ALLEN, GEORGE ROMANES, STEPHEN JAY GOULD AND THE EVOLUTION ESTABLISHMENTS OF
AND WHO WAS THE KINGSTON LADY?
By Donald R. Forsdyke
Kingston (2004) 52,
With the permission of the Kingston Historical Society
Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (“Grant”), and George John Romanes (‘The Philosopher”) were both born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1848 – Allen probably in Alwington House (Fig. 1) and Romanes probably in part of what was then Queen’s College (now 207 William Street; Fig. 2)(1). Both were sons of clergymen who were also professors at the College; both spent most of their lives in England where they went to major universities – Allen to Oxford, Romanes to Cambridge; both were passionately interested in biology and became disciples of major evolutionary biologists – Allen of Herbert Spencer, Romanes of Charles Darwin; and both struggled to escape the religious orthodoxy of their childhoods and became defenders of Darwin’s evolutionary views against the attacks of those we would now call “creationists.” A major difference was that Allen, like Spencer, made his living by writing, whereas Romanes, like Darwin, was wealthy. Thus, Allen wrote popular works of science and novels, whereas Romanes wrote scientific papers and books and, in 1874, became Darwin’s research associate.
A Kingston Boyhood
George John Romanes left Kingston at the age of two. His father, George Romanes, a Presbyterian minister, Professor of Classics, and librarian at the College, inherited “a considerable fortune” and took the family back to Europe, eventually settling in London. Until his death in 1871, Romanes’ father maintained contact with the College and donated books to its library. On the other hand, Grant Allen had a Kingston boyhood. The Thousand Islands, Howe Island and Wolfe Island, where his father was at the Holy Trinity Church, left him with happy recollections of a region where “sweeter flowers blow … than anywhere else on this prosaic planet; bigger fish lurk among the crevices; bluer birds flit between the honeysuckle; and livelier squirrels gambol upon the hickory trees than in any other cases of this oblate spheroid.”
Whereas Romanes’ father left Queen’s College voluntarily, Joseph Antisell Allen was forced out by an angry Board of Trustees following letters in The Daily News (16 and 24 November 1866) advocating a political union between Canada and the United States (2). Thus, at the age of thirteen Grant Allen found himself in the United States. After a period in France, and at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, a scholarship took him to Merton College, Oxford, in 1867. There, with the help of some income from tutoring, he graduated in 1871. After the early death of his first wife, he married Ellen (“Nellie”) Jerrard in 1873 and taught in Jamaica until 1876 when they returned to England. From then on, his fascination for biology was tempered by the need to write to earn a living. The Kingston Public Library has a fine collection of the many works that flowed from his active pen in the years up to his death in 1899.
I do not known when Allen (Fig. 3) first met Romanes, but the forward to Allen’s book, The Colour Sense: Its Origin and Development (1879), acknowledges Romanes’ friendship. Regarding evolution, Allen tended not to challenge the conventional Darwinian wisdom – and this served him well. Darwin, with the support of Romanes, contributed to a fund to buy him a microscope. In 1888 Allen coauthored a popular review, A Half Century of Science, with T. H. Huxley. However, Allen was no establishment lackey. It is likely that he just did not have the time or opportunity to study Darwinism to the same extent as Romanes.
A Free Spirit
Although there were financial deprivations, Allen seems to have had a good education. Romanes, on the other hand, was a free spirit. He appears to have had little in the way of formal education until his mother hired a private tutor to assist his entry into Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1867. Here his interests soon turned from religion to medicine, and then to biology. He came under the influence of Michael Foster who was then establishing the new Cambridge School of Physiology. After graduating in 1871 Romanes worked in Cambridge until 1874 when he returned to London. There he used laboratory facilities at University College, and he also had his own “marine laboratory” at his summer retreat in Scotland.
At this time Romanes met Darwin, who was well aware of the major inconsistencies in his 1859 theory of the origin of species by “natural selection” that had been independently conceived by Alfred Wallace. With possible exception of his immediate family (e.g. his son Francis who was about Romanes' age), over the next eight years Darwin probably spent more time discussing these inconsistencies with Romanes than with anyone else. Under Darwin’s guidance, Romanes carried out experiments on animals to test whether acquired characters (e.g. muscles in a blacksmith) could be passed on to children. Darwin made it clear that, after his death, he wished Romanes (Fig. 4) to continue both the experimental and theoretical aspects of his work.
rise was, as they say, meteoric. He produced important scientific
papers, he spoke eloquently at scientific meetings, and he knew all the
"OK" people. In 1875 he was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society and from
1876 until 1881 he was the first Secretary of the newly formed
Physiology Society. In 1879, at the age of 31, he was elected a Fellow of
the Royal Society and he married Ethel Duncan. Their house at 18
Cornwall Terrace, close to Regent’s Park, must have been somewhat like
that in the TV series, Upstairs-Downstairs,
except that each day, Romanes went off to his laboratory or up to his
study, rather than to the Houses of Parliament. Here the couple are likely to
have entertained everyone who was anyone, and to have been duly
entertained in turn. Through the Physiology Society, Romanes met Mr. G.
H. Lewes and his “partner” George Eliot. Romanes was one of the
favoured few who joined the charmed circle at The Priory on Sunday
afternoons, and here he once got into a biblical quoting match with the
famous author of Middlemarch
He became generally known as “The Philosopher.”
In 1886, four years after Darwin’s death, the thirty eight year old Romanes presented to the Linnean Society a theory of the origin of species by “physiological selection”. Challenging the conventional Darwinian wisdom, Romanes claimed to have resolved the inconsistencies in Darwin’s theory. However, he invoked abstract elements (e.g. “a peculiarity of the reproductive system”), which were incomprehensible to his Victorian contemporaries (3). He was strongly attacked by the elder statesmen of science, including Wallace, and T. H. Huxley. Then, as now, such establishment criticism could mean difficulty gaining publication in the most prominent journals. Then, as now, failure to publish could hamper one’s professional advancement. Thus, then, as now, to fail to follow the establishment line was to commit academic suicide.
However, Romanes had achieved a momentum that peer review could not block. Norman Lockyer, the editor of the most prestigious journal of all, Nature, was “a close friend” who sometimes stayed with the family during their summer sojourn in Scotland (4). Romanes’ new theory was published both in the Journal of the Linnean Society, and in Nature. There was also a leading editorial in The Times hailing Romanes as “the biological investigator upon whom in England the mantle of Mr. Darwin has most conspicuously descended.” No one could claim not to have noticed the new theory, so silence would be interpreted as acquiescence.
In contrast, the work of Gregor Mendel, founder of the science of Genetics, lay apparently unnoticed from 1865 until 1900 when members of the scientific establishment were forced to take sides. In both cases, the ensuing battles were protracted. The supporters of Mendel won (5). Romanes lost, at least in the short term. Here there is another Kingston connection.
In 1876 the twenty-eight-year-old Romanes and his elder brother had been duped by a spiritualist and there was some correspondence with Darwin who disparaged their credulity. Alfred Wallace, on the other hand, had become a major advocate, and his books including The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (1866) and Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1874) were selling well on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1880, Romanes became openly critical of Wallace’s spiritualism. Romanes’ elder brother was fourteen when the family left Kingston in 1850, and he sent the 1876 correspondence with Darwin to an old Kingston friend. At that time, spiritualism was thriving in Kingston providing both emotional comfort to those who wished to communicate with departed loved ones, and financial comfort to those who could arrange it. This is splendidly depicted in a recent play by Laurie Fyffe (6).
Early in 1887 Wallace went on a lecture tour to North America (7). Here he found “among the visitors to Washington was the Rev. J. A. Allen, of Kingston, Canada (the father of our Grant Allen), who, with his wife and two daughters, was living in an apartment nearly opposite my hotel.” Wallace was to stay with them on his later visit to Kingston, where he was also to take tea when the trilliums were in flower at Sir Richard Cartwright’s “fine country house in a spacious park, a few miles in the country.” Thus, it came about that one March day, Wallace was met at Kingston station by Principal Grant and driven in a sleigh to Queen’s College where he gave an evening lecture on “Darwinism.”
later used the material to attack Romanes. His sour private letters to
Romanes were later published. He threatened to make “known the fact of
the existence of these letters and their general tenor.” This would
show that Romanes’ private judgements were not in accord with his
public posture of scepticism with respect to spiritualism. In short,
Romanes was a hypocrit. In the face of establishment criticism, Romanes
gained few supporters and his ideas seemed to disappear from view after
he died of what was probably a brain tumour in 1894 at the age of
forty-six. The identity of the Kingston lady who unknowingly contributed
to the demise of Romanes’ ideas is unknown. But it is possible that
the letters are still in the possession of some Kingston family.
Romanes’ ideas, however, were periodically (and unknowingly) resurrected by later evolutionists included the English biologist William Bateson (1861-1926) and, in the USA, Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958). The latter’s ideas were, in turn, disinterred by Stephen Jay Gould (Fig. 5). Born in New York in 1941, Gould graduated from Antioch College, Ohio, in Geology in 1963, and obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University in Paleontology in 1967. His long and illustrious career at Harvard led to his becoming North America’s “most famous evolutionist.”
There are intriguing parallels between the careers of the two nineteenth century Kingstonians and the twentieth century Gould. The parallels between Romanes and Gould are particularly striking. Both had influential mentors – Darwin in the case of Romanes, Ernst Mayr in the case of Gould; both wrote for the general public as well as for scientists; both fought the creationists; both were financially independent to the extent that Romanes inherited great wealth and the tenured Gould supplemented his Harvard salary by popular writing; both argued for what we would now call a “non-genic” hierarchical view of biological evolution; both were subject to vituperative attacks by the “genic” establishments of their days – Wallace and Huxley in the case of Romanes, Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith in the case of Gould; both, in the short term, outmanoeuvred their respective establishments achieving a momentum that peer-review could not block; both were attacked by cancer in their forties – Gould, with the benefit of modern therapies, surviving until the age of sixty-one, Romanes dieing much sooner.
What is the current status of their view of evolution? Various genome projects have spewn a deluge of data that computers are helping us to understand. Remarkably, these bioinformatic analyses have led to a new reinterpretation of Darwin’s theory suggesting that, in its broad outlines, Romanes’ physiological selection theory was correct (8).
The New Lysenkoism?
In marketing, simple messages work. The same applies to the marketing of scientific ideas. This means that subtle scientific ideas tend to lose out to simple scientific ideas, and subtle scientists lose out to the unsubtle. In extreme form, this losing out can imply not just academic suicide, but imprisonment and death, as in the case of the scientists incarcerated in Stalin’s gulags at the behest of Lysenko (9).
Darwin’s theory served the important purpose of countermanding the attack of the creationists, but Darwin recognized its many inconsistencies. However, the Darwinian fundamentalists seized upon his simple message (natural selection) with a momentum that has carried them through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The debate has been far from objective. A recent attack on Gould is illustrative. In 1995 John Maynard Smith, the “Dean of British ultra-Darwinians” wrote (10):
Some evolutionists in the United States were less restrained (11):
Yes, Gould was confused, but his reading of the nineteenth century masters of evolutionary biology was deep, and he sensed that there was something profoundly wrong about the “modern synthesis” trumpeted by his critics. It seems not to have occurred to those critics that if it turns out that Gould (like Romanes before him) had, in fact, provided “reliable guidance,” then it will be their “steady misrepresentation” that will have negatively impacted human welfare (12). For further parallels between major figures in biology across the last two centuries, see Table 1 (13).
(Paper presented to the Kingston Historical Society 15th
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This page was first posted here in April 2004, and last edited 30 Aug 2004 by D. R. Forsdyke