EARLY CAREER OF GEORGE JOHN ROMANES, 1867-1878
By Elizabeth J.
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.)
His student life
Postscript: Retrospective and Prospective Research
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?
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
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.
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.
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
University’s Burney Prize in 1873 (4), which Romanes, much to his own surprise,
1874, Romanes wrote a letter to Nature (5) about some of the causes to which
had ascribed the evolution of ‘useless organs’. The letter caught
’s eye leading to a correspondence and subsequent friendship between
the two men that lasted until
died. In the same year, following his father’s death, Romanes left
to work with Drs Burdon Sanderson and Sharpey at
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
, meant that he was introduced to many eminent scientists including
Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer.
was fashionable in the 1870’s, Romanes spent a while looking into the
phenomena of spiritualism, and even though
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.
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.
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
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
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
’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
’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.
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
in 1826 (11) and was later Professor of Greek at
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).
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,
(15), and music became his “most perfect passion”(16).
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
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
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
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
and utterly untrained, with no knowledge of men or books”(18),
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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”
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).
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
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).
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
’s work, Romanes wrote to Nature querying some of the
had ascribed for ‘useless organs’. The letter caught
’s eye and he sent him a friendly note asking Romanes to call on him.
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).
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
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
1874-1876, Romanes worked intermittently in the physiological laboratory
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.
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.
the summer of 1874
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
as the friendship progressed, telling him of his latest experiments and
trying to win his favour. Such was his keenness and willing to please
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”
respect and affection were very genuine and
“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
’s own son, Francis, Charles looked upon Romanes with genuine
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
that year, so as not to forget his dear friend, Romanes proposed
as an Honorary member of the Physiological Society.
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
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
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,
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
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,
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).
was still very much enthused by and committed to
’s evolutionary theory when he started writing A Candid
Examination of Theism, but on
’s advice he did not publish the work straight away. This could have
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
, and although
was not especially interested, he agreed to browse it.
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
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
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
for solace. In April he wrote to
, “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.
years earlier, in 1876, Romanes had written to
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
. 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
’s warnings, Romanes forced him to take part in an experiment which
failed to prove his supernatural powers (57).
the 1870’s many people were investigating spiritualism and Christians
and scientists alike were perplexed by its phenomena.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
’s attention that really boosted his confidence.
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
had over him. With the loss of his father in 1874, Romanes seems to find
a substitute in
. 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
’s evolutionary theory and its apparently materialistic
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
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
Darwin, Romanes was able to meet people he would perhaps not have otherwise
come across, most of whom were followers of
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.
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
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
Romanes wrote two letters to
about spiritualism and each time
would dismiss it, as “clever
trickery” or that
investigation was required.. .but I have no time for it”(66).
With this virtual dismissal of the matter and
’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
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).
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
The loss of his father in 1874 left Romanes searching for a substitute
which he found in
Darwin. Romanes revered
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
’s loss of faith which forced him to conceal his true beliefs?
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
’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
’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.
was a man without strong convictions who wavered according to the
passing vogue or trend. It could not have been purely his deep respect
’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.
Retrospective and Prospective Research
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.
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
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.
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.
concerning the relationship between Romanes and his father would perhaps
lead to a better understanding of why Romanes felt the need to establish
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
’s influence was merely a catalyst for the disintegration of his
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
6. see n2
7. Gonville and Caius
8. F. Turner Between
,Science and Religion (New Haven,
1974) p. 140
9. F. Turner Between
Science and Religion pp.141
Robert Richards Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary
Theories of Mind and Behaviour (Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
1987) pp. 364-5
Archives. He was a student at Edinburgh
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
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
E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
15. According to archive records at
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.
Romanes Life and Letters of
17. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
18. E. Romanes Life
and Letters of GJR p. 6
19. Gonville and Caius
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.
24. 24. Gonville and Caius
25. F. Turner Between
Science and Religion p.140
E. Romanes Life
and Letters of GJR p.
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
31. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
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.
35. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR p.
36. F. Turner Between Science and Religion p. 141
37. see postscript
38. M. Geison Michael Foster and the Cambridge
of Physiology (Princetown NJ. 1979) p.
39. R. Boakes From
to Behaviourism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals. (Cambridge, CUP,
1984) p. 24
40. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR p.
E. Romanes Life and
Letters of GJR p.
33, letter from
to Romanes 18th Ju1y 1875
42. A. Desmond & J.
(Penguin, 1982) p. 632
43. R. French “
and the Phvsiologists, or the Medusa and Modern Cardiology,” Journal of
the History of Biology 3 (1970)
44. E. Romanes Life and
Letters of GJR p.
45. E. Sharpey-Schafer (ed.) History
of the Physiological Societv during its first 50 years 1876 - 1927
, 1972) pp. 35, 36
46. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
p. 51-52. letter from
to Romanes 1876
47. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
p. 53. letter to
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
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
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
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”
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
to Romanes 4th June. 1877
59. J. Oppenheim The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in
1850-1914 (Cambridge, CUP, 1985), p. 281
60. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR
61. F. Turner Between Science and Religion
62. Gonville and Caius
Archives (Praelector’s book)
63. see n26
64. R. Richards Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind
and Behaviour pp.
65. F. Turner Between Science and Religion p. 146
66. E. Romanes Life and Letters of GJR p.
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
Archer, E.A. Commonwealth
Universities Yearbook Association of Commonwealth Universities for the
UK committee of Vice-Principals and Principals.
Barclay. 0. Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot?
Boakes, R.A. From
to Behaviourism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals
Cambridge, CUP 1984
Chadwick. 0. The Victorian Church London, A. & C. Black
Desmond, A. & Moore, J. R. Darwin Penguin 1992
French. R.E. ‘
and the Physiologists, or the Medusa and Modern Cardiology’ Journal of
the History of Biology 3 (1970)
Geison, M. Michael Foster and
School of Physiology Princeton
Gillispie. C.C. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol xi American
Council of Learned Societies 1975
Kottler, M.J. ‘Wallace, the Origin of Man and Spiritualism’ Isis 65
Macleod, R. Days of Judgement: Science, Examinations and the
Organisation of Knowledge in Late Victorian England Driffield Nafferton 1982
Moore, J. R. Post Darwinian Controversies: a Study of the Protestant
Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900.
Cambridge, CUP, 1979
Oppenheim, J. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England
1850-1914. CUP 1985
Parker, S. Charles Darwin and Evolution Belitha Publishing
Pollock, I. C. Cambridge Movement
Richards, R.J. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind
Romanes. E. Life and Letters of George John Romanes London,
Longmans, Green & Co., 1896
Romanes, G. A Candid Examination of Theism by Physicus Boston:
Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1878
Romanes, G. Christian Prayer and General Laws being the Burney Prize Essay
for the year 1873, with an appendix,
The Physical Efficiency of Prayer
London, Macmillan & Co. 1874
Schwartz, J. S. ‘G. J. Romanes’ Defence of Darwinism: The Correspondence
of Charles Darwin and his Chief Disciple’ Journal of the History of
Biology 28 (1995)
Sharpey-Shafer, E. History of Physiological Society during its first 50
years 1876-1926. Cambridge
Symondson. A. (ed) The Victorian crisis of faith: six lectures by Robert
M Young (and others) Society for promoting Christian knowledge 1970
Tanner, J. R. Historical Register of the University of Cambridge
Turner, F.M. Between Science and Religion New Haven 1974
Turner, F.M. Contesting Cultural Authority: essays in Victorian
intellectual life Cambridge,
Venn, J. Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College Vol. II
1713-1897 Cambridge, CUP 1898
Wallace, A. My life: a record of events and opinions London,
Chapman and Hall Ltd. 1905
Romanes Family History (Click Here)
Romanes Correspondence (Click Here)
Romanes Poetry and Religion (Click Here)
Romanes and Evolution of Mind (Click Here)
Romanes and Evolutionary Biology (Click Here)
Romanes & Physiological Selection
Romanes Meets His
Critics (1887) (Click Here)
Romanes, Grant Allen, Wallace & Gould (Click Here)
Romanes, Wallace & Agnes Machar
(Kingston) (Click Here)
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