Mind  [This page is under construction. Please watch your step and wear a hard hat.]

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Over a century after his death, George Romanes' psychological criteria for mind provide a starting point for modern studies, and are regularly cited. 

"The Philosopher" also made fundamental contributions to neuromuscular physiology and to evolution, as is set out below and elsewhere in these web-pages.

Romanes (contributions to psychology, metaphysics and language)

Romanes & Neuromuscular Physiology (muscle fatigue on repeated electrical stimulation)

Embryo Transfer (Romanes, Walter Heape, Cossar Ewart, "gemmules," and a hint of Mendel)

Neuronal Plasticity and Spatial Learning (genes discovered first in human lymphocytes affect brain function)


Romanes and Psychology

Animal Intelligence 1882

Mental Evolution in Animals 1884 (with a posthumous essay on instinct by Charles Darwin)

Mental Evolution in Man 1888 (A copy of this was among the books salvaged from the library of Sigmund Freud after he left Vienna, and has markings in the margin in Freud's hand.)

Excerpt from Romanes'  Animal Intelligence (1888 edition)

Now, in this mode of procedure what is the kind of activities which may be regarded as indicative of mind? I certainly do not so regard the flowing of a river or the blowing of the wind. Why?

  • First, because the objects are too remote in kind from my own organism to admit of it; and,
  • secondly, because the activities which they present are of invariably the same kind under the same circumstances; they afford no evidence of feeling or purpose.

In other words, two conditions require to be satisfied before we even begin to imagine that observable activities are indicative of mind:

  • first, the activities must be displayed by a living organism; and
  • secondly, they must be of a kind to suggest the presence of two elements which we recognize as the distinctive characteristics of mind as such—consciousness and choice.

So far, then, the case seems simple enough. Wherever we see a living organism apparently exerting intentional choice, we might infer that it is conscious choice, and therefore that the organism has a mind. But further reflection shows us that this is just what we cannot do; for although it is true that there is no mind without the power of conscious choice, it is not true that all apparent choice is due to mind. In our own organisms, for instance, we find a great many adaptive movements performed without choice or even consciousness coming into play at all—such, for instance, as in the beating of our hearts. And not only so, but physiological experiments and pathological lesions prove that in our own and in other organisms the mechanism of the nervous system is sufficient, without the intervention of consciousness, to produce muscular movements of a highly co-ordinate and apparently intentional character.

Thus, for instance, if a nervous connection between his brain and lower extremities, on pinching or tickling his feet they are drawn suddenly away from the irritation, although the man is quite unconscious of the adaptive movement of his muscles; the lower nerve-centres of the spinal cord are competent to bring about this movement of adaptive response without requiring to be directed by the brain. This non-mental operation of the lower nerve-centres in the production of apparently intentional movement is called Reflex Action, and the cases of its occurrence, even within the limits of our own organism, are literally numberless. Therefore, in view of such non-mental nervous adjustment, leading to movements which are only in appearance intentional, it clearly becomes a matter of great difficulty to say in the case of the lower animals whether any action which appears to indicate intelligent choice is not really action of the reflex kind.

On this whole subject of mind-like and yet not truly mental action I shall have much to say in my subsequent treatise, where I shall be concerned among other things with tracing the probable genesis of mind from non-mental antecedents. But here it is sufficient merely to make this general statement of the fact, that even within the experience supplied by our own organisms, adaptive movements of a highly complex, and therefore apparently purposive character, may be performed without any real purpose, or even consciousness of their performance.

It thus becomes evident that before we can predicate the bare existence of mind in the lower animals, we need some yet more definite criterion of mind than that which is supplied by the adaptive actions of a living organism, howsoever apparently intentional such actions may be. Such a criterion I have now to lay down, and I think it is one that is as practically adequate as it is theoretically legitimate.

Objectively considered, the only distinction between adaptive movements due to reflex action and adaptive movements due to mental perception, consists in the former depending on inherited mechanisms within the nervous system being so constructed as to effect particular adaptive movements in response to particular stimulations, while the latter are independent of any such inherited adjustment of special mechanisms to the exigencies of special circumstances.

Reflex actions under the influence of their appropriate stimuli may be compared to the actions of a machine under the manipulations of an operator; when certain springs of actions are touched by certain stimuli, the whole machine is thrown into appropriate movement; there is no room for choice, there is no room for uncertainty; but as surely as any of their inherited mechanisms are affected by the stimulus with reference to which it has been constructed to act, so surely will it act in precisely the same way as it always has acted.

But the case with conscious mental adjustment is quite different. For, without at present going into the question concerning the relation of body and mind, or waiting to ask whether cases of mental adjustment are not really quite as mechanical in the sense of being the necessary result or correlative of a chain of physical sequences due to a physical stimulation, it is enough to point to the variable and incalculable character of mental adjustments as distinguished from the constant and foreseeable character of reflex adjustments. All, in fact, that in an objective sense we can mean by a mental adjustment is an adjustment of a kind that has not been definitely fixed by heredity as the only adjustment possible in the given circumstances of stimulation. For were there no alternative of adjustment, the case, in an animal at least, would be indistinguishable from one of reflex action.

It is, then, adaptive action by a living organism in cases where the inherited machinery of the nervous system does not furnish data for our prevision of what the adaptive action must necessarily be—it is only here that we recognize the objective evidence of mind. The criterion of mind therefore, which I propose, and to which I shall adhere throughout the present volume, is as follows:--

Does the organism learn to make new adjustments, or to modify old ones, in accordance with the results of its own individual experience? If it does so, the fact cannot be due merely to reflex action in the sense above described, for it is impossible that heredity can have provided in advance for innovations upon, or alterations of, its machinery during the lifetime of a particular individual.

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Romanes and Metaphysics

Romanes seems to have been led to psychology as part of a life-long spiritual quest for meaning in the universe. At Cambridge (1873) he won the Burney prize, awarded by Christ's College, for his essay on "Christian Prayer considered in relation to the belief that the Almighty governs the world by general laws". This was published in 1874 with an appendix on "The Physical Efficacy of Prayer". As the anonymous "Physicus", he then wrote "A Candid Examination of Theism" (1878), where the influence of Darwinian ideas is very strong, and the conclusion is most poignant:

Creation of life on earth (left) and the stars (right) from the Museum at Salerno in Italy.
View of divine creation. At left God creates the earth and at the right God creates the stars. From the Museum at Salerno, Italy.

So far as I am individually concerned, the result of this analysis has been to show that, whether I regard the problem of Theism on the lower plane of strictly relative probability, or on the higher plane of purely formal considerations, it equally becomes my obvious duty to stifle all belief of the kind which I conceive to be the noblest, and to discipline my intellect with regard to this matter into an attitude of the purest scepticism.

    And forasmuch as I am far from being able to agree with those 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; and although from henceforth the precept to "work while it is day" will doubtless gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words that "the night cometh when no man can work", yet when at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it, -- at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible.

     For whether it be due to my intelligence not being sufficiently advanced to meet the requirements of the age, or whether it be due to the memory of those sacred associations which to me at least were the sweetest that life has given, I cannot but feel that for me, and for others who think as I do, there is a dreadful truth in those words of Hamilton, -- Philosophy having become a meditation, not merely of death, but of annihilation, the precept know thyself has become transformed into the terrific oracle to Oedipus -- "Mayest thou ne'er know the truth of what thou art.""

In 1878 Romanes was strongly tested by Thomas Huxley when asked to become a member of The Association of Liberal Thinkers, an Association designed to attack all forms of humbug in Victorian life, particularly religious "humbug." Romanes was not so sure that the time was right for discarding what Karl Marx had called "the opium of the masses." Romanes declined to join the Association in a letter dated Jan 3rd 1879. Two days later he sent a second letter explaining his views more fully, and concluding:

"Of course I have no doubt that in the long run Truth, however hideous, must prevail!"

In his incomplete and posthumous "Thoughts on Religion" (1896) there was an attempt to return, through reason, to his previous position. His eldest child "Fritz" (Ethel Georgina) was 14 when Romanes died of a brain tumour in 1894. She studied theology at Oxford and became a nun (see "The Story of an English Sister" by her mother (Ethel Romanes, 1918).

On coming down from Cambridge Romanes had worked in London with Professor John Burden Sanderson, whose later move to the Physiology Department at Oxford paved the way for Romanes' move there in 1890. Here he and his wife Ethel entertained Burden Sanderson's nephew (John Scott Haldane) and his wife (Louisa Kathleen Trotter), who became in 1892 the mother of John Burden Sanderson Haldane (the "JBS" who gave us "Haldane's Rule" in 1922). 

"Jack" (John Burdon Sanderson Haldane) circa 1900 Louisa K. Trotter (Haldane) (1863-196?), friend of George J. Romanes and mother of J. B. S. Haldane. Picture circa 1890.

Louisa Haldane provides the following memory in her "Friends and Kindred" (1961):

"The two houses which I enjoyed going to were the Dicey's and the Romanes'. My first dinner party was at the Romanes', and he was quite definately Romanes of Nigg, not an unfamiliar Oxford professor.

     I saw a good deal of him during his last illness. The excuse was that he liked to hear about some experimental work of John's and we talked at large about people and things, and on the last few visits rather tentatively about religion. He spoke very restrainedly of the many visits he had from the clergy his wife believed in. 'They mean well,' he said, but they tired him terribly, and would try to make him answer questions.

     On my last visit, he held on to my hands and said, 'Don't go, don't go,' but what can one do when a man's devoted wife almost pushes one out of the room? I am quite confident that his death-bed confession was merely the result of being too exhausted to argue. It was not meant as acquiescence to Anglican doctrines."

As for the quest for meaning, the remarks of L. C. Dunn at the beginning of his A Short History of Genetics (1965) must suffice:

"If the time-depth is shallow, so, too, in the restricted study I have in mind will be the degree of philosophical penetration. The results achieved in the development of genetics were derived from the application of experimental methods, but the question which experiment will not answer is what it all means. 

    The hope for an answer to such a question, whether expressed or lurking in the background, may be an actual handicap to investigation. We may find ourselves unready or unwilling to accept the limited, either-or kind of decision which experiment is competent to provide and thus lose the solid substance of discovery for the shadow of a larger hope. 

    It is not that I, or another who may review the development of the science of heredity, may not be interested in what it means, but rather that before we ask that ultimate question we should know what has caused it to be asked."

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Romanes and Language

   David J. Murray (Queen's University at Kingston) in his article "Language and Psychology: 19th Century Developments Outside Germany: A Survey" (Chapter 30 of History of the Language Sciences. Edited by Auroux, Koerner, Niderehe and Versteegh, in press), describes Romanes' great contribution to our understanding of the evolution of human language from more primitive animal languages. This included the coining of the word "receptual".

Further assessments of just how far Romanes was ahead of his time are given in:

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Neuromuscular Physiology

G. J. Romanes on the Excitability of Muscle

by H. J. Ralston (1944) Science 100, 123-124.
College of Dentistry and Medicine, University of California

All students of evolutionary theory are familiar with the fundamental contributions of George John Romanes in that field, but it is to be regretted that his physiological studies are not nearly so well known. Inasmuch as the elucidation of the electrical and chemical factors underlying muscle fatigue is a most important objective of research in neuromuscular physiology, Romanes' work along this line should be recalled.

    In a letter to Charles Darwin dated August 13th 1877, Romanes says:

I am very glad you have drawn to my attention prominently to the localizing function in Drosera, as it is very likely I have been too keen in my scent after nerves; and I believe it is chiefly by comparing lines of work that in such novel phenomena truth is to be got at.

    And this reminds me of an observation which I think ought to be made on some of the excitable plants. It is a fact not generally known, even to professed physiologists, that if you pass a constant current through an excised muscle two or three times successively in the same direction, the responses to make and break become much more feeble than at first, so that unless you begin with a strong current for the first of the series, you have to strengthen it for the third or fourth of the series in order to procure a contraction.

    But on now reversing the direction of the current, the muscle is tremendously excitable for the first stimulation, less so for the second, and so on. Now this rapidly exhausting effect of passing the current successively in the same direction, and the wonderful effect of reversing it, point, I believe, to something very fundamental in the constitution of muscular tissue. The complementary effects in question are quite as decided in the jelly-fish as in the frog's muscle; so I think it would be very interesting to try the experiment on the contractile tissues of plants.

    The discovery of the above reported phenomenon is generally credited to Gulacsy, who reported it in 1929. When one considers that Romanes also first observed, in the umbrella of the jelly fish, what is now known as fibrillation, it would seem appropriate to take cognizance of his important physiological research by attaching his name to one of these phenomena. It is therefore suggested that the recovery of excitability of tissue upon reversal of polarity of a stimulating current be called the "Romanes effect".

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Embryo Transfer

On 27th April 1890, Walter Heape (1855-1928) successfully transferred rabbit embryos from one mother to another, thus performing what we believe was the first mammalian embryo transfer. He thus achieved what Romanes had attempted but failed to do; namely, to demonstrate that, at least during the period of embryogenesis, the postulated "gemmules" or "pangens" of genetic information postulated by Darwin, could not be transferred from the mother to the foetus. The new born rabbits had all the characters of the biological parent. However, while Heape asked "What effect, if any, does a uterine foster-mother have upon her foster-children?", he made no claim to be testing Darwin's hypothesis.

     Biggers (1991) suggests that "Romanes abandoned his ovarian transplantation and embryo transfer studies when he became convinced, somewhat surprisingly, that, when two breeds of rabbit hybridize, no intermediate between the two parental forms are produced." In theory, at least some of Darwin's "gemmules" should have transferred between the two parental genomes to produce intermediate types. Thus, in his own way, Romanes had rediscovered some of what Naudin and Mendel had discovered in the 1860s. 

     Romanes did not easily give up on the possibility of "gemmule" transfer, which might explain the acquisition of acquired properties (Lamarkism). Shortly before his premature death in 1894 he wrote to Sharpey-Shafer (May 18th) who had reported some success in transfer experiments:

"I have found, after several years experimenting with rats, rabbits and [  ], that one may breed scores and hundreds of first crosses between different varieties, and never get a single mongrel throwing off intermediate characters - or indeed any resemblance to one side of the house. Yet, if the younger are subsequently crossed inter se (i.e. brothers and sisters, of first crossings) the crossed parentage at once repeats itself. Ergo, even if the pups wh. are born appear to give a negative result, keep them to breed from with one another." 

Unknown to Romanes (although he had cited Mendel in a review for the Encyclopedia Britannica), this is what Mendel reported with pea crosses in 1865. 

    Much like Romanes, Walter Heape was independently wealthy and was educated by private tutor. He was interested in the application of scientific knowledge to human welfare, but appreciated how inadequate was the knowledge base. He supervised the construction of the Plymouth Laboratory under the auspices of the Marine Biological Association to serve the fishing industry. At Cambridge, he was a student of Foster, and here he probably first encountered William Bateson. At a critical point, he was appointed to the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society of London. Here, the knives were out between Bateson and the "Biometricians" (including Weldon). The Committee ended in backing Bateson. Heape's work was confirmed by Castle & Phillips (1909)with guinea pigs.

       A related issue was whether prior fertilization by one male could be evident in the offspring of fertilization by another male ("telogony"). Thus, a woman might have, by a second husband, children who resembled a former husband. The "gemmules" of the former husband would have persisted long enough to influence later children. This was investigated by another member of the Evolution Committee, J. Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), who had collaborated in research with Romanes in Scotland in the 1870s, and had been supported by Romanes in seeking (and obtaining) the Chair of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. He prompted Lord Rosebery to sponsor a series of lectures by Romanes in 1888 on "The Philosophy of Natural History," which formed the basis of the latter's three volume series Darwin, And After Darwin.

Biggers, J. D. (1991) Walter Heape, FRS: a pioneer in reproductive biology. Centenary of his embryo transfer experiments. J. Reprod. Fert. 93, 173-186.

Castle, W. E. & Phillips, J. C. (1909) A successful ovarian transplantation in the guinea-pig and its bearing on problems in genetics. Science 30, 312-313.

Romanes, G. J. (1894) Sharpey-Shafer correspondence. Welcome History of Medicine Museum, London.

Acknowledgement. Dr. K. J. Betteridge provided helpful information on Heape and Ewart.

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Neuronal Plasticity.

While we can study, say, the liver, of experimental animals and obtain results which bear on human liver function, this is less likely when studying the brain. As Romanes argued, the human brain shares many features with those of animals. But the brain is special; it is the organ, par excellence, defining the human animal. If a giraffe were having problems with its neck, we could study the human neck instead, but it would be a poor substitute for studying the giraffe neck.

   Cells of different tissues use similar signaling mechanisms. Sometimes it is easier to study one tissue rather than another. A gene recognized in 1985 as playing a role in the activation of human lymphocytes, G0S30 (now commonly referred to as EGR1 or ZIF268), is involved in synaptic activation, spatial learning, and "reconsolidation" after memory recall, centred on the hippocampus. Similarly, G0S8/RGS2 (Click Here) is now recognized as playing a major role in neuronal plasticity and in synaptic development in hippocampal CA1 neurons. Its inactivation predisposes to anxiety and male aggression. G0S3/FOSB when ablated causes behavioural problems in mice.

Thus, targeting lymphocyte function, rather than brain function, produced results relevant to both tissues.

    This human tissue, lymphoid tissue, can be readily obtained, live and functioning, from a sample of blood from a normal or sick person. It is not so easy to obtain live and functioning human neural tissue for research! Sadly, enforcing (through funding priorities) strict relevance to brain function may be slowing down progress in brain research, and hence in our understanding of diseases that affect the brain.(Click Here)

Fordyce, D. E. et al. (1994) Genetic and activity-dependent regulation of ZIF268 expression: association with spatial learning. Hippocampus 4, 559-568.

Ingi, T., Krumins, A.M., Chidiac, P., Brothers, G.M., Chung, S., Snow, B.E., Barnes, C.A., Lanahan, A.A., Siderovski, D.P., Ross, E.M., Gilman, A.G. and Worley, P.F. (1998). Dynamic regulation of RGS2 suggests a novel mechanism in G-protein signaling and neuronal plasticity. J. Neurosci., 18, 7178-7188. (Click Here for more on RGS proteins)

Lee, J. L. C. et al., (2004). Independent cellular processes for hippocampal memory consolidation and reconsolidation. Science, 304, 839-843.

Oliveira-dos-Santos, A. J., Matsumoto, G., Snow, B.E., Bai, D., Houston, F.P., Whishaw, I.Q., Mariathasan, S., Sasaki, T., Wakeham, A., Ohashi, P.S., Roder, J.C., Barnes, C.A., Siderovski, D.P. & Penninger, J.M. (2000). Regulation of T cell activation, anxiety, and male aggression by RGS2. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 97, 12272-12277.

Wei et al. (2000) Role of EGR1 in hippocampal synaptic enhancement induced by tetanic stimulation and amputation. J. Cell Biol. 149, 1325-1333.

Worley, P,F. et al. (1991) Constitutive expression of ZIF268 in neocortex is regulated by synaptic activity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 88, 5106-5110.

Worley, P. F. et al. (1993) Thresholds for synaptic activation of transcription factors in hippocampus: correlation with long-term enhancement. J. Neurosci. 13, 4776-4786.

Romanes' Contributions to Psychology (Tuft's University) (Click Here)

Romanes' Genealogy (Click Here)

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