criteria for mind of George John Romanes (1848-1894) provide a starting point for modern studies.
As a research associate of Charles Darwin he was one of the first to
deal with mental functions in evolutionary terms.
Known by his friends
as "The Philosopher," he made fundamental contributions to
neuromuscular physiology and evolution, as is set out in his original
papers (reproduced in these web-pages) and in my books. On the other
hand, he failed to understand the important messages Samuel Butler was
attempting to convey and clung too intently to the Lamarckist aspect
of Darwin's theory of pangenesis.
In the 1890s he
established the Romanes Lectures at Oxford. The first lecturer was William
Gladstone. The second was Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's
bulldog"). The third was August Weismann whose doctrine of the
continuity of the germ-plasm Romanes had initially questioned. The lectures continue
to this day, supplemented by the Oxford London Lectures, which are
also supported by Romanes Funds.
Romanes and Psychology (Contributions to psychology,
metaphysics and language.)
between Mind of Man and Animals (Response to Sully's
criticism (1891) of Romanes' book Mental Evolution in Man.)
Romanes & Neuromuscular Physiology
(1944. Muscle fatigue on repeated electrical stimulation.)
Neuromuscular observations in a simple system - jellyfish. Homage to
(Anticipation of Sherrington by Schaefer)
Long Term Memory - Romanes and Samuel Butler
Ideas that harken back to Avicenna.)
Long Term Memory - Scaling to Brain Size
Evidence from adults who survived childhood hydrocephaly.)
Theory of Mind. Romanes and Butler
(2015. Philosophical aspects - information ideas in biology - selfish gene history.)
Neuronal Plasticity and Spatial Learning (Human
lymphocyte genes also affect brain function.)
Schizophrenia (Articles by
Patricia Forsdyke, 1998, 2009)
Romanes and Psychology
Supporting Darwin, Romanes wished to establish
a continuity between the evolution of the brains of animals and of man, so
combating the "Rubicon" view promulgated by Max Muller and Alfred
Wallace. To this end
he studied various cognitive functions of animals and human children, but
Ethel Romanes put her foot down when he suggested that a monkey he was
observing should be allowed to interact with their children in the
Animal Intelligence 1882
Mental Evolution in Animals
1884 (with a posthumous essay on instinct by Charles
Mental Evolution in Man
1888 (A copy of this was among the books salvaged from the library of Sigmund Freud after
he left Vienna, and has markings in the margin in Freud's hand. For Romanes'
response to a critic: Click Here )
Excerpt from Romanes' Animal Intelligence
Now, in this mode of
procedure what is the kind of activities which may be regarded as indicative of mind? I
certainly do not so regard the flowing of a river or the blowing of the wind. Why?
- First, because the objects are too remote in kind from my own
organism to admit of it; and,
- secondly, because the activities which they present are of
invariably the same kind under the same circumstances; they afford no evidence of feeling
In other words, two conditions require to be satisfied before we even begin
to imagine that observable activities are indicative of mind:
- first, the activities must be displayed by a living organism; and
- secondly, they must be of a kind to suggest the presence of two
elements which we recognize as the distinctive characteristics of mind as suchconsciousness and choice.
So far, then, the case seems simple enough. Wherever we see a living
organism apparently exerting intentional choice, we might infer that it is conscious
choice, and therefore that the organism has a mind. But further reflection shows us that
this is just what we cannot do; for although it is
true that there is no mind without the power of conscious choice, it is not true that all
apparent choice is due to mind. In our own
organisms, for instance, we find a great many adaptive movements performed without choice
or even consciousness coming into play at allsuch, for instance, as in the beating
of our hearts. And not only so, but physiological experiments and pathological lesions
prove that in our own and in other organisms the mechanism of the nervous system is
sufficient, without the intervention of consciousness, to produce muscular movements of a
highly co-ordinate and apparently intentional character.
Thus, for instance, if a nervous connection between his brain and lower
extremities, on pinching or tickling his feet they are drawn suddenly away from the
irritation, although the man is quite unconscious of the adaptive movement of his muscles;
the lower nerve-centres of the spinal cord are competent to bring about this movement of
adaptive response without requiring to be directed by the brain. This non-mental operation
of the lower nerve-centres in the production of apparently intentional movement is called
Reflex Action, and the cases
of its occurrence, even within the limits of our own organism, are literally numberless.
Therefore, in view of such non-mental nervous adjustment, leading to movements which are
only in appearance intentional, it clearly becomes a matter of great difficulty to say in
the case of the lower animals whether any action which appears to indicate intelligent
choice is not really action of the reflex kind.
On this whole subject of mind-like and yet not truly mental action I shall
have much to say in my subsequent treatise, where I shall be concerned among other things
with tracing the probable genesis of mind from non-mental antecedents. But here it is
sufficient merely to make this general statement of the fact, that even within the
experience supplied by our own organisms, adaptive movements of a highly complex, and
therefore apparently purposive character, may be performed without any real purpose, or
even consciousness of their performance.
It thus becomes evident that before we can predicate the bare existence of
mind in the lower animals, we need some yet more definite criterion of mind than that
which is supplied by the adaptive actions of a living organism, howsoever apparently
intentional such actions may be. Such a criterion I have now to lay down, and I think it
is one that is as practically adequate as it is theoretically legitimate.
Objectively considered, the only distinction between
adaptive movements due to reflex action and adaptive movements due to mental
perception, consists in the former depending on
inherited mechanisms within the nervous system being so constructed as to effect
particular adaptive movements in response to particular stimulations, while the latter are
independent of any such inherited adjustment of special mechanisms to the exigencies of
Reflex actions under the influence of their
appropriate stimuli may be compared to the actions of a machine under the manipulations of
an operator; when certain springs of actions are touched by certain stimuli, the whole
machine is thrown into appropriate movement; there is no room for choice, there is no room
for uncertainty; but as surely as any of their inherited mechanisms are affected by the
stimulus with reference to which it has been constructed to act, so surely will it act in
precisely the same way as it always has acted.
But the case with conscious mental adjustment is quite
different. For, without at present going into the question concerning the relation of body
and mind, or waiting to ask whether cases of mental adjustment are not really quite as
mechanical in the sense of being the necessary result or correlative of a chain of
physical sequences due to a physical stimulation, it is enough to point to the variable
and incalculable character of mental adjustments as distinguished from the constant and
foreseeable character of reflex adjustments. All, in fact, that in an objective sense we
can mean by a mental adjustment is an adjustment of a kind that has not been definitely
fixed by heredity as the only adjustment possible in the given circumstances of
stimulation. For were there no alternative of adjustment, the case, in an animal at least,
would be indistinguishable from one of reflex action.
It is, then, adaptive action by a living organism in
cases where the inherited machinery of the nervous system does not furnish data for our
prevision of what the adaptive action must necessarily beit is only here that we
recognize the objective evidence of mind. The criterion of mind therefore, which I
propose, and to which I shall adhere throughout the present volume, is as follows:--
Does the organism learn to make new adjustments, or
to modify old ones, in accordance with the results of its own individual experience? If it
does so, the fact cannot be due merely to reflex action in the sense above described, for
it is impossible that heredity can have provided in advance for innovations upon, or
alterations of, its machinery during the lifetime of a particular individual.
Romanes and Metaphysics
Romanes was led to psychology as part of a life-long
quest for meaning in
the universe. At Cambridge (1873) he won the Burney prize, awarded by Christ's College,
for his essay on "Christian Prayer considered in
relation to the belief that the Almighty governs the world by general laws". This was published in 1874 with an appendix on "The Physical Efficacy of Prayer". As the
anonymous "Physicus", he then wrote "A
Candid Examination of Theism" (1878),
where the influence of Darwinian ideas is very strong, and the conclusion is most
View of divine creation. At
left God creates the earth and at the right God creates the stars. From the Museum at
"So far as I am individually concerned, the result of this analysis
has been to show that, whether I regard the problem of Theism on the lower plane of
strictly relative probability, or on the higher plane of purely formal considerations, it
equally becomes my obvious duty to stifle all belief of the kind which I conceive to be
the noblest, and to discipline my intellect with regard to this matter into an attitude of
the purest scepticism.
forasmuch as I am far from being able to agree with those who affirm that the twilight
doctrine of the "new faith" is a
desirable substitute for the waning splendour of "the
old", I am not ashamed to confess that with this virtual negation of
God the universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness; and although from henceforth the
precept to "work while it is day"
will doubtless gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the
words that "the night cometh when no man can work",
yet when at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the
hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as
now I find it, -- at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang
of which my nature is susceptible.
For whether it be due to my
intelligence not being sufficiently advanced to meet the requirements of the age, or
whether it be due to the memory of those sacred associations which to me at least were the
sweetest that life has given, I cannot but feel that for me, and for others who think as I
do, there is a dreadful truth in those words of Hamilton, -- Philosophy having become a
meditation, not merely of death, but of annihilation, the precept know thyself has become transformed into the
terrific oracle to Oedipus --
thou ne'er know the truth of what thou art.""
1878 Romanes was strongly tested by Thomas Huxley when asked to become a
member of The Association of Liberal Thinkers, an Association designed to
attack all forms of humbug in Victorian life, particularly religious
"humbug." Romanes was not so sure that the time was right for
discarding what Karl Marx had called "the opium of the masses."
Romanes declined to join the Association in a letter dated Jan 3rd 1879.
Two days later he sent a second letter explaining his views more fully,
"Of course I have no doubt that in
the long run Truth, however hideous, must prevail!"
In 1879 he married the deeply
religious Ethel Duncan. Thus began an even stronger testing!
In his incomplete and posthumous "Thoughts on Religion"
(1896) there was an attempt to return, through reason, to his previous position.
Some of this was expressed in poetry, aspects of which has been extensively
analyzed (Pleins, 2014). His
eldest child "Fritz"
(Ethel Georgina) was 14 when Romanes died of a brain tumour in 1894. She studied theology
at Oxford and became a nun (see "The Story
of an English Sister" by her mother
On coming down from Cambridge, Romanes had
worked in London with Professor John Burden Sanderson, whose later move to the Physiology
Department at Oxford paved the way for Romanes' move there in 1890. Here he and Ethel
Romanes entertained Burden Sanderson's nephew (John Scott Haldane) and his wife (Louisa
Kathleen Trotter), who became in 1892 the mother of John Burden Sanderson Haldane (the "JBS" who gave us "Haldane's Rule" in 1922).
Louisa Haldane provides the following memory in her "Friends and Kindred"
"The two houses which I enjoyed going
to were the Dicey's and the Romanes'. My first dinner party was at the Romanes', and he
was quite definately Romanes of Nigg, not an unfamiliar Oxford professor.
I saw a good deal of him during his last
illness. The excuse was that he liked to hear about some experimental work of John's and
we talked at large about people and things, and on the last few visits rather tentatively
about religion. He spoke very restrainedly of the many visits he had from the clergy his
wife believed in. 'They mean well,' he said, but they tired
him terribly, and would try to make him answer questions.
On my last visit, he held on to
my hands and said, 'Don't go, don't go,' but what can one do
when a man's devoted wife almost pushes one out of the room? I am quite confident that his
death-bed confession was merely the result of being too exhausted to argue. It was not
meant as acquiescence to Anglican doctrines."
As for the quest for meaning, the remarks of L. C. Dunn at the beginning of
his A Short History of Genetics
(1965) must suffice:
"If the time-depth
is shallow, so, too, in the restricted study I have in mind will be
the degree of philosophical penetration. The results achieved in the
development of genetics were derived from the application of
experimental methods, but the question which experiment will not
answer is what it all means.
The hope for an answer to such a
question, whether expressed or lurking in the background, may be an
actual handicap to investigation. We may find ourselves unready or
unwilling to accept the limited, either-or kind of decision which
experiment is competent to provide and thus lose the solid substance
of discovery for the shadow of a larger hope.
It is not that I, or
another who may review the development of the science of heredity, may
not be interested in what it means, but rather that before we ask that
ultimate question we should know what has caused it to be asked."
Romanes and Language
David J. Murray (Queen's University at Kingston) has
described Romanes' great contributions to our
understanding of how human language evolved. Some recent articles:
Language and Psychology: 19th
Century Developments Outside Germany: A Survey
(2001). History of the Language
Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language. Edited by
S. Auroux, K. Koerner, H.-J.
and K. Versteegh. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 1679-1692.
Romanes (1888) on the Origins of Human
Language. Proceedings of
Workshop on The Unexploited Legacy.
(2006) Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands. This includes a brief summary of
Further assessments of Romanes
may be found in:
Boakes, R. (1984) From
Darwin to Behaviourism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals. Cambridge Univ. Press. Chapter 2.
Knoll, E. (1986) The science of language and the evolution
of mind: Max Muller's quarrel with Darwinism. Journal
of the History of Behavioural Sciences 22,
Richards, R. J. (1987) Darwinism and the Demands of
Metaphysics and Religion: Romanes, Mivart and Morgan. In: Darwin
and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. University of Chicago Press.
Murray, D. J. (1988) A
History of Western Psychology. 2nd Edition.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ. pp. 255-271.
Howe, M. L. & Courage, M. L. (1993) On resolving the
enigma of infantile amnesia. Psychological
Searleman, A. & Herrmann, D. (1994) Memory from a Broader Perspective. McGraw Hill, New York.
Murray, D.J. (1999) A "presence/absence
hypothesis" concerning hippocampal function. [Commentary on J. P. Aggleton & M.
W. Brown: Episodic memory, amnesia, and the hippocampal-anterior thalamic axis] Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22, 462-463.
Murray, D. J., Kilgour, A. R. & Wasylkiw, L. (2000)
Conflicts and missed signals in psychanalysis, behaviourism, and Gestalt psychology. American Psychologist 55,
Pleins, J. D. (2014)
In Praise of Darwin.
George Romanes and the Evolution of a Darwinian Believer.
Bloomsbury, New York.
With the guidance of John
Burdon Sanderson, Romanes studied neuromuscular physiology in the Jodrell
Laboratory at University College, London. In May 1876 there was a reading at
the Royal Society of his paper "Observations on the galvanic excitation
of nerve and muscle, with special reference to the modification of the
excitability of motor nerves produced by injury." (Journal
of Anatomy & Physiology 10,
709-734). His pioneering observations were recognized by
Ralston in 1944:
|G. J. Romanes on the Excitability of
by H. J. Ralston (1944) Science 100, 123-124, 123-124.
College of Dentistry and Medicine, University of California
All students of evolutionary theory are
familiar with the fundamental contributions of George John Romanes in that field, but it
is to be regretted that his physiological studies are not nearly so well known. Inasmuch
as the elucidation of the electrical and chemical factors underlying muscle fatigue is a
most important objective of research in neuromuscular physiology, Romanes' work along this
line should be recalled.
In a letter to
Charles Darwin dated August 13th 1877, Romanes says:
I am very glad you have drawn to my
attention prominently to the localizing function in Drosera, as it is very likely I have
been too keen in my scent after nerves; and I believe it is chiefly by comparing lines of
work that in such novel phenomena truth is to be got at.
And this reminds me of an observation which I think ought to be made on some of the
excitable plants. It is a fact not generally known, even to professed physiologists, that
if you pass a constant current through an excised muscle two or three times successively
in the same direction, the responses to make and break become much more feeble than at
first, so that unless you begin with a strong current for the first of the series, you
have to strengthen it for the third or fourth of the series in order to procure a
But on now reversing the direction of the
current, the muscle is tremendously excitable for the first stimulation, less so for the
second, and so on. Now this rapidly exhausting effect of passing the current successively
in the same direction, and the wonderful effect of reversing it, point, I believe, to
something very fundamental in the constitution of muscular tissue. The complementary
effects in question are quite as decided in the jelly-fish as in the frog's muscle; so I
think it would be very interesting to try the experiment on the contractile tissues of
The discovery of the above reported phenomenon is generally
credited to Gulacsy, who reported it in 1929. When one considers that Romanes also first
observed, in the umbrella of the jelly fish, what is now known as fibrillation, it would
seem appropriate to take cognizance of his important physiological research by attaching
his name to one of these phenomena. It is therefore suggested that the recovery of
excitability of tissue upon reversal of polarity of a stimulating current be called the
The basis of our
understanding of pacemaker physiology, now seen as so important in heart
research, was laid by Romanes in the 1880s. His appointments to the Linnaean
Society and the Royal Society indicate that his contributions were recognized
by his peers. He later won high praise when his results were confirmed using
elaborate twentieth century technologies (Passano 1965; Satterlie 2002)
Activity Patterns om Medusae: Homage to Romanes
L. M. Passano (1965) American
Department of Zoology, Madison, University of Wisconsin
though they were carried out over 90 years ago, there is still a marvelous
freshness about the discoveries of G. J. Romanes concerning what we would
now call the behavioral physiology of coelenterates. When periodically
rereading his three classic papers in the Philosophical Transactions (1876,
1877, 1880), or his popular book (1885) culled from those papers, I am
reminded again of his achievement: indeed a disquieting thought (which other
investigators may have experienced also) is that Romanes has already
observed and recorded all the facts of the matter, and that as our knowledge
of these animals continues to increase, it only sustains his original
insights. The more I learn of jellyfish, the more I understand what Romanes
has to tell us of them.
One of the features of this outstanding pioneer work was that Romanes used
both hydrozoan and schphozoan medusae in his investigations, and drew
general conclusions applicable to both. Since his day little physiological
work has been done on the former assemblage of animals, so that with a few
exceptions current knowledge is where he left it. Contrarily, a number of
investigators have utilized the larger, less fragile scyphomedusae in the
belief, first expressed by Romanes, that they should be simpler to
understand as well as easier to work with. I, too, commenced working with
scyphomedusae and have only recently been audacious enough to study various
hydromedusae. That caution was justified; the latter are indeed more complex
in their neurophysiology and behavior, so that my current work confirms
Romanes' findings, but the hydromedusae are also much simpler to study with
current electrophysiological techniques ... .
Sherrington's Synapse Concept
Following Romanes, a later
student in Michael Foster's Cambridge School of Physiology was C. S.
Sherrington (1857-1952). In 1970, it was pointed out that Romanes physiological
studies on nerve conduction in jellyfish had inspired histological studies by
his friend Edward Schaefer (later known as Sharpey-Schafer), which led to Sherrington's concept
of the neurological synapse.
|SOME CONCEPTS OF NERVE
STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION IN BRITAIN, 1875-1885: BACKGROUND TO SIR CHARLES
SHERRINGTON AND THE SYNAPSE CONCEPT
R. D. French (1970) Medical History
French quoted the (1885) treatise - "Jelly-Fish,
Star-Fish and Sea Urchins" - where Romanes summarized his work
in invertebrate neurophysiology. In this book, after describing
Schaefer's observations of anatomically discrete nerve fibres underlying
the muscle of the jellyfish bell, Romanes anticipates Sherrington by
"Now, if it is a remarkable fact that in a fully differentiated nervous
network the constituent fibres are not improbably capable of vicarious
action to almost any extent, much more remarkable does this fact become
when we find that no two of these constituent nerve-fibres are
histologically continuous with one another. Indeed it seems to me we
have here a fact as startling as it is novel.
There can scarcely be any
doubt that some influence is communicated from stimulated fibre a to the
adjacent fibre b at the point where these fibres come into close
apposition. But what the nature of the process may be whereby a
disturbance in the excitable protoplasm of a sets up a sympathetic
disturbance in the anatomically separate protoplasm of b, supposing it
to be really such - this is a question concerning which it would as yet be
premature to speculate.
But I think it may be well for physiologists to
keep awake to the fact that a process of this kind probably takes place
in the case of these nerve-fibres. For it thus becomes a possibility
which ought not to be overlooked, that in the fibres of the spinal cord,
and in ganglia generally, where histologists have hitherto been
unable to trace any anatomical or structural continuity between cells
and fibres, which must nevertheless be supposed to possess physiological
or functional continuity - it thus becomes a possibility that in these
cases no such anatomical continuity exists, but that the
physiological continuity is maintained by some such process of
physiological induction as probably takes place among the nerve fibres
See also Satterlie RA (2002) "Neuronal control of
swimming in jellyfish: a comparative story.
Canadian J. Zoology 80,
In a review in Endeavour
(2013) "Cajal, Golgi, Nansen, Schaefer and the Neuron Doctrine" Ortwin
honour of being first to state the discontinuity of nerve cells goes to
the Assistant Professor of Physiology at University College London,
Edward Schaefer (1850–1935) who, as Edward Sharpey-Schafer, would later
make many contributions to medical science. In a text received on 31
October 1877 and communicated to members of the Royal Society by his
professor William Sharpey (1802–1880) on 10 January1878, Schaefer began:
‘Last August I undertook, at the request of my friend Mr. G.
J. Romanes, an investigation with the view of proving the presence or
absence of histologically differentiated nervous structures in the
Medusae’. He had used chloride of gold to stain the tissue and
found that ‘If we trace out the course of the individual nerve
fibres more closely . . .we are struck with certain remarkable facts . .
. each fibre is entirely distinct from and nowhere structurally
continuous with . . . any other fiber’."
we can study, say, the liver, of experimental animals and obtain results which bear on
human liver function, this is less likely when studying the brain. As Romanes argued, the
human brain shares many features with those of animals. But the brain is special; it is
the organ, par excellence, defining
the human animal. If a giraffe were having problems with its neck, we could study the
human neck instead, but it would be a poor substitute for studying the giraffe neck.
Cells of different tissues use similar
signalling mechanisms. Sometimes it is easier to study one tissue rather than another. A
gene recognized in 1985 as playing a role in the activation of human
lymphocytes, G0S30 (now commonly
referred to as EGR1 or ZIF268), is involved in synaptic
activation, spatial learning, and "reconsolidation" after memory
recall, centred on the hippocampus. Similarly, G0S8/RGS2 (Click Here) is now recognized as playing a major
role in neuronal plasticity and in synaptic development in hippocampal CA1 neurons. Its
inactivation predisposes to anxiety and male aggression. G0S3/FOSB
when ablated causes behavioural problems in mice.
targeting lymphocyte function, rather than brain function, produced results relevant to both tissues. This human tissue, lymphoid
tissue, can be readily obtained, live and functioning, from a sample of
blood from a normal or sick person. It is not so easy
to obtain live and functioning human neural tissue
for research! Thus enforcing (through funding priorities) strict relevance to brain
function may be delaying progress in brain research. (Click
Fordyce, D. E. et al. (1994) Genetic and activity-dependent regulation of ZIF268
expression: association with spatial learning. Hippocampus
Ingi, T., Krumins, A.M., Chidiac, P., Brothers,
G.M., Chung, S., Snow, B.E., Barnes, C.A., Lanahan, A.A., Siderovski, D.P., Ross,
E.M., Gilman, A.G. and Worley, P.F. (1998). Dynamic
regulation of RGS2 suggests a novel mechanism in G-protein
signaling and neuronal plasticity. J. Neurosci.,
18, 7178-7188. (Click Here for more on RGS
Lee, J. L. C. et al.,
(2004). Independent cellular processes for hippocampal
memory consolidation and reconsolidation. Science,
Oliveira-dos-Santos, A. J., Matsumoto, G., Snow,
B.E., Bai, D., Houston, F.P., Whishaw, I.Q., Mariathasan, S., Sasaki, T., Wakeham, A.,
Ohashi, P.S., Roder, J.C., Barnes, C.A., Siderovski, D.P. & Penninger, J.M. (2000). Regulation of T cell activation, anxiety, and male aggression by
RGS2. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 97, 12272-12277.
Wei et al.
(2000) Role of EGR1 in hippocampal synaptic enhancement induced by tetanic stimulation and
amputation. J. Cell Biol. 149, 1325-1333.
Worley, P,F. et al. (1991) Constitutive expression of ZIF268 in neocortex
is regulated by synaptic activity. Proc. Natl.
Acad. Sci. USA 88, 5106-5110.
Worley, P. F. et al. (1993) Thresholds for synaptic activation of transcription factors in
hippocampus: correlation with long-term enhancement. J.
Neurosci. 13, 4776-4786.
Romanes' Contributions to
Psychology (Tuft's University) (Click Here)
Romanes' Evolution Studies,
Correspondence, Genealogy, and Queen's
University (Click Here)
Schizophrenia: Breaking the Silence (Click Here)
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