By Donald R. Forsdyke

Historical Kingston (2004) 52, 95-103
With the permission of the Kingston Historical Society
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A Kingston Boyhood

A Free Spirit

Establishment Outmanoeuvred 


Stephen Jay Gould

The New Lysenkoism?

End Note 2005

End Note 2006

End Note July 2010


Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (“Grant”), and George John Romanes (‘The Philosopher”) were both born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1848 – Allen probably in Alwington House (Fig. 1) and Romanes probably in part of what was then Queen’s College (now 207 William Street; Fig. 2)(1). Both were sons of clergymen who were also professors at the College; both spent most of their lives in England where they went to major universities – Allen to Oxford, Romanes to Cambridge; both were passionately interested in biology and became disciples of major evolutionary biologists – Allen of Herbert Spencer, Romanes of Charles Darwin; and both struggled to escape the religious orthodoxy of their childhoods and became defenders of Darwin’s evolutionary views against the attacks of those we would now call “creationists.” A major difference was that Allen, like Spencer, made his living by writing, whereas Romanes, like Darwin, was wealthy. Thus, Allen wrote popular works of science and novels, whereas Romanes wrote scientific papers and books and, in 1874, became Darwin’s research associate.

Alwington House, Kingston, Ontario

Figure 1. The birthplace of Grant Allen, Alwington House, Kingston,  (no longer existing).

A Kingston Boyhood

    George John Romanes left Kingston at the age of two. His father, George Romanes,  a Presbyterian minister, Professor of Classics, and librarian at the College, inherited “a considerable fortune” and took the family back to Europe, eventually settling in London. Until his death in 1871, Romanes’ father maintained contact with the College and donated books to its library. On the other hand, Grant Allen had a Kingston boyhood. The Thousand Islands, Howe Island and Wolfe Island, where his father was at the Holy Trinity Church, left him with happy recollections of a region where “sweeter flowers blow … than anywhere else on this prosaic planet; bigger fish lurk among the crevices; bluer birds flit between the honeysuckle; and livelier squirrels gambol upon the hickory trees than in any other cases of this oblate spheroid.”

207 William Street, Kingston, Ontario. Part of a block of three grey-stone houses that were once Queen's College.
Figure 2. The house in William Street where Romanes spent his first two years. The original of this watercolour by J. R. Drummond is in the collection of Mr. Douglas Petty.

      Whereas Romanes’ father left Queen’s College voluntarily, Joseph Antisell Allen was forced out by an angry Board of Trustees following letters in The Daily News (16 and 24 November 1866) advocating a political union between Canada and the United States (2). Thus, at the age of thirteen Grant Allen found himself in the United States. After a period in France, and at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, a scholarship took him to Merton College, Oxford, in 1867. There, with the help of some income from tutoring, he graduated in 1871. After the early death of his first wife, he married Ellen (“Nellie”) Jerrard in 1873 and taught in Jamaica until 1876 when they returned to England. From then on, his fascination for biology was tempered by the need to write to earn a living. The Kingston Public Library has a fine collection of the many works that flowed from his active pen in the years up to his death in 1899.

      I do not known when Allen (Fig. 3) first met Romanes, but theGrant Allen (1848-1899) forward to Allen’s book, The Colour Sense: Its Origin and Development (1879), acknowledges Romanes’ friendship. Regarding evolution, Allen tended not to challenge the conventional Darwinian wisdom – and this served him well. Darwin, with the support of Romanes, contributed to a fund to buy him a microscope. In 1888 Allen coauthored a popular review, A Half Century of Science, with T. H. Huxley. However, Allen was no establishment lackey. It is likely that he just did not have the time or opportunity to study Darwinism to the same extent as Romanes.

A Free Spirit

      Although there were financial deprivations, Allen seems to have had a good education. Romanes, on the other hand, was a free spirit. He appears to have had little in the way of formal education until his mother hired a private tutor to assist his entry into Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1867. Here his interests soon turned from religion to medicine, and then to biology. He came under the influence of Michael Foster who was then establishing the new Cambridge School of Physiology. After graduating in 1871 Romanes worked in Cambridge until 1874 when he returned to London. There he  used laboratory facilities at University College, and he also had his own “marine laboratory” at his summer retreat in Scotland.

     At this time Romanes met Darwin, who was well aware of the major inconsistencies in his 1859 theory of the origin of species by “natural selection” that had been independently conceived by Alfred Wallace. With possible exception of his immediate family (e.g. his son Francis who was about Romanes' age), over the next eight years Darwin probably spent more time discussing these inconsistencies with Romanes than with anyone else. Under Darwin’s guidance, Romanes carried out experiments on animals to test whether acquired characters (e.g. muscles in a blacksmith) could be passed on to children. Darwin made it clear that, after his death, he wished Romanes (Fig. 4) to continue both the experimental and theoretical aspects of his work.George John Romanes (1848-1894)

Romanes rise was, as they say, meteoric. He produced important scientific papers, he spoke eloquently at scientific meetings, and he knew all the "OK" people. In 1875 he was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society and from 1876 until 1881 he was the first Secretary of the newly formed Physiology Society. In 1879, at the age of 31, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he married Ethel Duncan. Their house at 18 Cornwall Terrace, close to Regent’s Park, must have been somewhat like that in the TV series, Upstairs-Downstairs, except that each day, Romanes went off to his laboratory or up to his study, rather than to the Houses of Parliament. Here the couple are likely to have entertained everyone who was anyone, and to have been duly entertained in turn. Through the Physiology Society, Romanes met Mr. G. H. Lewes and his “partner” George Eliot. Romanes was one of the favoured few who joined the charmed circle at The Priory on Sunday afternoons, and here he once got into a biblical quoting match with the famous author of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. He became generally known as “The Philosopher.”

Establishment Outmanoeuvred

    In 1886, four years after Darwin’s death, the thirty eight year old Romanes presented to the Linnean Society a theory of the origin of species by “physiological selection”. Challenging the conventional Darwinian wisdom, Romanes claimed to have resolved the inconsistencies in Darwin’s theory. However, he invoked abstract elements (e.g. “a peculiarity of the reproductive system”), which were incomprehensible to his Victorian contemporaries (3). He was strongly attacked by the elder statesmen of science, including Wallace, and T. H. Huxley. Then, as now, such establishment criticism could mean difficulty gaining publication in the most prominent journals. Then, as now, failure to publish could hamper one’s professional advancement. Thus, then, as now, to fail to follow the establishment line was to commit academic suicide.

However, Romanes had achieved a momentum that peer review could not block. Norman Lockyer, the editor of the most prestigious journal of all, Nature, was “a close friend” who sometimes stayed with the family during their summer sojourn in Scotland (4).  Romanes’ new theory was published both in the Journal of the Linnean Society, and in Nature. There was also a leading editorial in The Times hailing Romanes as “the biological investigator upon whom in England the mantle of Mr. Darwin has most conspicuously descended.” No one could claim not to have noticed the new theory, so silence would be interpreted as acquiescence.

In contrast, the work of Gregor Mendel, founder of the science of Genetics, lay apparently unnoticed from 1865 until 1900 when members of the scientific establishment were forced to take sides. In both cases, the ensuing battles were protracted. The supporters of Mendel won (5). Romanes lost, at least in the short term. Here there is another Kingston connection.


    In 1876 the twenty-eight-year-old Romanes and his elder brother had been duped by a spiritualist and there was some correspondence with Darwin who disparaged their credulity. Alfred Wallace, on the other hand, had become a major advocate, and his books including The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (1866) and Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1874) were selling well on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1880, Romanes became openly critical of Wallace’s spiritualism. Romanes’ elder brother was fourteen when the family left Kingston in 1850, and he sent the 1876 correspondence with Darwin to an old Kingston friend. At that time, spiritualism was thriving in Kingston providing both emotional comfort to those who wished to communicate with departed loved ones, and financial comfort to those who could arrange it. This is splendidly depicted in a recent play by Laurie Fyffe (6).

     Early in 1887 Wallace went on a lecture tour to North America (7). Here he found “among the visitors to Washington was the Rev. J. A. Allen, of Kingston, Canada (the father of our Grant Allen), who, with his wife and two daughters, was living in an apartment nearly opposite my hotel.”  Wallace was to stay with them on his later visit to Kingston, where he was also to take tea when the trilliums were in flower at Sir Richard Cartwright’s “fine country house in a spacious park, a few miles in the country.” Thus, it came about that one March day, Wallace was met at Kingston station by Principal Grant and driven in a sleigh to Queen’s College where he gave an evening lecture on “Darwinism.”

“After the lecture some friends of Principal Grant came in, and we had much conversation. A lady who was interested in spiritualism spoke to me, and asked me if I knew that Romanes was a spiritualist, and had tried to convert Darwin. I told her that I knew he was interested in the phenomena of spiritualism, but that I thought it most improbable that he had said anything to Darwin. ‘But,’ said she, ‘Professor Romanes’ brother is a great friend of mine, and he gave me the drafts of letters they jointly wrote to Darwin. Would you like to see them?’ I said I most certainly should.”

Wallace later used the material to attack Romanes. His sour private letters to Romanes were later published. He threatened to make “known the fact of the existence of these letters and their general tenor.” This would show that Romanes’ private judgements were not in accord with his public posture of scepticism with respect to spiritualism. In short, Romanes was a hypocrit. In the face of establishment criticism, Romanes gained few supporters and his ideas seemed to disappear from view after he died of what was probably a brain tumour in 1894 at the age of forty-six. The identity of the Kingston lady who unknowingly contributed to the demise of Romanes’ ideas is unknown. But it is possible that the letters are still in the possession of some Kingston family.

Stephen Jay Gould

Romanes’ ideas, however, were periodically (and unknowingly) resurrected by later evolutionists included the English biologist William Bateson (1861-1926) and, in the USA, Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958). The latter’s ideas were, in turn, disinterred by Stephen Jay Gould (Fig. 5). Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) Born in New York in 1941, Gould graduated from Antioch College, Ohio, in Geology in 1963, and obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University in Paleontology in 1967. His long and illustrious career at Harvard led to his becoming North America’s “most famous evolutionist.”

There are intriguing parallels between the careers of the two nineteenth century Kingstonians and the twentieth century Gould. The parallels between Romanes and Gould are particularly striking. Both had influential mentors – Darwin in the case of Romanes, Ernst Mayr in the case of Gould; both wrote for the general public as well as for scientists; both fought the creationists; both were financially independent to the extent that Romanes inherited great wealth and the tenured Gould supplemented his Harvard salary by popular writing; both argued for what we would now call a “non-genic” hierarchical view of biological evolution; both were subject to vituperative attacks by the “genic” establishments of their days – Wallace and Huxley in the case of Romanes, Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith in the case of Gould; both, in the short term, outmanoeuvred their respective establishments achieving a momentum that peer-review could not block; both were attacked by cancer in their forties – Gould, with the benefit of modern therapies, surviving until the age of sixty-one, Romanes dieing much sooner.

What is the current status of their view of evolution? Various genome projects have spewn a deluge of data that computers are helping us to understand. Remarkably, these bioinformatic analyses have led to a new reinterpretation of Darwin’s theory suggesting that, in its broad outlines, Romanes’ physiological selection theory was correct (8).

The New Lysenkoism?

     In marketing, simple messages work. The same applies to the marketing of scientific ideas. This means that subtle scientific ideas tend to lose out to simple scientific ideas, and subtle scientists lose out to the unsubtle. In extreme form, this losing out can imply not just academic suicide, but imprisonment and death, as in the case of the scientists incarcerated in Stalin’s gulags at the behest of Lysenko (9).

Darwin’s theory served the important purpose of countermanding the attack of the creationists, but Darwin recognized its many inconsistencies. However, the Darwinian fundamentalists seized upon his simple message (natural selection) with a momentum that has carried them through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The debate has been far from objective. A recent attack on Gould is illustrative. In 1995 John Maynard Smith, the “Dean of British ultra-Darwinians” wrote (10):

“Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.”

Some evolutionists in the United States were less restrained (11):

“Evolutionary biology is relevant to a large number of fields – medicine, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, cognitive science, molecular biology, etc. – that sometimes have an impact on human welfare. Many scientists in these fields look to Gould, as America’s most famous evolutionist, for reliable guidance on his field, and so the cumulative effect of Gould’s ‘steady misrepresentation’ has been to prevent the great majority of leading scientists in these disciplines from learning about or profiting from the rapid series of advances made in evolutionary biology over the last thirty years.”

Yes, Gould was confused, but his reading of the nineteenth century masters of evolutionary biology was deep, and he sensed that there was something profoundly wrong about the “modern synthesis” trumpeted by his critics. It seems not to have occurred to those critics that if it turns out that Gould (like Romanes before him) had, in fact, provided “reliable guidance,” then it will be their “steady misrepresentation” that will have negatively impacted human welfare (12).  For further parallels between major figures in biology across the last two centuries, see Table 1 (13).

Table 1. Parallels between Some 19th and Late 20th Century Evolutionary Biologists


19th Century

Late 20th Century



Charles Darwin

William D. Hamilton

Discovered "evolution" or "selfish genes"


Alfred R. Wallace

George C. Williams

Co-discoverers of above


Thomas H. Huxley

Richard Dawkins

"Bulldogs" of 1& 2 and opponents of humbug


George J. Romanes

Stephan Jay Gould

Anti-Darwinian advocates of non-genic, hierarchical levels; misunderstood by 3


  1. Margaret Angus, ‘Queen’s College on William Street’, Historic Kingston, vol. 34, 1986, 86-98. Many details of Grant Allen’s life may be found at Peter Morton’s web-site (

  2. Details of Principal Snodgrass’s expulsion of Grant Allen’s father from his position as “lecturer in civil history” at Queen’s College may be found in the Queen’s University Archives (Locator number mc;2999).

  3. Members of a biological species are so defined because they reproduce only with their own kind (“reproductive isolation”). Darwin considered that natural selection (now seen as a “genic” factor) would cause organisms to differ so that they became reproductively isolated from other organisms. Thus, for an origin of species natural selection must precede reproductive isolation. Romanes turned this upside-down, arguing that for natural selection to be effective it must be preceded by reproductive isolation. He proposed that often this reproductive isolation would be due to non-genic factors within the gonads of the organisms that are to originate a new species. Gould saw non-genic factors as hierarchically above genic factors.

  4. A. J. Meadows, Science and Controversy. A Biography of Sir Normal Lockyer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

  5. Gregor Mendel worked in a monastery in Brno in what is now Czechoslovakia, where there is a Mendel museum. Lysenko’s teachings encouraged Stalin to stamp out the emerging science of Mendelian genetics, and in the 1950s the museum was closed. Today tourists visit the museum and explore the monastery gardens where Mendel performed his classic experiments on peas.

  6. Laurie Fyffe’s play The Passion is based on the life of Sarah Ann Gerrard (1843-1901) as documented in the case history files of Rockwood, the Kingston Asylum for the Insane (now Kingston Psychiatric Hospital).

  7. Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life. A Record of Events and Opinions (London: Chapman and Hall, 1905). Wallace also notes here that his view that the characters that distinguish species must be of use to an organism was opposed by George Romanes, William Bateson, and others. Their “non-adaptionist” agenda was later pressed by Richard Goldschmidt and Stephen Jay Gould.

  8. For more details see my book The Origin of Species, Revisited (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001); Queen’s Quarterly, vol. 106, no. 1, 1999, 112-134; and  

  9. Z. A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of Lysenko (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).  

  10. John Maynard Smith, ‘Genes, Memes and Minds’, The New York Review of Books 42, no. 19, 1995, 17-19. The terms “ultra-Darwinian” and “neo-Darwinian” were used by Romanes to disparage Wallace’s inflexible advocacy of the power of natural selection.  

  11. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of The Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara submitted a letter in 1997 to the Editor of The New York Review of Books that was not accepted for publication: see

  12. For more on the “new Lysenkoism” in modern science see my book Tomorrow’s Cures Today? How to Reform the Health Research System (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000).

  13. Gould died on May 20th, which was Romanes' birthday.

(Paper presented to the Kingston Historical Society 15th October 2003)  

End Note 2005 Supporting the above contention of SJG's relative affluence, the New York Times reported on 21st May 2005 that he was earning $300,000 per annum on speaking engagements alone.

End Note 2006 The above "Kingston Lady" was very likely Agnes Maule Machar (1837-1927), who was born a year after James Romanes (1836-1901). Agnes' father, like James' father, was a Presbyterian minister. His church and manse were but a few block round the corner from the William Street residence which the Romanes family occupied in the 1840s. Thus, it is almost certain that they were friends prior to James' departure at age 14 with his family to Europe. Furthermore, Brian Osborne in his article "The World of Agnes Maule Machar (1837-1927): Social Reform, Nation, Empire, Nature" (Click Here) notes that she entertained Wallace at the Manse.

End Note July 2010 George Romanes and Grant Allen both crossed swords with Samuel Butler who, way ahead of his time, viewed heredity as information transmission from generation to generation (Click Here). George Bernard Shaw knew both Allen and Butler and counted himself as among “the best brains” that supported Butler. Shaw outlived them all. In an introductory essay to a reprinting of Butler's The Way of All Flesh, (1936; Oxford University Press) Shaw concluded:

Darwin, a simple-souled naturalist with no comprehension of the abyss of moral horror that separated his little speciality of Natural Selection from Butler’s comprehensive philosophic conception of Evolution, may be pardoned for his foolish estimate of Butler as ‘a clever unscrupulous man,’ and for countenancing the belittling of him by Huxley and Romanes that now seems so ridiculous. They really did not know any better.

Shaw added that “Butler and his clique belittled Grant Allen, one of the most amiably helpful men that ever lived, and one, moreover, who recognized Butler as a man of genius.” In turn, Butler heaped “scorn on Allen because he was not at once ready to declare that Butler was right about evolution, and Darwin a disingenuous sciolist.”

End Note Feb 2015 Details of Wallace's visit to Kingston can be found in Alfred Russel Wallace's 1886-1887 Travel Diary. The North American Lecture Tour (2013; Siri Scientific Press) edited by Charles H. Smith and Megan Derr, with a preface by Michael Shermer. For example, Wallace was in Washington (Jan 1887) where Grant Allen's father was wintering with two of Grant Allen's sisters and he soon "became intimate with this aimiable and very intellectual family, and spent many pleasant evenings with them; while Mr. Allen sometimes went for walks with me and took me over the Patent Museum ... ." On Monday 7th March he arrived by train in Kingston where "Prin. Grant met me. Sleigh to College - country snow-covered. Brillt. Sun. Dinner 3pm. 4pm. put up Diagrams ... Lecture - good audience 1 & 1/2 hour. Students in gallery very attentive ... Talk with Prin. Grant evening" And on Wednesday:

"Breakfast. Lady called showed copies of letters written in 1876 by G. J. Romanes to Darwin narrating his experiences in Spiritualism. Stated his tests of mental questions. These answd by table tipping with only himself & two sisters present. Again with a friend medium & sisters - all possible precautions taken. Communication with Bellew - "I James ... (name in full) ... Bellew, fear no being" - word "fear" not expected thought to be wrong - "being" not expected "thing" expected ... Other tests - sit in dark so that countenance not seen. Declares his belief in non-human intelligence commun. ... Had [Charles] Williams to a seance in own house with his own friends present - saw human 'hands' - bells, etc. carried about, a human head & moveable eyes. Williams held all the time. His brother (J. Romanes) walked round the table all the time to prove no secret connection, yet bell placed far off on piano taken up by a luminous hand! & rung & carried about! 2nd letter to Darwin expresses his conviction of truth of facts, - & of existence of spiritual intelligences - of mind without brain etc. etc. has altered his whole conceptions. Formerly totally incredulous. Thought there were two mental natures in Crookes & Wallace one sane the other a lunatic! Now he belongs to same class. Darwin had evidently expressed interest, but suggested the usual sceptical doubts - which Romanes answered, & declared his intention of going on with the investigation. He declares there is no evidence whatever that the intelligences are the spirits of dead men yet admits they are often very intelligent, and thoroughly up in human ideas, languages, etc. etc.!!! Yet he says he knows the literature of the subject!! Dinner talk about Thought Transference etc. Mr. Balmer has friend who is a perfect percipient. Can perceive writing or reproduce drawings instantly & with great certainty."

If, indeed, Wallace was staying with the Machars, then the fact that a "lady called" suggests that perhaps it was someone other than Alice to whom James had sent the letters.

     Wallace's dairy states that he returned to Kingston in August 1887 where he spent "a few days in a delightful old country house on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the refined and very congenial society of Mr. and Mrs. Allen, and their two daughters. I much enjoyed this visit, and my genuine admiration of the writings of their only son, Grant Allen, was a bond of sympathy." And one afternoon Wallace "went to visit a relative of the Allens at Gananoque, where they have a small cottage on the rocky bank of the St. Lawrence, looking on to the celebrated Thousand Islands." His dates and memory may be a bit out, because Trilliums flower in the spring, but Wallace records for 5th August 1887: "To Sir Richd. Cartwright's to tea and look for Trilliums - Talk about Ireland etc. etc." In later writings Wallace says that "One of the sons took me to a wood where trilliums were in flower; afterwards we had tea in the spacious hall. There were several visitors."




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To: Chromosomal Speciation: a Reply (2004)   (Click Here)

To: Romanes' solution to Darwin's "weak point" (2010)   (Click Here)

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This page was posted here in April 2004, and last edited 19 Feb 2015 by D. R. Forsdyke