George John Romanes
Researched and written by:  Alicia Heather Marcum
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work.

Early Family Background:

           The first ancestor reported to be related to George Romanes was Hugh Rolmanus, from Berwickshire, Scotland in 1539. In 1619 the name appears as Rolmanhous and in 1778 the name had evolved to Romanes.  In 1778 James Romanes married Margaret Carrick.  James became a merchant in Edinburgh, where he started a small draper’s shop, which became very successful.  The business “Romanes and Peterson” is still a thriving establishment catering to tourists from many countries around the world.
          James and Margaret had 12 children, but most of them died very young.  One of the surviving children was George John Romanes, who was born in 1807 in Smith Falls Ontario.  He attended Royal High School in Edinburgh and attended college at Edinburgh University where he studied theology, graduating in 1826.  George Romanes became a minister and married Isabella Gair Smith in Beckwith Ontario on August 12, 1835.  A year later Isabella gave birth to one of their five children.


           George John Romanes was born on May 23, 1848 in Kingston, Ontario Canada.  George was the fourth child out of five.  James Romanes, his oldest brother was born on August 4, 1836 in Smith Falls Ontario.  He married Margaret Wardrop in 1896 and died childless in Scotland on December 16, 1901.  Robert Romanes, George’s second oldest brother was born on December 29, 1838 in Smith Falls, Ontario and died at a very young age.  The third child was born on October 17, 1842 in Smith Falls, Ontario and died unmarried in England in 1878.  Georges younger sister Charlotte Elizabeth Romanes was born in England and died unmarried in Scotland on January 17,1911.
          Soon after George’s birth he was baptized into the families religion at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on June 13,1848.  At the age of two his parents moved to Britain and he never returned to Canada again.  George’s father inherited a family fortune in 1850 and resigned from Queen’s College to return to Britain where he purchased a house at 18 Cornwall Terrace, Regents Park, London, England.
          George Romanes had a carefree, happy upbringing between continental visits to London and Ross-Shire in the summers, and his family had become a general Christian family.  As a boy George had attended a prepatory school in London, but after an attack of the measles he had to continue his education at home.  By the age of 17 Romanes had little formal education and his parents sent him to a tutor to prepare him for college entrance to Brasenose College in Oxford.  George spent months in Heidelberg and other German towns where he was frequently visited by his family and found his passion for music and poetry.  George also spent summers in Ross-Shire, Scotland where he felt it was his second home.
          George had thoughts of following in his fathers foot steps in becoming a minister or taking on holy orders in the Anglican church, but Charales Edmund Lister helped change his view.  Charales was a good friend of Romanes who went to Cambridge and persuaded George to follow.  In October of 1867 George entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.


          George’s father died on January 19, 1871 right before he enter college in Cambridge.  His mother Isabella soon followed his father’s death only 12 years later and died on January 2, 1883. When George entered college in Cambridge his interests changed to natural sciences.  George competed and won a scholarship, taking honors in the Natural Science Tripos of 1870.  Romanes quickly dropped his ideas of holy orders and began to study medicine and physiology.  Typhoid fever struck Romanes in the spring of 1872 and this was when he wrote his successful Burney Prize Essay (1873) on “Christian Prayer and General Laws.”  A letter entitled “Nature” caught Darwin’s attention, who quickly responded with a friendly note back to Romanes.  This began their lifelong friendship and an exchange of many other letters.  George and Darwin became intimate friends in which Darwin eventually gave Romanes his notebooks on animal behavior.   Many of Romanes and Darwin’s letters are published in “The Life and Letters of George John Romanes” by his wife Ethel Romanes, written after his death and published in 1896.
          George married Ethel, the only daughter of Andrew Duncan Esq of Liverpool on February 11,1879.  For 11 years George and his wife lived in his childhood home on Cornwell Terrace, which he inherited from his father.  George and his wife lived his last four years of winter at Oxford and in London, but spent summers and early autumn in Ross-Shire, where for eight years (1882-1890) he rented a house called “Geanies”, which belonged to a cousin Captain Kenneth Murray of the 81st Regiment.  The “Geanies” is where George began to write his poetry.  During his summers on the seacoast George built a private laboratory equipped like a university where he did a lot of his research.
          Romanes was fairly wealthy through out his whole life and he did not have to worry about earning a living.  The only part-time job Romanes ever held was at University College in London where he did “research on nervous and locomotor systems of medusae and echinoderms, which showed parallelism in development of mental faculties of animals and man” (  The last 20 years of Romanes life was devoted to the study of invertebrate physiology.  
          George and Ethel had two children a boy and girl.  Their first child was Ethel Georgina Romanes, who was born on February 19,1880.  She became an Anglican Nun, and died childless on August 26, 1914 of lung cancer.  Their second child was George Ernest Romanes, born in 1882.  He married Mina Alexandra Scott in 1905 in Cromarty, and died in 1910, he was survived by children.  In 1885 George had his first warning of illness, which eventually incapacitated him and cut his career and work short.  George died on May 23,1894 of a brain tumor and was buried at Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.  Ethel Romanes died on March 30,1927 in Italy.

Professional Accomplishments:

What is Animal Psychology?
           Extreme reactions
           Animals are not machines
           They are motivated, goal oriented, and have feelings
          Anthropomorphism:  giving human qualities to animals
          Anecdotal Method: the use of observational reports about animal behavior
          Introspection by Analogy: A technique for studying animal behavior by assuming that the same           mental process that occurs in the observer’s mind also occurs in the animals mind  
          George Romanes was the first scientist in the field of animal psychology.  Darwin chose Romanes to carry on the aspect of his work, applying the theory of evolution to the mind as Darwin applied it to the body.  

Time Line Of Writings:

           I. Animal Intelligence (1881)
           II. Mental Evolution in Animals (1883)
           III. Physiological Selection: An Additional Suggestion on the Origin of Species (1886)
           IV. Mental Evolution in Man (1888)
                    - This applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to the development of the mind in man
           V. Darwin and after Darwin (1890)
                     - This argued for the role of isolation in evolution

A Look at some of Romanes Books and Theory:

Animal Intelligence: (1881)
          Was the first book on comparative psychology, where animals and humans were compared.  Romanes wanted to promote animal intelligence as similar to humans.  Romanes derived his findings on animal intelligence from anecdotal observations whose reports came from uncritical and untrained observers.  Findings also came through the technique of introspection by analogy.  Romanes collected data on behavior of protozoa, ants, spiders, reptiles, fish, birds, elephants, monkeys, and domestic animals.  Insects received the most coverage in this book, there are almost 200 pages on insects.  His purpose was to show higher levels of animal intelligence and the similarities they had to human intellectual functioning, through illustrating the continuity in mental development.  George wanted to show that there was “no difference” between the acts of reasons performed by a crab and the acts of reason performed by a human.  This is when Romanes developed what he called the “mental ladder”, which he showed various animal aspects in the order of their degree of mental functioning.  George Romanes found that the nervous system of a jellyfish acted as a network of connected units.  If a jellyfish was poked in an area it would tighten up or contract around the prodded area, this form of discovery was later revealed as the synapse.

Species                                                                                       Levels of Intellectual Development
Apes, Dogs                                                                           Indefinite Morality
Monkeys, Elephant                                                               Use of tools
Birds                                                                                     Recognition of pictures, understanding of words
Bee, Wasps                                                                          Communication of ideas
Reptiles                                                                                 Recognition of persons
Lobsters, Crabs                                                                     Reasons
Fish                                                                                      Association by similarity
Snails, Squids                                                                       Association by contiguity
Starfish, Sea Urchins                                                            Memory
Jellyfish, Sea Anemones                                                       Consciousness, pleasure, pain

Mental Evolution in Animals: (1893)

          This was George Romanes final book and it was an attempt to relate animal instinct and animal intelligence to evolution.  One questioned discussed was whether or not a learned skill can be inherited.  Romanes theory was that if an animal did an intelligent act, then the desire to repeat this skill could be passed on.


          George Romanes first demonstrated that animals could show intelligence in Animal Intelligence.  Then Romanes tried to show that an animal that acts more advanced and humanlike were higher on the evolutionary scale.  Finally, he argued that language could have appeared naturally, by natural selection.
          Romanes began to do his studies on the basis of hybrid sterility.  He published Physiological Selection: An Additional Suggestion on the Origin of Species.  He explained that it was obvious that reproductive isolation was more likely to depend on the differences in chromosomal information than in the genetic information.  Romanes also believed there were barriers between species, which protected them from infectious diseases; the two types are internal and external.  External barriers are hygienic measures and internal barriers are each organism’s immune response.  
          Romanes helped clear up some problems faced with Darwin’s theories.  He was able to clear up the ideas on physiological selection.  One of the most significant barriers between closely related species would be the sterility barrier.  George Romanes used the example of height and eye color and how on one knew what caused the different or same variations.  Romanes explained that a variation could happen and would make some organisms more sterile with other members of the species, but may not affect the somatic characteristics.  This showed that from generation to generation the cross of generations would result in a less fertile relationship.  George Romanes pointed out that successful variations seemed rare, but possible.  This type of evolution was call polytypic.

Final Words and Criticisms:

         George Romanes is often criticized because of his fine lines between the fact and subjective interpretation of his data.  Scientists also criticized Romanes’ deficiencies in his data and research.  Scientists do not favor his type of methods used to study and collect data, such as the anecdotal method, which observations could have been careless or biased and introspection by analogy because the technique was eventually discarded.  Even though Romanes work does not match with modern science, Romanes is respected for his pioneering efforts in helping and stimulating the development of comparative psychology and helping to prepare the path for experimental studies of animal behavior.  It was George Romanes who first leaped into the giant step of observational stages of comparative psychology.


          Abbott, C.  (2002).  Psychology History: George Romanes, 1-3.

          Cook, R.  (2002).  Examples of a rather fanciful anecdote from Romanes’ book, 1-2.

         Cook, R.  (2002).  Romanes on the Psychological Criteria for Mind, 1-4.

         Ringereide, M.  (1979).  Romanes-Father and Son, 1-39.

        Shultz, D., & Shultz, S.  (2000).  A History of Modern Psychology (7th ed.).  Philadelphia:  Harcourt College Publishers.

        Wozniak, R., & College, B.  (2002).  Classics in Psychology, George John Romanes: Mental Evolution in Man, 1-4.



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