By Elizabeth J. Barnes, Newnham College, Cambridge 1998

Undergraduate thesis supervised by James Moore. Copy made available by EJB circa 2000 and reproduced here by DRF with the permission of EJB Dec. 2009. (EJB became E. J. Savory in 2010.)


George Romanes (1848-1894) ©The Royal Society of London (IM/Maull/003873 with permission of Jo Hopkins, RS Picture Curator)


His childhood

His student life

Post-Cambridge years



Postscript: Retrospective and Prospective Research



As a child, George John Romanes (GJR) was a Christian who had always intended to take Holy Orders and live a life of prayer and devotion to God. However, while at Cambridge University, he abandoned this calling deciding, instead, to dedicate his life to a study of science. Moreover, by 1878, he had become a self-proclaimed agnostic since he could no longer reconcile his Christian beliefs following his new-found passion for science. What had happened to him over this relatively short period of time to make him change his mind? Why did he lose what had once been such a strong faith?


“..I am not ashamed to confess that with this virtual negation of God the universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness..” (1). This was the statement of a man who constantly battled to reconcile his scientific logic with his Christian upbringing and fundamental beliefs.

Romanes had, since childhood, been a devout Christian and he had always intended to take Holy Orders once he left university. Although it was said in his Life and Letters that he was not thought to be especially bright as a child, he was sent to a private tutor and in 1867 he enrolled at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. At first he fell under evangelical influences (2) before science took over his life. These years at Cambridge shaped the rest of his life and opened doors to him that were previously unthought of. It was here that his faith really began to waver.

The 1870’s was a period that saw the physical efficacy of prayer becoming a subject of great interest to both clergymen and scientists. The rising professional scientists were beginning to recognise the fact that public prayers held by the religious authorities were hindering the general acceptance of scientific explanations of phenomena. As an individual and private exercise, the matter of prayer caused no problem for Victorian scientists. Yet when prayer was used as a kind of ‘physical energy’ to help situations such as cattle plagues, cholera and excessive rainfall, the issue of religion versus science became significant.

In 1872, an anonymous essay appeared in the journal Contemporary Review, called “The ‘Prayer for the Sick’ - hints towards a serious attempt to estimate its value”(3). It questioned whether it was possible to calculate the value of prayer, and continued by suggesting the testing of prayer on patients in hospital wards. According to Frank Turner it was this article that provided the subject for Cambridge University’s Burney Prize in 1873 (4), which Romanes, much to his own surprise, won.

In 1874, Romanes wrote a letter to Nature (5) about some of the causes to which Darwin had ascribed the evolution of ‘useless organs’. The letter caught Darwin ’s eye leading to a correspondence and subsequent friendship between the two men that lasted until Darwin died. In the same year, following his father’s death, Romanes left Cambridge to work with Drs Burdon Sanderson and Sharpey at University College, London. He studied the evolution of marine invertebrates and in particular medusae (jelly fish). This work won him credit in scientific circles and coupled with his friendship with Darwin , meant that he was introduced to many eminent scientists including Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer.

As was fashionable in the 1870’s, Romanes spent a while looking into the phenomena of spiritualism, and even though Darwin was sceptical about the matter, he especially felt the need to turn to it when his beloved sister died in March 1878. By this time he had admitted that he was an agnostic, and later on in 1878 he published his second theological work, A Candid Examination of Theism, which he had written two years previously. This was the work of someone who, it would seem, no longer believed in God but who felt the loss deeply.

One of the greatest problems in the study of Romanes’ life is the paucity of evidence. The primary resource is his wife, Ethel Romanes’ Life and Letters of George John Romanes (6). The book neglects a number of dates and events, in particular his development from childhood through to University. It is important to recognise the fact that Ethel Romanes was a High Anglican and a very devout Christian. Moreover, the book was published by Longmans, a noted Church publisher. On account of this, she would not have wanted her husband to have come across as someone who totally dismissed his faith. It would seem reasonable therefore not to rely too heavily on all the evidence that she gives about her husband, despite the fact that in many cases this is the only source available for Romanes’ life.

The remainder of the evidence is largely from the Gonville and Caius archives (7) and from the interpretations of Robert Richards and Frank Turner. Turner describes Romanes’ A Candid Examination of Theism as “a sparkling example of naturalistic thought”(8). He goes on to say that Romanes was “chameleon - like in his tendency to gauge his opinions to those of the intellectual circle with whom he was involved at the moment”. In Turner’s eyes, Romanes did not enjoy being an unbeliever and he quotes Romanes as saying how he “yearned for the serenity of the previous generation”(9).

Richards, on the other hand, believes that Romanes did not abandon his religious beliefs solely for the scientific reasons that he later gave. Instead, he blames the impact of Darwin ’s personality and especially his “wisdom, scientific eminence and paternal solicitude for his young disciple”(10).

By chronicling Romanes’ early years it will become apparent that both of these reasons are likely to have played an important role in his loss of faith. Furthermore, the loss of his father was important in shaping Romanes’ outlook because throughout these first thirty years of his life, Romanes was constantly in need of a father-figure to support him and to offer advice. Winning Darwin ’s affections would have done much for Romanes’ confidence, and he would naturally have listened and probably tried to agree with all of his mentor’s views. In this respect it is important to be sceptical about Romanes’ true opinions and to listen carefully for Darwin’s words coming from the younger man’s lips.

His childhood

George John Romanes was born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on the 2nd May 1848. He was the son of Reverend George Romanes and of Isabella Gair Smith, a Canadian Scot. His father had been educated and gained an MA at the University of Edinburgh in 1826 (11) and was later Professor of Greek at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada (12). Later that month, Rev. Romanes inherited a substantial fortune enabling him to resign his post at the university and move his family over to England. After months of looking for somewhere to live they eventually settled beside London’s Regent’s Park (13).

Young George’s first education was casual and unsystematic. He was educated privately at home and did not show any early signs of intellectual promise. In fact, he was supposedly regarded by his family as a “shocking dunce”(14). As a result of his father’s inheritance, George was able to grow up in very comfortable circumstances and his early years were, it seems, happy. He was said to be a kind and patient brother to all his siblings and, indeed, got on particularly well with his elder sister. He enjoyed shooting at his mother’s family home in Ross-shire, Scotland (15), and music became his “most perfect passion”(16).

Christianity was a strong and potent force in George’s early years. His father was an Anglican, whilst his mother attended Presbyterian services. Neither of them apparently enforced their own particular views on the rest of the family, and it transpired that George and his siblings tended towards the English Church. Since religion played such a significant part in his life, it is little wonder that throughout his childhood and early adulthood, George grew up with the intention of following his father into Holy Orders.

At age seventeen, George’s mother realised that his education at home had left him lacking in the knowledge of books that was required to enter university. Consequently, he was sent to a private tutor in order to prepare him for further education. Originally he had been destined for Brasenose College , Oxford; he had even had his name put on the list of forth-coming applicants. But at the last minute, Romanes followed his fellow pupil of the same tutor, Mr. Charles Edmund Lister, to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

His student life

On 11th July 1867, Romanes was admitted as a pensioner to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. For two years he pursued an ordinary degree, reading mathematics, whilst remaining intent on becoming a clergyman. Despite Ethel’s assertion in Life and Letters that he entered Cambridge “half educated and utterly untrained, with no knowledge of men or books”(18), Romanes’ Cambridge life seems to have been happy, and he participated in several college activities. In October of 1867, he was elected to the Gonville and Caius Boat Club, and between 1867 and 1871, he was also a member of the Gonville and Caius Debating Society (19). He made many friends, one of whom was Proby Cautley who later became the Rector of Quainton, near Aylesbury. It was in these early years at Cambridge he and Cautley would spend many hours discussing their calling.

Cambridge was, at this time, touched by the conflict between evangelical beliefs and practices, and the increasing challenge that scientific professionalism imposed. With the rise of evangelicalism that had occurred over the last century, their ideals were slowly beginning to filter into the University’s staid Church of England majority. In November of 1862, a ‘Daily Prayer Meeting’ (DPM) was established by J. F. B. Tinling and Alfred Maynard, two university undergraduates, providing an opportunity for like-minded men to get together and pray.

The DPM met with some disapproval from evangelical leaders in Cambridge, in particular Perowne, Dean of Corpus and Clayton, Vicar of Holy Trinity (20). While prayer was permitted at the University, it was prayer that was guided by approved leaders. The DPM, they feared, would lead to over enthusiasm and eventually Church schism. Even so, the first meeting was held on 24th November 1862 in a small room over a shop on Trinity Street, and twenty men attended. The informality of men coming dressed in their sporting clothes seemed eccentric to some, whilst to others the DPM was regarded as “ridiculous” and “awful bosh”(21).

But the DPM was important for those who truly believed in what was a fluctuating religious climate in Cambridge. For, according to Oliver Barclay, in the late 1860’s/early 1870’s Cambridge University was a typically middle-class institution that was outwardly very religious but only superficially so in many quarters. It was compulsory to attend college chapel times each week and twice on Sundays. Most students at the time were wealthy and assured of an inheritance. Their university life was easy-going, sociable and sport- rather than work-dominated (22).

With this kind of religious climate in Cambridge, it would have been pretty difficult for Romanes to have avoided any evangelical influences, and his wife states that originally this influence did play a key role in his early student years. He would regularly attend meetings to study the Greek New Testament and enjoyed hearing great ‘men of God’ who visited the university to preach. Romanes is described by Desmond and Moore as an out-and-out evangelical in his first years at Cambridge, and it seems reasonable to assume that, with the increasing popularity of the DPM by 1867, he attended at least some of the weekly meetings.

Romanes spent his long vacations at his mother’s family home in Dunskaith, in Ross-shire. Here he would while away the hours meditating on his future career in the Church. These years were contented ones: he had a happy university life and a religious vocation that provided him with a sense of purpose. However a change was imminent and, at the end of his second year, he ceased reading mathematics and won a scholarship to read the Natural Sciences Tripos (NST). This course was to change the rest of his life.

Students wishing to read the NST had previously been required to obtain a first-year grounding in classics or mathematics and it was not until 1860 that this rule was abolished. As the number of NST students rose, specialisms were developed within the course leading to the establishment of teaching officers in separate subjects (23).

Romanes’ final exams consisted of twelve papers including questions on chemistry, geology, comparative anatomy, zoology and the history and philosophy of science. He began studying for the NST with only eighteen months to complete the course; it was because of this lack of time rather than of interest, that on 28th January 1871 Romanes graduated with a class II (24). According to Turner, by now he had dismissed the idea of taking Holy Orders because “his family had dissuaded him from that calling”(25).

After graduation he took a new vocation and studied medicine under Dr Michael Foster in his new physiological laboratory. Foster had come to Cambridge in 1870 as Praelector and later Professor of Physiology. It was not Foster who was responsible for Romanes’ original interest in science, as this had been conceived through his studies in Natural Sciences. But since there was already an established interest, then Foster played a very influential role in shaping Romanes’ early scientific career, and also in forming his views on evolution. In Ethel’s words, this first step into tangible, hands-on scientific practice provided Romanes with his first “sense of power and capacity”(26).

In spring 1872, his studies were forced to be put to one side when he began to show signs of illness, later diagnosed as a bad attack of typhoid. He went to his home in Dunskaith to begin his long and weary convalescence where his health was monitored both by doctors in Ross-shire and via telegraph with Dr Latham in Cambridge - a well-known physician (27). It was during this recovery that he began writing the essay which would later win him the Burney Prize.

Richard Bumey was a member of Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1822, and an MA in 1838. He died on the 30th November 1845, but previously that year, he had empowered his cousin, the Archdeacon Burney to offer the university, through the vice-chancellor, a sum of £3,500 to establish a prize. This was to be awarded to the graduate who produced the best essay in English related to some moral or metaphysical subject on the “Existence, Nature and Attributes of God, or on the Truth and Evidence of the Christian Religion”(28).

In 1873 Christ’s College set the topic for this Burney Prize essay as “Christian Prayer considered in relation to the Belief that the Almighty governs the World by General Laws” (29). According to Turner, the title was suggested in response to the articles and letters in Contemporary Review concerning the physical efficacy of prayer and the relation between prayer and general scientific laws (30). Perhaps it was his brush with a life-threatening illness and subsequently his own family’s prayers for his recovery that propelled Romanes to tackle the subject. He submitted the work without a hope that he might win and with no real training in either philosophy or metaphysics, and so it came as a great surprise when he won the competition (31).

In his essay, Romanes took a deistic rather than devoutly Christian angle, perhaps reflecting his struggles with Christianity that were forefront in his mind at that time. The essay claimed that we have no way of proving that prayer is ineffective. But he also pointed out that religious apologists had no way of showing the way in which God may answer prayers, and he argued that this kind of knowledge was beyond the scope of human reasoning. Romanes argued that God may answer prayers by employing natural laws, though we would only be aware of the presence of that law: “It becomes impossible for human intellect to predicate the number and kinds of the special results which it is possible for the Final Directive Influence to produce, through the purposive combination of Natural Laws”(32). He carried on by saying that natural philosophy must “abstain from the folly of asserting what the Unknown God can or cannot do - what He does or does not desire”(33). The conclusion to his essay contained no strong arguments at all and although he favoured belief in the efficacy of prayer, he also realised that he had no solid evidence to support this claim.

So it would seem that by the time he had written Christian Prayer and General Laws he was already hanging onto evangelicalism by his fingertips and yet despite this lack of hard conviction the essay still won. Since the prize had not called for a defence of prayer, it is likely that Romanes won because of the quality of his reasoning. In a letter to his mother soon after winning, Romanes told of how he was the first person to win the competition from Gonville and Caius College, and of how he beat Mr Cunningham from Trinity College, who was
“universally admitted as being the best of all the Cambridge metaphysicians”(34).

Throughout 1873 Romanes continued convalescing and working with Foster in the physiological laboratory in Cambridge. Romanes had now completely abandoned the idea of pursuing any kind of profession. His illness had prevented him from continuing with medicine and he abandoned his plans to become a doctor. He now decided to devote his life to the study of science, in particular evolutionary theory. Having read some of Darwin ’s work, Romanes wrote to Nature querying some of the causes that Darwin had ascribed for ‘useless organs’. The letter caught Darwin ’s eye and he sent him a friendly note asking Romanes to call on him. Thus Darwin opened up the lines of communication and according to Ethel, started “an unbroken friendship marked on one side by absolute worship, reverence and affection and on the other by fatherly kindness and a wonderful interest in a younger man’s work and career”(35).

In 1874, Romanes’ prize essay, Christian Prayers and General Laws was published. In the light of his change in vocation, and the fact that he now intended to pursue a purely scientific career, Turner says that it was at this point Romanes had decided that he was no longer a believing Christian (36). No longer could Romanes reconcile his belief and his Christianity with his passion for science. It seems that his doubts had got the better of him at this time, but the exact reasons for this are not wholly clear.

That same year, on April 23rd, Romanes took his MA, and shortly afterwards he returned to London to live with his mother, following the death of his father (37). Presumably this was a huge loss to Romanes, and he perhaps turned to Darwin more than ever, establishing him as a father figure. With such a close relationship between the two men, Romanes’ change in beliefs could have been exacerbated by his relationship with Darwin, who by that point had long been an unbeliever.

Now a more confident man, with a Burney Prize, a friendship with Darwin, and a passion for science as strong as ever, Romanes returned to London a different man from the one who had left for university seven years earlier.


Post-Cambridge years

From 1874-1876, Romanes worked intermittently in the physiological laboratory at University College, London (UCL). He worked primarily under Dr John Scott Burdon Sanderson, and also with Dr William Sharpey, and it was here that he pursued his interest in Darwinian science.

He was mainly concerned with whether or not a central nervous system could be found in such primary creatures as medusae and thus to establish whether there was an evolutionary link between primitive and higher organisms. With the little lab that he had erected at Dunskaith, Romanes was able to experiment throughout the summer of 1874 on the medusae. That autumn, he found that he could paralyse the medusa swimming bell by removing strips of tissue from around the bell itself. By doing this he believed that he had shown that jelly fish had the rudiments of a nervous system (38). He described these findings in a paper communicated to the Royal Society in 1875, and in his Croonian Lecture delivered to the Royal Society in 1876.

In the summer of 1874 Darwin invited Romanes to stay with him at Downe in Kent, and he greeted him “with outstretched arms, bright smile and exclamation, ‘How glad I am that you are so young!’” (39). Romanes often wrote long letters to Darwin as the friendship progressed, telling him of his latest experiments and trying to win his favour. Such was his keenness and willing to please Darwin he would write comments such as, “I am very glad that you are pleased with my progress so far”(40). In response, he would receive fatherly letters, often advising him on his experiments and most frequently encouraging him with comments like, “Such energy as yours is almost sure to command victory” (41).

Romanes’ respect and affection were very genuine and Darwin “could not help but like him for all his superficial faults”(42). For to some people Romanes would come across as arrogant and brash, perhaps regarded as a wealthy Canadian snob who was, according to Richard French, a “man of private means who could afford to finance his own research and contemplate it at his 1eisure”(43). But despite these criticisms, felt even by Darwin ’s own son, Francis, Charles looked upon Romanes with genuine affection.

Romanes’ friendship with Darwin was to have an impact on his life, not just in his work, but also in his social life and religion. With the increasing recognition in his scientific work, Romanes’ circle of friends was greatly widened and he was introduced to people such as Herbert Spencer (who was aware of Romanes’ research on the medusae), Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. He found himself making acquaintances with George Lewes and his cohabitant, Marian Evans, better known as the author George Eliot (44). Romanes was one of the ‘favoured few’ allowed to join this charmed circle of friends on Sunday afternoons, and he would enjoy the talks he had with George Eliot, before her death in 1878. The prestige that was associated with these, his new agnostic friends, together with such widely intellectual conversations and the fact that he had already started to have his doubts about the Christian faith, could have triggered the writing of his second theological work.

Romanes was by now really beginning to make a name for himself and on the 31st March 1876, with Dr J. Burdon Sanderson in the Chair, Romanes was asked to become secretary for the newly formed Physiological Society in London. He was considered a very good catch for the society, and his invitation was by way of recognition of his ideas and the contribution that he had made. He was praised for his high intellect and how he was
“able to uphold his opinions in matters relating to science, literature, art, politics and even religion”. It was stated many years later in the records of the society, that out of all the men who helped to launch the society, Romanes was “unquestionably the most brilliant”. As a lecturer he was described as “eloquent, clear and convincing”, and although he seemed to include in conversation an amount of “appreciation of his own work” it was not seen by others as vanity because it was simply a “natural and unconscious part of his character”(45). He was clearly very popular within the realms of the society because of this ‘loveable nature’ of his, and not merely for his scientific work.

Later that year, so as not to forget his dear friend, Romanes proposed Darwin as an Honorary member of the Physiological Society. Darwin wrote to him immediately, thanking him and saying, “I was very much gratified by the wholly unexpected honour of being elected one of the honorary members. This mark of sympathy has pleased me to a very high degree.”(46) In Romanes’ reply to Darwin a couple of days later, he writes, “It seems to me that you never fully realise the height of your pedestal, so that I am glad of any opportunity of this kind to show you the angle at which the upturned faces are inclined”(47). In 1881, he ceased being secretary of the society, but continued to be a member.

By the end of 1876, Romanes had finished writing his second theological essay. Entitled A Candid Examination of Theism (48), it tried to demolish all arguments for the existence of God, and said that there was no scientific reason to uphold a belief in a ‘First Cause or universal mind’. The work was one that highlighted his inability to reconcile his scientific beliefs, and in particular his knowledge of the evolution of the human species, with his former Christian faith. He argued that the existence of the human mind did not provide any evidence of a greater mind, because according to Spencer’s matter-and-force analysis of nature, the mind was simply a product of matter and force, and not some deity (49).

Yet Romanes was not happy with his loss of faith. The tone of his work was one of yearning for the times when he did believe. He wrote,

“I should have felt the progress of physical knowledge could never exert any other influence on Theism than that of ever tending more and more to confirm that magnificent belief, by continuously expanding out human thoughts into progressively advancing conceptions, ever grander and yet more grand, of that tremendous Origin of Things - the Mind of God. Such would have been my hope - such would have been my prayer. But now, how changed!”(50).

From this it might be concluded that it was solely his science that led him unwillingly to believe that he lived in a universe without God. However, there were several other factors that played a very important role in his alleged straying from Christianity: his social life, whereby he was spending a lot of time with agnostics; and his family life with the death of his father. The sense of utter loss that he felt is found in the conclusion of his work,

“And for as much as I am far from being able to agree with this 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”(51).

Romanes was still very much enthused by and committed to Darwin ’s evolutionary theory when he started writing A Candid Examination of Theism, but on Darwin ’s advice he did not publish the work straight away. This could have been because Darwin wanted Romanes to establish a credible name for himself in intellectual circles, or even because he wanted Romanes to be completely sure of his new beliefs. Yet in November 1878, unable to hold off publishing any longer, Romanes presented a copy of his work to Darwin , and although Darwin was not especially interested, he agreed to browse it. Darwin found that he “could not put it down”(52) even though the arguments it contained did not entirely convince him. These arguments were that all judgements should be based upon sound reasoning, but as Darwin put it to him this did not prevent God from creating matter and energy at the beginning of time and establishing the laws by which it would evolve. Romanes published his work under the pseudonym, ‘Physicus’, and according to Richards, he did not own up to the book until 1882 (53).

In March 1878 Romanes’ elder sister fell ill and died. According to Ethel, he had been very close to her; she had been a brilliant musician and she had tried to keep her brother from becoming too involved in science by “keeping alive in him his passion for music”(54). He felt her loss deeply and once more turned to Darwin for solace. In April he wrote to Darwin , “She always used to be so proud of my work that I feel half the pleasure of working will now be gone”(55). He found it so hard to accept that since he now no longer had his Christianity, he would not be likely to see his sister again and so in despair he turned to a spiritualist for help.

Two years earlier, in 1876, Romanes had written to Darwin about spiritualism, discussing his experiences both with and without a paid medium. He said that he had had mental questions answered with no paid medium present, and that he believed that some “non-human intelligence was then communicating with him”. Later, according to records from Alfred Wallace, Romanes had taken a deep interest in the phenomenon, because “some time previously a member of his own family - either a sister or a cousin - had been found to have considerable mediumistic power”(56). Wallace had learnt this from copies of drafts of letters that Romanes had written to Darwin . Here Romanes had said that he had heard and seen strange things and was convinced that they had not been caused in any normal way. Indeed, he had even paid a medium, Charles Williams, to perform seances in his own home. However, Williams was later exposed as a fake, when after Darwin ’s warnings, Romanes forced him to take part in an experiment which failed to prove his supernatural powers (57).

During the 1870’s many people were investigating spiritualism and Christians and scientists alike were perplexed by its phenomena. Darwin tried to encourage Romanes to turn his talents to the study of the mind instead of bothering with spiritualism. In a letter written in June 1877 regarding Romanes’ foray into spiritualism, Darwin wrote, “About the other subject (never mentioned to a human being) I shall be glad to hear, but I feel that I am a wretched bigot on the subject”(58). From then onwards spiritualism was not mentioned between them again as far as we know.

The spiritualist C. C. Massey remembered the time when Romanes visited him, during the period when his sister was dying, with the “hope of being infected by my robust belief in a future life”(59). The foundations for Romanes’ loss of faith had already been laid and her death may well have built on them. Nevertheless, Romanes opinions wavered and he again turned to a medium for help.

In 1878 he touched the depths of scepticism and at this point he would have rejected any possibility of a return to faith later on in life (60). However, no sooner was A Candid Examination of Theism published, than he started to back away from his agnostic thoughts; for he was now engaged to a devout High Anglican, Ethel Duncan.

Romanes was now a lonely and unhappy soul, living in a universe without God, devoid of its ‘soul of loveliness’ and now too of his beloved sister. In a world where he had lost so much, all he had now was Darwin and a devout new wife, who no doubt reminded him of all he had lost.


Victorian Evangelicalism was a family faith. When a child eventually grew up, left home and went to university, it often happened that he left his religion behind. He now no longer had the constant support of his parents, and in many cases a loss of faith corresponded with the passage into full, independent adulthood.

From a very early age, Romanes was clearly easily influenced. In Ethel’s Life and Letters, it says that neither of his parents enforced a particular religion. But it would seem reasonable to presume that because of his father’s vocation and his mother’s beliefs, their religion would have, indirectly or otherwise, played an important factor in his decision to take Holy Orders.

Moreover, it was not just his religious life during his childhood that was subject to external influence. Later after he went to a tutor for lessons, instead of going to Oxford, he followed his friend Lister to Gonville and Caius. Romanes seemed to have been constantly experimenting with new ideas (61) and was easily influenced by others who were close to him. It was this form of guidance by others in areas such as religion and academia that was prevalent throughout his life.

Perhaps the most influential days of his life were those spent in Cambridge. He was close to Proby Cautley, obviously a devout Christian who followed his calling and ended up being a Rector, and indeed he shared many activities with Thomas Fitzjohn who later became Vicar of Cardington (62). This society must have kept the piety and devotional heart-felt faith alive in him. Romanes needed constant stimulation and reassurance. Evangelicalism and his friendships were sure to have met these needs in the first few years.

Again, it is Ethel who implies that it was friends and contemporaries who had sufficient influence to make Romanes change his subject whilst at university. Despite Ethel’s assertions that Romanes’ parents did not try to enforce their beliefs on their children, this change from mathematics to the NST may have put a strain on his relationship with his father who was himself a man of the cloth.

It was this change to science that shaped many other aspects of his life. The impact was enormous and by the end of his degree he had decided to abandon the idea of taking Holy Orders. This was a decision that can at least be correlated with his studies in science. It was apparently sometime after he started reading Natural Sciences that he began to have doubts, and as his studies progressed he realised that he was finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile his Christian and scientific beliefs.

Instead of the Church, he read medicine after graduating. Perhaps he was again being swayed by his peers, or maybe medicine was an outlet for his caring side, for he was always described as having a loveable and caring nature. But a more likely reason for the change was simply his relationship with Michael Foster. Foster had a huge influence on the path that Romanes was to take in science. He shaped the whole of Romanes’ early scientific career, by introducing him to evolutionary theory, to the works of Darwin and ultimately to the medusae experiments that won him recognition and credibility. With Foster’s assistance, Romanes began to feel in control and gained his first
“sense of power and capacity”(63). This would surely have been welcome at a time when he felt himself losing direction through his change in faith.

Another illustration of the direction that Romanes’ surroundings exerted on his life and attitudes, is his essay, Christian Prayer and General Laws. Written when he still believed in God, it was a product of the time when he was amongst evangelical student friends. Yet even so, the book’s defence of Christian teaching was not strong and perhaps this was because he had also been swayed by men with whom he worked in Foster’s lab.

Winning the Burney Prize competition would have done much to increase Romanes’ confidence. This, coupled with the interest shown in him from Foster, is sure to have added greatly to his scientific and intellectual credibility. By virtue of his acquaintance with Foster, Romanes’ circle of friends widened, although it was Darwin ’s attention that really boosted his confidence.

By 1876, once he had started writing A Candid Examination of Theism, Romanes had openly admitted to becoming an agnostic. The cause for his agnosticism couldn’t have just been his new found love of science, as he had been studying this for a few years by now. So instead of looking to science as the sole reason for Romanes’ agnosticism, it is possible to assume Richards’ argument that Romanes gave up his Christian God because of the effect that Darwin had over him. With the loss of his father in 1874, Romanes seems to find a substitute in Darwin . It is almost as if Romanes was a person who really needed to have a father figure to turn to and to prop him up in times of need. Indeed, he would respond to this fatherly attitude by “zealously advancing Darwin ’s evolutionary theory and its apparently materialistic implications”(64).

Obviously, Darwin did have an enormous impact on Romanes’ life. There was a lot of common ground between them, not least their love of science and discovered agnosticism. With the father-son, hero-worshipper relationship, it was clear that Romanes always sought to impress Darwin. Conversely Darwin was forever encouraging and helping Romanes with his experiments. This shaping of Romanes’ life was not merely limited to science, but also to his social life. Through Darwin, Romanes was able to meet people he would perhaps not have otherwise come across, most of whom were followers of Darwin and who had also lost their faith. That loss of faith experienced by the others with whom he regularly conversed is mirrored in Romanes’ thinking at this time.

When Romanes wrote A Candid Examination of Theism he was surrounded by new agnostic friends. However, for Romanes he was an agnostic almost out of duty rather than because he really truly felt he had lost his belief. His work was one of intelligent scepticism, rather than a secular agnosticism (65), he did not attack or bait the clergy. Perhaps this was a simple error, or maybe it was something that was left unresolved in his head and in his heart.

The hold that Darwin had over Romanes’ life was illustrated nicely with the question of spiritualism. Investigating spiritualism was in vogue during the 1870’s and perhaps it was because of the empty space left by the lack of religion, he no longer had God but he needed something else to cling to, that Romanes himself decided to investigate. Alternatively, the reason could have been that he felt that the loss of his sister was so great he needed some kind of reassurance that he would see her again one day. And so with all this curiosity on the subject, he could
“never quite assure himself that there was absolutely nothing in spiritualism”. Romanes wrote two letters to Darwin about spiritualism and each time Darwin would dismiss it, as “clever trickery” or that “more investigation was required.. .but I have no time for it”(66). With this virtual dismissal of the matter and Darwin ’s comment on how he was a “wretched bigot on the subject”(67), Romanes still continued looking into the phenomenon but he never, as far as is documented, mentioned it again to Darwin .

The conflict that Romanes felt was that of a deeply religious scientist with no desire whatsoever to throw away his religion but who felt that science had forced him into doing just that. His was a religious nature that was “profoundly influenced by Christian ideals, by Christian modes of thought” and it was with “sad and reluctant backward glances he took up a position of agnosticism”(68).


In many ways, Ethel was to George Romanes what Emma was to Charles Darwin. Both Ethel and Emma encouraged their respective husbands not to turn their backs completely on their Christian upbringing, despite the scientific naturalism that may have contradicted it. Through the growth of his new found scientific logic, he developed an understanding of the universe which he could not reconcile with his fundamental Christian beliefs.

The loss of his father in 1874 left Romanes searching for a substitute which he found in Darwin. Romanes revered Darwin not only as an academic mentor but also as a paternal figure. Indeed, many of the changes seen in Romanes’ beliefs coincide directly with his relationship with Darwin. Was he really an agnostic or was he just attempting to impress his mentor? Did he really lose his faith or was it Darwin ’s loss of faith which forced him to conceal his true beliefs?

Darwin had told Romanes to avoid spiritualism, encouraging him to channel his energies into other matters, namely mental evolution. Having dismissed spiritualism, Romanes agreed and the subject was not broached again. After the death of his sister in 1878, in a desperate bid to reassure himself that one day he would see his sister again, he enlisted the help of a medium, despite Darwin ’s previous scepticism in the discussions two years previously. This contradicted his opinions detailed in A Candid Examination of Theism also written in 1876. Although he had stated in this paper that there was no possible scientific reasoning for God, he was still able to entertain the thought that he would be reunited with his sister in another life.

Perhaps one can draw a parallel here with Darwin ’s opinions on God and religion. Darwin, too, had found that he could not reconcile his Christian beliefs with his scientific background, and by the time of his friendship with Romanes, he had been a non-believer for a considerable length of time. An easily influenced Romanes may well have tried to adopt Darwin’s way of thinking outwardly, if only to impress his mentor, whilst on the inside he was unable to convince himself that Christianity should be completely disregarded. Thus, his simulated agnosticism was a calculated and reasoned decision. It pained him to adopt this stance and the consequences were heart-felt.

Romanes was a man without strong convictions who wavered according to the passing vogue or trend. It could not have been purely his deep respect for Darwin ’s work that influenced him: a man’s personal impact on someone with a disciple mentality is greater than his work. However, if he had truly lost his belief in the Christian faith, surely it would have been too painful for him to continue to attend weekly Church services as he did (69). Moreover, he had to endure the constant reminder of his past faith from his devout wife. It is my opinion that although Romanes was able to reason his mind into agnosticism, he could never reason his heart.

Postscript: Retrospective and Prospective Research

There is very little evidence regarding the life of George John Romanes. Apart from Ethel Romanes’ book, my evidence concerning the Cambridge life of Romanes has been gleaned from Gonville and Caius college Archives (in particular in the Praelector’s book) college accounts records, college society records and back issues of the Gonville and Caius college magazine, The Caian.

The relationship between Romanes and his father may well have been of particular significance in ascertaining when and if Romanes lost his faith. In order to pursue this further, I contacted the Archives at the University of Edinburgh. They informed me that Revd George Romanes matriculated in 1822, and he took his MA in 1826. This was the extent of their evidence. Furthermore, I contacted Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. Unfortunately, I have received no reply to date.

According to Turner, Romanes loss of faith coincides with the publication of Christian Prayers and General Laws, which had been written during the previous year. I would argue, however, that even this piece of outwardly theological work shows signs of agnosticism due to its lack of a strong defence of orthodox religion.

Information concerning the relationship between Romanes and his father would perhaps lead to a better understanding of why Romanes felt the need to establish Darwin as a paternal figure in his life. Moreover, a knowledge of the date and cause of his father’s death might prove whether this was a factor in the loss of Romanes’ faith. If his father’s death were linked with a long term illness, the failure of their prayers and the lack of salvation from a divine intervention could well have caused him to lose his belief in the power of prayer. Further investigation into the death of his father may reveal that the seeds of doubt in Romanes’ mind were sown before his relationship with Darwin and that Darwin ’s influence was merely a catalyst for the disintegration of his faith.


1. George John Romanes A Candid Examination of Theism by Physicus (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1878) pp. 113-114. George John Romanes hereafter cited in footnotes as GJR
2. Ethel Romanes The Life and Letters of GJR written and edited by his wife (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1896) pp. 4-5
3. Henry Thompson (anon) Contemporary Review 20 (1987) pp. 205-10. Authorship is attributed to Henry Thompson in British Museum Catalogue. (see n4)
4. Frank Turner Contesting Cultural Authority: essays in Victorian intellectual life (Cambridge: CUP. 1993) p. 52
5. Journal
6. see n2
7. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
8. F. Turner Between ,Science and Religion (New Haven, 1974) p. 140
9. F. Turner Between Science and Religion  pp.141 & 143
10. 10. Robert Richards Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987) pp. 364-5
11. University of Edinburgh Archives. He was a student at Edinburgh from 1822-26.
12. Queen's University was founded in 1841 under the sponsorship of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, was modelled on the University of Edinburgh and Scottish academic influences helped to shape its character. This was perhaps why the Revd George Romanes moved over to Canada. (see E. Archer Commonwealth Universities Yearbook (Association of Commonwealth universities for the UK committee of Vice-Principals and Principals))
13. Charles Gillispie Dictionarv of Scientific Biography (American Council of Learning Societies. 1975) p. 516
14. 14. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 3
15. According to archive records at University of Edinburgh, Romanes’ father came from the Edinburgh area. According to S Parker Charles Darwin and Evolution (Belitha, 1992) his mother’s family home was in Ross-shire.
16. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 7
17. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  pp. 3-5
18. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 6
19. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Archives
20. J. P 20. J. Pollock A Cambridge Movement (London, 1953) pp. 22-24
21. O. Barclay Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot? ( Leicester, 1977) p. 15
22. O. Barclay Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot? ( Leicester, 1977) p. 9
23. R. Macleod Days of Judgement (Driffield Nafferton, 1982) pp. 193-6
24. 24. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Archives (Praelector’s book)
25. F. Turner Between Science and Religion p.140
26. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 9
27. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 8. Romanes had met with Dr Latham because of his studies in medicine and he later dedicated his Burney Prize to him.
28. J. Tanner (ed.) Historical Register of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, CUP, 1912) p. 320
29. GJR Christian Prayer and General Laws being the Burney Prize Essay for the year 1873, with an appendix The Physical Efficiencv of Prayer (London, Macmillan & Co., 1874)
30. F. Turner Contesting Cultural Authority  p. 152 (also see n3)
31. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 11
32. GJR Christian Prayer and General Laws p. 165
33. GJR Christian Prayer and General Laws p. 113
34. E. 34. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 11
35. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 14
36. F. Turner Between Science and Religion  p. 141
37. see postscript
38. M. Geison Michael Foster and the Cambridge School of Physiology (Princetown NJ. 1979) p. 245
39. R. Boakes From Darwin to Behaviourism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals. (Cambridge, CUP, 1984) p. 24
40. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 35
41. 41. E. Romanes Life  and Letters of GJR  p. 33, letter from Darwin to Romanes 18th Ju1y 1875
42. A. Desmond & J. Moore Darwin (Penguin, 1982) p. 632
43. R. French “ Darwin and the Phvsiologists, or the Medusa and Modern Cardiology,” Journal of the History of Biology 3 (1970) p. 254
44.  E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 49
45. E. Sharpey-Schafer (ed.) History of the Physiological Societv during its first 50 years 1876 - 1927 ( Cambridge , 1972) pp. 35, 36
46. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 51-52. letter from Darwin to Romanes 1876
47. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 53. letter to Darwin from Romanes 1st June. 1876
48. see n1
49. According to F Turner Between Science and Religion (p. 142, n26) Romanes drew heavily on Spencer and made few references to Darwin because it was evolution and not the mechanism of evolution that was destructive to his theism.
50. GJR A Candid Examination of Theism pp. 51-52
51. GJR A Candid Examination of Theism pp. 113-114
52. A. Desmond & J Moore Darwin p. 634
53. R. Richards Darwin and the Emergence of the Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour p. 342
54. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR p. 71
55. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 72. letter Romanes to Darwin 10th April, 1878
56. A. Wallace My life: a record of events and opinions (London, Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1905) pp. 317, 314. see also M J Kottler “Wallace, the Origin of Man and Spiritualism” Isis 65 p.180
57. The experiment consisted of Williams sitting in a perforated zinc cage. When he did so, none of the illusions occurred.
58. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 63. letter Darwin to Romanes 4th June. 1877
59. J. Oppenheim The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850-1914 (Cambridge, CUP, 1985), p. 281
60. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 87
61. F. Turner Between Science and Religion p. 141
62. Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge Archives (Praelector’s book)
63. see n26
64. R. Richards Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour  pp. 364-5  
65. F. Turner Between Science and Religion  p. 146
66. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 50
67. see n58
68. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR  p. 85
69. R. Richards Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour p. 342

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