George John Romanes FRS
(May 19 1848
–May 23 1894
) was a Canadian
-born English evolutionary biologist
who laid the foundation of what he called comparative psychology
, postulating a similarity of cognitive processes
and mechanisms between humans and 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.
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. He graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
with the degree of BA in 1870, 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 (1874). At 31 (1879), Romanes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of 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.
As a young man, Romanes was a believing Christian, and seems to have regained some belief during his final illness. He was more of an agnostic during the middle period, when he was under the influence of Darwin. In a manuscript left unfinished at the end of his life he said that the theory of evolution had caused him to abandon religion.
Towards the end of his life Romanes founded a series of free public lectures – still running to the present day – which are named the Romanes Lectures. He was a friend of Thomas Henry Huxley, who gave the second Romanes lecture.
Romanes on evolution
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 of 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 signifiicant in survival terms]
- 3. The swamping influence upon an incipient species-split of free intercrossing. [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 the famous book! Obviously natural selection could be the 'machine' for producing adaptation, but what exactly 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 intercrossing with parental forms was the primary driving force in the production of new species. The majority view then and now was for geographical separation to be the primary force in species splitting (allopatry) and increased sterility of crosses between incipient species as secondary.
- The scientific evidences of organic evolution (1877; reprint 1882)
- Candid examination of theism [pseudonymously published as Physicus] (1878)
- Animal Intelligence (1881)
- Mental evolution in animals, with a posthumous essay on instinct by Charles Darwin (1883)
- Jelly-fish, star-fish and sea urchins, being a research on primitive nervous systems (1885)
- Physiological selection: an additional suggestion on the Origin of Species (1886)
- Mental evolution in Man (1888)
- Aristotle as a naturalist (1891)
- Darwin, and after Darwin, 3 vols (1892-97): I The Darwinian theory (1892). II Post-Darwinian questions: heredity and utility (1895). III Post-Darwinian questions: Isolation and physiological selection (1897) Longmans, Green: London. [a work of significance for historians of evolution theory]
- An examination of Weismannism (1893) (August Weismann was the leading evolutionary theoretician at the turn of the 19th century)
- Essays (1897)
- Thoughts on Religion (posthumous publication 1904)