to ‘Nature’ what he termed ‘the principle of the cessation of selection.’ He argued that since organs are maintained at a level of maximum efficiency through natural selection, the mere withdrawal or cessation of selection will lead to diminution and degeneration of organs. He distinguished this ‘cessation of selection’ from ‘reversal of selection’ where such diminution or degeneration is, through ‘the principle of economy of growth’ or otherwise, advantageous, and therefore promoted by natural selection. When Weismann advocated panmixia, which includes the effects of both cessation and reversal of selection, Romanes reiterated his former contention (Nature, 1890, xli. 437), and returned to the subject in ‘Darwin and after Darwin’ (vol. ii.) The matter has given rise to some discussion. It would seem that, though the cessation of selection may reduce the level of efficiency of an organ from the maximum maintained by natural selection to the mean efficiency in the individuals born subsequently to the withdrawal of the eliminative influence, it cannot reduce it in any marked degree unless we call in a further ‘principle’ of the failure of heredity. That the mere cessation of selection cannot of itself lead to great reduction was shown by Darwin before Romanes's letters were published (cf. Origin of Species, 6th edit. pp. 401–2).
With regard to the vexed question of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Romanes lent the weight of his support to the Lamarckian side, but he constantly sought to put the matter to the test of experiment.
Romanes's ‘Essay on Christian Prayer and General Laws,’ which won the Burney prize at Cambridge in 1873, necessarily pursued the lines of orthodox apologetics; but there is no reason to suppose that it did not in the main indicate the author's own views at the time when it was written. But when he issued in 1878, under the pseudonym of ‘Physicus,’ a work entitled ‘A Candid Examination of Theism,’ he assumed towards orthodox religious beliefs a negative and destructive attitude. Powerfully written, and showing much dialectic skill, the ‘Candid Examination’ made some stir both in the orthodox and the unorthodox camps. But five years later Romanes struck another note in an article in the ‘Nineteenth Century’ on ‘The Fallacy of Materialism’ (1882); while in the Rede lecture, which he was chosen to deliver in Cambridge in 1885, he adopted the principles of monism, according to which matter and mind are of at least co-ordinate importance and diverse aspects of phenomenal existence. An article in the ‘Contemporary Review’ of the following year (1886) on ‘The World as an Eject’ has distinctly theistic implications; while an ‘Essay on Monism’ (published after the author's death) goes further in the same direction. These modifications of philosophic opinion were accompanied by no less profound modifications of religious conviction. Near the close of his life Romanes was occupied in writing a ‘Candid Examination of Religion,’ to be published under the pseudonym of ‘Metaphysicus.’ Such notes for this work as were sufficiently complete were published after the author's death under the editorship of Canon Gore. They indicate a return to the orthodox position, and express a conviction that the fault of the essay of 1878 lay in an undue reliance on reason to the exclusion of the promptings of the emotional side of man's complex nature.
Romanes married on 11 Feb. 1879, and, settling at 18 Cornwall Terrace, London, threw himself with enthusiasm for the next ten years into the scientific and social life of London. He was for some years honorary zoological secretary of the Linnean Society, and a member of the council of University College, London. In 1890, warned by severe headaches of approaching ill-health, he removed from London to Oxford, where he had many friends and where facilities for scientific work abounded. He took up his residence at an old house in St. Aldates, opposite Christ Church, of which he became a member, being incorporated M.A. of the university of Oxford. There he mainly spent his remaining years as happily as his health permitted. In 1891 he founded in the university a lectureship which bears his name; under the terms of the foundation a man of eminence was to be elected annually to deliver a lecture on a scientific or literary topic. The first Romanes lecture, on ‘Mediæval Universities,’ was delivered by Mr. Gladstone on 24 Oct. 1892. In the same year Romanes's old college (Caius, Cambridge) made him an honorary fellow. Aberdeen University had conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1882. For some time before his death Romanes suffered from a disease—a condition of the arteries resulting in apoplexy—the gravity of which he fully realised, facing the inevitable event with admirable fortitude. An occasional visit to Madeira or Costabelle gave only temporary relief. He died at Oxford on 23 May 1894, and was buried in Holywell cemetery.
Romanes was through the greater part of his career an ardent sportsman, and frequently visited Scotland to indulge his sporting tastes. In private life he was a genial and delightful companion, and to those who knew him intimately a warm and staunch friend. His widow (Ethel, only daughter of Andrew Duncan, esq., of Liverpool) survived him, and edited his ‘Life and Letters’ (1896). He left five sons and a daughter.
The following is a list of his published works:
- ‘A Candid Examination of Theism, by “Physicus,”’ 1878.
- ‘Animal Intelligence,’ 1881.
- ‘Scientific Evidences of Organic Evolution,’ 1882.
- ‘Mental Evolution in Animals,’ 1883.
- ‘Jelly-Fish, Star-Fish, and Sea-Urchins,’ 1885.
- ‘Mental Evolution in Man: Origin of Human Faculty,’ 1888.
- ‘Darwin and after Darwin,’ pt. i. 1892.
- ‘An Examination of Weismannism,’ 1893.
- ‘Thoughts on Religion,’ posth. 1895.
- ‘Mind and Motion: An Essay on Monism,’ posth. 1895.
- ‘Darwin and after Darwin,’ pt. ii. posth. 1895.
- ‘Essays,’ 1896 (edited by the present writer).
Apart from these works and the scientific papers which he read before learned societies, he was a frequent and versatile contributor to periodical literature and a writer of verse, a volume of which (containing a memorial poem on Charles Darwin) was privately printed in 1889. A selection from his poems has been published under the editorship of Mr. T. H. Warren, president of Magdalen College (1896).
[Obituary notice in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lvii. p. vii, by Professor J. Burdon-Sanderson, F.R.S.; obituary notice in Nature, 31 May 1894, by Professor E. Ray Lankester, F.R.S.; letter to the Times, 19 June 1894, by Professor E. B. Poulton, F.R.S.; Life and Letters, by Mrs. G. J. Romanes, 1896.]