BOOK REVIEW                  


Joel S. Schwartz. Darwin's Disciple: George John Romanes, A Life in Letters.

xxi + 806 pp., illus., app., bibl., index. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2010. $60.00 (paper)


Donald R. Forsdyke (2011) Isis 102, 579-580


[I prepared this review in August 2010 and enquired whether Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, would be interested. The journal informed me that it did not usually accept self-nominations, but in December there came a formal invitation. Isis publishes numerous book reviews, the length of which is at the discretion of the Book Review Editor. The present review (below) submitted in December 2010 was, with my permission, shortened by the Editor, Ernst Hamm, from circa 1170 words, down to 690 words. Readers who consult the published version will see that, save for the Romanes-Newton-Bateson relationship, he has skillfully captured the essence of my initial review, while eliminating some of the barbs. DRF Oct 2011]



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Born in Kingston, Canada, in the block where I have long resided, George John Romanes (1848-1894) was Charles Darwin’s research associate for the last eight years of his life (1809-1882). Apart from the Darwin family, Romanes probably had more opportunity than any other to discuss evolution with the master. Their extensive written correspondence is central to this volume. Many of the letters are in Ethel Romanes’ 1896 biography of her husband that ran to several editions, and in the 1932 biography of John T. Gulick by his biochemist son, Addison.


The thinking of Romanes and Gulick, an American missionary in Hawaii, on the importance for branching evolution of some form of isolation between groups within a species, converged in the 1880s. They supported each other against the attacks of the Darwinians, especially of Alfred Wallace. There were many decoys and the cogency of their arguments was for long unrecognized.


In her first edition, Ethel Romanes regretted that she had been unable to access the Gulick correspondence. Schwartz notes that this later became available to her, but was not included in subsequent editions. Yet some late-arriving materials (e.g. correspondence with T. H. Huxley) were included, and others present initially (e.g. correspondence with the Director of Kew Gardens, written when Romanes should have been celebrating Christmas) were removed. There may have been space restrictions or, as Schwartz speculates, the omissions may relate to the religiously orthodox Ethel’s desire to give the impression that her agnostic husband had had a deathbed conversion. The correspondence with Gulick included discussion of religion. Since The Times had described her husband as one upon whom “the mantle of Mr. Darwin has most conspicuously descended,” Romanes’ religious viewpoint would have been of much interest.


In view of these doubts, Schwartz inspected archived sources to determine to what extent hand-written letters had been accurately transcribed. Having corresponded with Schwartz for several years I know this is something he delights in. Indeed, his skills at deciphering sometimes hastily scribbled notes are currently being put to good use in the Darwin Manuscript Project at the American Museum of Natural History. He concluded that Ethel’s “emendations were not particularly significant on balance.” Schwartz is not a typical biographer in that he depends on archived sources and does not interview relatives who might provide more. Thus he missed the cache of letters that Romanes’ grand-daughter deposited in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 2009 – too late to be consulted.


Although he has long been a Professor of Biology at the City University of New York, Schwartz’s strengths appear more historical than scientific. The index will please historians, but will frustrate scientists (e.g. those looking for terms such as “blending inheritance”). It was from his historical podium that Schwartz described my scientific biography of Romanes (2001) as containing “shaky history.” He was kinder when reviewing my biography (with Alan Cock) of William Bateson (2008), which updated the Romanes story.


Since my strength is scientific rather than historical, perhaps I may be allowed to attach the “shaky” epithet to Schwartz’s science. For example, central to Romanes’ case was the fact of blending inheritance. Schwartz states that “modern genetic theory illustrates why blending inheritance was not possible.” This is usually true when characters are determined by single genes. But, as was appreciated by Gregor Mendel, Francis Galton, William Bateson and Ronald Fisher, many characters are determined by multiple genes. For example the height character can depend on genes controlling the lengths of individual bones (femur, vertebrae, etc.). Blending inheritance is well-established. Since some “card-carrying” scientists still seem unaware of this, Schwartz can be excused.


Similarly we can excuse Schwartz’s opening salvo declaring, on the authority of various biohistorians (e.g. Peter Bowler and Ernst Mayr), that Romanes was often “rather confused,” made “mistakes in reasoning,” and had “failures” and “errors.” While we can agree that, for too long, Romanes allowed himself to be influenced by Darwin’s Lamarckist viewpoint, recent studies suggest that Romanes was far ahead of his contemporaries (with the exception of Samuel Butler). Schwartz acknowledges as incorrect Mayr’s 1982 assertion that Romanes had “made no clear separation between geographical and reproductive isolation,” and welcomes Mayr’s later appreciation that Romanes “saw the importance of mutual infertility” in promoting sympatric speciation. However, Schwartz “concurs with Mayr’s analysis” that Romanes reached his conclusions “more or less intuitively,” rather than by the exercise of his powerful intellect. More likely, it was Mayr who was “rather confused” and so could not discern a logical path to Romanes’ conclusions.


Schwartz has “presented the letters as they were originally written,” trying “not to change punctuation, spacing, abbreviations,” nor to “correct minor grammatical errors.” This creates a problem for reviewers who wish to know whether Schwartz himself transcribed accurately. In the course of my Romanes studies I covered much of Schwartz’s territory. I recall sitting up abruptly in the Wellcome Archives on coming across a letter from Romanes to Schäfer. At least six years before the emergence of Mendel’s work, Romanes had appreciated the importance of brother-sister matings. I carefully copied the letter, but one word defeated me and I left a space. Not so Schwartz, whose gimlet eye discerned “etc.”.


There are fine photographs. One, from an unacknowledged source, is labeled “George John Romanes as a boy.” However, the Romanes’ relative who provided me with a photograph of the portrait in her possession identified it as of Romanes’ son – Edmund Giles – painted circa 1910. It is so named on my web-pages. And there is Romanes’ dispute with Alfred Wallace. Apart from the fact that the Darwin family was not involved, we are told that Wallace would not reveal to Romanes the mysterious source of two of Romanes’ private letters to Darwin on spiritualism. The documentation that this source was a lady in the city of Romanes’ birth seems to have been overlooked by Schwartz, who dismisses Romanes’ allowance of “his personal feelings to influence” his dispute with Wallace, as a “rare instance.” This distracts attention from Romanes’ venomous attacks on Samuel Butler, egged on by Charles Darwin. And it would be interesting to know whether it was the Romanes-Newton dispute over cuckoo’s eggs that led Romanes to warn Gulick that Alfred Newton (a mentor of William Bateson) “hates me with a deadly hate.” This bears on the perplexing question as to why Bateson did not acknowledge that he was Romanes’ “bulldog,” as well as Mendel’s.


My pickiness aside, this is a most valuable compilation of the correspondence of a leading Victorian bioscientist that will greatly assist scholars. We are all – both historians and scientists – much in debt to Joel Schwartz for his careful study over many years, and to the American Philosophical Society for its enlightened publication policy. Those who continue to dismiss Darwin’s disciple (and his own closet disciple, William Bateson) will no longer have inaccessibility as an excuse for their inattention.   




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This page was established by Donald Forsdyke in December 2010 and was last edited 26 Oct 2011