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Romanes, Dr George John

Category: Scientist

George John Romanes FRS (20 May 1848 – 23 May 1894) was a Canadian-Scots evolutionary biologist and physiologist who laid the foundation of a theory of shared cognitive processes and mechanisms between humans and other animals – reusable functions and reusable form.  

He was the youngest of Charles Darwin's academic friends and his assistant up until Darwin’s death, and his views on evolution are ‘historically important’, not least because - even as an ardent admirer of Darwin,  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).   He too pointed out, as we have done on the site, that many of Darwin’s experiments were completed with the help of a farmer – and was thus not genuinely ‘natural selection’.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and a professor at the University of Oxford.  Romanes founded a series of free public lectures, the Romanes Lectures, at Oxford in 1891, where he resided from 1890.  These continue to this day.

In May 1887, he gave the Sir Robert Rede's Lecture (the Rede Lecture) at the University of Cambridge.

The Life And Letters Of George John Romanes - Written And Edited By His Wife 1896

In one of the letters to Mr. Darwin, Mr. Romanes alludes to the question of spiritualism, and his own determination to investigate the question ……He was always willing to investigate such subjects as hypnotism, thought reading, &c., and in 1880 he wrote an article for the September number of the ' Nineteenth Century,' in which he pleads for a candid and unprejudiced investigation of the facts.

Why is he on the site?

Because, towards the end of March 1878 [aged 30],  he saw his sister’s ghost just days before she actually died and even wrote to the S.P.R reporting on the fact.  We have provided the account as an observation.

It is a very special case, because it showed the scientists of the day that they should not consider evolution and the existence of spirits and ghosts to be at odds.  The report caused some controversy of course, but much of the heated discussion that took place was on what sort of experience it was.  No one doubted Dr Romanes’ word – and indeed why should they?  He had more to lose than gain by writing to the SPR.

Some considered the experience to be a case of ‘telepathic communication’ between Dr Romanes and his terminally ill sister.  The argument was that the patient's subconscious self had perceived the imminence of her death (unlike the conscious personality who suspected nothing of such a thing), a perception that would have awakened in her the feeling of tenderness for her brother from whom she would separate, and thereby determined, in his mind, “the flow of the telepathic hallucination”. “The latter would have assumed more or less dramatic or symbolic forms due to the effect of associative determinism in the percipient ("subject").”

The alternative interpretation was that because of her parlous condition, his sister either had a near death or an out of body experience and her ‘ghost’ - her spirit - actually had visited her brother, and he had ‘seen’ her because of his worried and thus open state.

The Life And Letters Of George John Romanes - Written And Edited By His Wife 1896

There are those who really care very little about the ' ultimate problems,' and who find the world of sense quite enough to occupy them. And there are souls who seem to be constantly crying out in their darkness for light, …..These last have within them the capacity for holiness, the capacity for a real and tremendous power to witness for the truth, to do and to suffer pro causa Dei. To this class George Romanes belonged. By nature he was deeply and truly religious, and interested and absorbed as he was in science, it is no exaggeration to say he was just as keenly interested in theology, that is to say, in the deepest and ultimate problems of theology.

Works and books

Although it may not be apparent at first sight, the majority of Romanes's work was based on trying to find the means by which these sorts of experiences took place and the underlying metaphysics of the universe that made them possible.  The experience occurred before Darwin’s death in 1882, as such it put him in a very difficult position.  As a consequence of his dilemma, he became agnostic.  I am rather fond of this definition of an agnostic

A person who is sensible enough to admit that they have no idea what is going on in the universe.  Contrary to both a Theist (someone who sits in Church thinking they have it all figured out) and an Atheist (someone who sits at home thinking they have it all figured out).

Romanes remained loyal to Darwin in the latter’s final years, but undertook a considerable amount of research.   He made investigations into the mental faculties of animals from 1881-3,and worked on the physiology of invertebrates at University College London under William Sharpey and Burdon-Sanderson.

In his book Animal Intelligence [1881], Romanes demonstrated similarities and dissimilarities between cognitive and physical functions of various animals.  In other words, he recognised the importance of Function – the software of the universe and by doing so also recognised the concept of reusability – the use of the same functions in many species.

From a letter written by Gr. J. 'Romanes to C. Darwin, Esq. Dunskaith, Ross-shire, N.B. : August 13, 1877.…………….. Possibly the microscope may show something, and so I have asked Schafer to come down, who, as I know from experience, is what spiritualists call ' a sensitive ' I mean he can see ghosts of things where other people can't. But still, if he can make out anything in the jelly of Aurelia, I shall confess it to be the best case of clairvoyance I ever knew.

In Mental Evolution in Animals [1883], Romanes studied the evolution of functions.  Whereas Darwin was more concerned with appearance [Form], Romane was more interested in function and the evolution of the cognitive and physical functions associated with animal life.  Analogously how does the software get changed? -  through behavioural conditioning, or positive reinforcement or can some animals obtain new function?  In other words, analogously, who or what reprograms the functions.  Romanes then published Mental Evolution in Man [1888], which focused on the evolution of human cognitive and physical functions.

At the end of his career the majority of his work was directed towards the development of an Intelligence hierarchy almost anticipating the work now being undertaken on Intelligent Design.

Linnean Journal – Zoology Volume XIX - Physiological Selection; an additional suggestion on the origin of species – George J Romanes MA, LLD, FRS, FLS[ 6th May 1886]

There can be no one to whom I yield in my veneration for the late Mr Darwin, or in my appreciation of his work.  But for this very reason I feel that in now venturing to adopt in some measure an attitude of criticism towards that work, a few words are needed to show that I have not done so hastily or without due pre-meditation.

It is now fifteen years since I became a close student of Darwinism, and during the greater part of that time I have had the privilege of discussing the whole philosophy of Evolution with Mr Darwin himself.  In the result I have found it impossible to entertain a doubt, either upon evolution as a fact, or upon Natural Selection as a method.  But during all these years it has seemed to me that there are certain weak points in the otherwise unassailable defences with which Mr Darwin has fortified his citadel, or in the evidences with which he has surrounded his theory of natural selection.

And the more I have thought upon these points, the greater has seemed the difficulty which they present; until at last I became satisfied that SOME CAUSE OR CAUSES must have been at work in the production of species OTHER THAN THAT OF NATURAL SELECTION.

While drifting into this position of scepticism with regard to natural selection as in itself a full explanation of the origin of species, it was to me a satisfaction to find other evolutionists INCLUDING MR DARWIN HIMSELF, were travelling the same way.  And since Mr Darwin’s death the tide of opinion continues to flow in this direction; so that at the present time it would be impossible to find any working naturalist who supposes that survival of the fittest is competent to explain all the phenomena of species formation………………

These days we are starting to understand that evolution requires Intelligent Design on a continuous basis and that the sheer complexity of any animal cannot be attributed to random mutation – an hypothesis invented  long after Darwin and Romanes worked on evolution.

Life

George Romanes was born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1848, one of three sons and two daughters of whom only two, the eldest son and youngest daughter, survived George himself. His father was the Rev George Romanes (1805–1871), a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a professor at Queens College in Kingston, Canada , where he taught Greek at the local university until the family moved to England. Romanes reputedly inherited a "sweetness of temper and calmness of manner" from his father.  His mother was Miss Isabella Gair Smith, daughter of the Rev. Eobert Smith, for many years parish minister of Cromarty. Mrs. Romanes was connected with several old Highland families, and was a thorough Highlander. "Handsome, vivacious, unconventional, and clever, she was in all respects a great contrast to her husband, who, as years went on, seems to have lived mainly the life of a student, and to have left the care of mundane things to his wife".

Two years after his birth, his parents moved to London, United Kingdom.  His early education was very mixed, undertaken partly in public schools, and partly at home, where he greatly benefited from home schooling. He developed an early love for poetry and music, at which he excelled. During his youth, Romanes also resided temporarily in Germany and Italy, developing a fluency in both German and Italian.

In his teens, Romanes developed an interest in science and studied medicine and physiology, graduating from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge with the degree of BA in 1871.  Whilst Romanes was at Gonville and Caius College, he entered an essay "Christian Prayer considered in relation to the belief that Almighty governs the world by general laws" for which he won the Burney prize in 1873.  He gained his M.A. in 1874.   It was at Cambridge that he met Charles Darwin and Romanes became Darwin's research assistant during the last eight years of Darwin's life.  Romanes was a Fellow from 1892-4.

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.   He was given an Hon. LL.D., by Aberdeen University in 1882.

He became a Professor at Edinburgh University from 1886-90.  He was the Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution from 1888-91,and the Zoological Secretary of the Linnean Society.

Death

As a young man, Romanes was a Christian.  He even had an ambition in his youth to become a clergyman like his father.  And just like Darwin had a very devout Christian wife.  He married Ethel Mary Duncan, only daughter of Andrew Duncan of Liverpool on Feb. 11th, 1879.  

The Life And Letters Of George John Romanes M.A., Ll.D., F.R.S. Late Honorary Fellow Of Gonville And Caius College, Cambridge Written And Edited By His Wife 1896

He had very strong feelings about the importance of making children familiar with the Bible. He used to say that as a mere matter of literary education everyone ought to be familiar with the Bible from beginning to end. He himself was exceedingly well versed in Holy Scripture.

His family life was the key to much of his happiness and it is clear his children were very fond of him.

I remember that when my father was particularly amused at anything, he used a certain gesture, which, according to the ' Life of Darwin,'  must have been precisely similar to that of Darwin, and was probably unconsciously copied by my father. He never used the gesture except when very much tickled at hearing some amusing story ; when the climax of the story was reached he would burst into a peal of hearty laughter, at the same time bringing his hand heavily but noiselessly down upon his knee or on the table near him.

Romane realised that Christianity – the teachings of Jesus – were not at odds with the theory of evolution, or the theory of Intelligent Design, or the fact there may be an Intelligence hierarchy.  And that maybe ‘spirit’ [the invisible functions] powers the universe.  It also appears Romanes obtained great comfort from the New Testament teachings during his final illness.

Dr Romanes died in Oxford on 23 May 1894. A memorial to him exists in the north west corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh on the grave of his parents.  Romanes' early death, aged 46,  was regarded as “a loss to the cause of evolutionary biology in Britain.”  And indeed it was, because if he had not died, we might have had an extension of evolutionary theory that led us gracefully into Design by Intelligences

On one of the last days of his life he drove up to Boar's Hill, and it is impossible to forget his delight in the beauty of the woods in their fresh spring dress, the ground one mass of bluebell, the hedges white with 'May.'

 

References

  • The Life And Letters Of George John Romanes M.A., Ll.D., F.R.S. Late Honorary Fellow Of Gonville And Caius College, Cambridge Written And Edited By His Wife 1896
  • Thoughts on religion  - In 1890, Romanes published Darwin, and After Darwin, 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.  Charles Gore CR (1853–1932) was the Bishop of Oxford. He was one of the most influential Anglican theologians of the 19th century, helping reconcile the church to some aspects of biblical criticism and scientific discovery, while remaining Catholic in his interpretation of the faith and sacraments. He was the chaplain to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.

 

The paintings are by Sidney Richard Percy (22 March 1822 – 13 April 1886)  an English landscape painter during the Victorian era, and a member of the Williams family of painters. All the paintings bar one - which is of Wales - are of Scotland.

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