February 23, 2010

Historical Heroes: George Romanes, 1848-94

Now here’s an all round good egg. Romanes embodied that great Victorian dilemma: what to do about religion in the face of all this science? Here’s the standard biography: independently wealthy, he was raised without scholarly rigour and was destined for holy orders. Then he read Darwin and his world turned upside down. In public, Romanes backed Darwin to the hilt, but secretly always wrestled with the possibility of God. Revelling in the elegant truth of natural selection, Romanes nevertheless thought that the theory robbed nature of its ‘soul of loveliness’. He dedicated his life to science – physiology and psychology chiefly – but could not rid himself of the anxiety that it was all pointless. Juggling materialism, agnosticism and monism, Romanes eventually returned to the church. It wasn’t the betrayal of his life’s work so much as it was the taking of Pascal’s Wager. He was dying, in his forties, of a tumour on the brain.

Now, the spiritual ‘better safe than sorry’ approach might seem to lack conviction. Yet a more nuanced narrative would depict a life defined by conviction, even if Romanes himself was never sure quite how to describe the horse he was backing. Once convinced of Darwinism, he was fiercely loyal to his mentor, and never publicly wavered from the theory of Natural Selection. But he was not blindly uncritical or slavishly sycophantic. He wrestled with the immaterial, knowing that Darwinism had not disproved the existence of ‘God’ (the label was merely convenient). True agnosticism, he thought, had to cut both ways. It was not fair of scientists to demand proof of divinity from theists if science itself could not disprove it. Natural Selection provided a new story, but it did not answer all the questions.

What was bold about this was its singular vision. Surrounded by canting Creationists on one side, ranting atheists on the other, Romanes was unique in his attempt properly to understand Darwin’s theory and theology. Most compromisers got one or the other hopelessly wrong. Where black was pitched against white, Romanes risked ridicule from both by preaching complex shades of grey. Unfortunately for Romanes, posterity rather lost track of his work, his ideas, and his intellectual legacy. Had he lived he would surely have been at the forefront of research on genetics, but his untimely death occurred just prior to the rediscovery of Mendel’s work. Death put paid not only to life, but also to relevance. Romanes’ greatest tragedy was the rapidity of his obsolescence.

With that in mind I raise a glass to an unsung hero. Or rather, just a brave soul.


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