Romanes Versus Alfred Newton

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Thomas Huxley described himself as "Darwin's bulldog." Although William Bateson did not use the term, Bateson is now widely recognized as "Mendel's bulldog." Less well-known is that Bateson was also "Romanes' bulldog," albeit cryptically. Whereas the Darwinians failed to understand Romanes' 1886 Linnean Society address on "Physiological Selection", the 26 year old Bateson immediately saw what Romanes was getting at, and wrote to his sister, who was then working with one of Darwin's sons:


"I don't agree with you that Romanes' paper is poor. It seems a fair contribution and at all events does, as he says, put the whole view on a much more logical basis. The scheme thus put will at least work logically while the other, as left by Darwin, would not. -- I did not suppose Romanes would ever write as good a paper. -- it is a straight forward, common-sense suggestion."



    Another "Romanes bulldog" was the marine biologist Joseph T. Cunningham (1859-1935) who chided Bateson for not acknowledging that the ideas he advocated were similar to those of Romanes. However, Bateson, who made his living as Steward of his Cambridge college, needed an academic appointment. Romanes had put many backs up, including that of the Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, Alfred Newton (1829-1907). Why, we do not know, but in a letter to John Gulick (Sept. 2 1888) Romanes wrote in no uncertain terms that Newton "hates me with a deadly hate." Strong language! 

    Bateson held a tenuous foothold in Newton's Department of Animal Morphology until 1899 when Newton made him his official deputy. Bateson and Newton were of different political persuasions (Liberal versus Tory) and did not see eye-to-eye on the issue of giving academic equality to women. It is possible that, had Bateson openly supported Romanes' views, Newton would have been further offended.

    So what could have been the basis of the Romanes-Newton animosity? The biography of Newton (Wollaston, 1921) leads one to think of him as the Cambridge equivalent of London's T. H. Huxley at a time when Cambridge was more a backwater than the dynamic centre of science it has since become. One of his students describes meetings in Alfred Newton's college "salon" that were attended by Romanes' contemporaries such as Francis Balfour and Francis Darwin. Although not named, it is almost certain that Romanes was among them. "Later came Adam Sedgwick, Bateson, Marr, Dr. Sharp, A. H. Evans, Barrett-Hamilton and a host of others well-known in the world of science to whom I need not further allude." Regarding Newton's character:

"Such strength of individuality I cannot recall in any other person I have known. It can safely be said that, having carefully envisaged his question and decided it, no human power could make him alter his mind. Yet, -- he -- inspired an unusual degree of personal affection in the many young men who frequented his rooms. The influence he exercised upon them was remarkable, not only upon the ornithologists, but upon men like Adam Sedgwick, Bateson, Frank Darwin, Lydekker, and a host of others in different fields. It would, I think, be correct to describe him as the founder of the modern Cambridge scientific school, developing the good seed sown by Henslow, who was to a former generation, I imagine, very much what Newton was to mine."


   We know that Romanes received a lower class degree than Frank Darwin, and left Cambridge to further pursue his scientific studies in what was then a more scientifically dynamic setting in London, close to his own home (and that of Charles Darwin). But we can ponder whether Newton had a hand in awarding that lower class degree. Certainly we know that Gregor Mendel, scientifically way ahead of his examiners in Vienna, was flunked. Of Romanes' genius there is now little doubt. When writing of the founders of the Physiological Society, Sharpey-Schafer, who knew him well, considered Romanes as "unquestionably the most brilliant." Furthermore, Romanes' unguarded "appreciation of his own work" was not to be seen as vanity since it was simply a "natural and unconscious part of his character." Perhaps Newton had not been so forbearing?


     In  1869 the first issues of Nature appeared, one of which contained an article by Newton that tended to support Baldamus's theory that cuckoos might colour their eggs to match those in the host nest.

"It will be admitted, I think, that Dr. Baldamus's inference as to the object of the practice being that the Cuckow's egg should be 'less easily recognized by the foster-parents as a substituted one,' is likely to be true. This being the case, only one explanation of the process can to my mind be offered. Every person who has studied the habits of animals with sufficient attention will be conversant with the tendency which certain of those habits have to become hereditary. It is, I am sure, no violent hypothesis to suppose that there is a very reasonable probability of each Cuckow most commonly placing her eggs in the nests of the same species of bird, and of this habit being transmitted to her posterity."


Invoking "the principle of 'Natural Selection' or 'Survival of the Fittest'", Newton continue:

"The particular gens of Cuckow which inherited and transmitted the habit of laying in the nest, of any particular species of bird, eggs of that species, would prosper most in those members of the gens where the likeness was strongest, and the other members would -- in time be eliminated."


   There followed a lively correspondence in Nature questioning the case of "so able and accomplished a naturalist," who was granted ample space for reply (January 6th, 1870). When we recall that the 19 year old Romanes arrived in Cambridge in 1867, there is reason to think that this would have been a heated topic of conversation in Newton's salon, which would have greatly engaged the young man. We can, perhaps, envisage Romanes response from his writings over a decade later in Animal Intelligence (1882):

"We cannot imagine the cuckoo to be able consciously to colour her egg during its formation in order to imitate the eggs among which she is about to lay it; nor even can we suppose that having laid an egg and observed its colouring, she then carries it to the nest of the bird whose eggs it most resembles. Professor Newton suggests another theory, which he seems to think sufficient, but which I confess seems to me little more satisfactory than the impossible theories just stated."


Romanes then provided quotations from Newton's theory and continued:

"Now in order to sustain the theory, we must suppose that the particular cuckoo which happens to have the peculiarity of laying eggs so closely resembling those of the magpie, must also happen to have the peculiarity of desiring to lay its eggs in the nest of a magpie. The conjunction of these two peculiarities would, I should think, at a moderate estimate -- [be low]. But supposing the happy accident to have taken place, we have next to suppose that the peculiarity of laying these exceptionally coloured eggs is not only constant for the same individual cuckoo, but is inherited by innumerable generations of her progeny; and, what is much more difficult to grant, that the fancy for laying eggs in the nest of the magpie is similarly inherited. I think therefore, not withstanding Professor Newton's strong opinion on the subject, that the ingenious hypothesis must be dismissed -- . We may with philosophical safety invoke the influence of natural selection to explain all cases of protective colouring when the modus operandi need only be supposed simple and direct; but in a case such as this the number and complexity of the conditions that would require to meet in order to give natural selection the possibility of entrance, seems to me much too considerable." 

     It appears then that disagreement (whether about eggs or other matters) grew to appreciable hostility between Romanes and one comparative anatomist, Alfred Newton. And I have extensively documented (e.g. see part 4 of The Origin of Species, Revisited, 2001) the hostility, albeit courteous, between Romanes and another comparative anatomist, Thomas Huxley. To what extent Newton and Huxley might have communicated in this respect I do not know. Add to this, the publicly displayed hostility between Romanes and other evolutionists (e.g. Alfred Wallace, Lankester, Thiselton-Dyer), and it would have been a bold Bateson who demurred in favour of Romanes. More convenient, given the flurry of life's activities, to forget Romanes - yet, not entirely. As late as 1904 Bateson extolled the virtues of the "practical man" who will "stoop to examine nature" in "the seed bed and the poultry yard." He did not think highly of those (unnamed) with a philosophical bent of mind, who were interested in hybrid sterility achieved by some imaginary form of selection:

"For the concrete in evolution we are offered the abstract. Our philosophers debate with great fluency whether between imaginary races sterility grew up by an imaginary Selection -- and for many whose minds are attracted by the abstract problem of inter-racial sterility there are few who can name for certain ten cases in which it has already been observed."

    Albert Newton took exception to the editing of Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne by Romanes' friend Grant Allen. When Allen became ill through overwork in 1879, Romanes had passed the hat round for contributions from well-wishers that included Charles Darwin and Virginia Wolfe's father, Leslie Stephen. Thus, the Allen family was able to spend the winter on the French Riviera. Allen's literary earnings improved, but when he sent the well-wishers back their "loan," they responded by buying him a microscope. He continued to write on a broad range of topics, and in 1891 won a literary prize of [pounds] 1,000 (worth about [pounds] 60,000 today).

     Yet, I have found no word of support (political or scientific) for Romanes' in Allen's evolutionary writings. Allen had to look to his market and was acutely aware that, as happened in the case of Samuel Butler, the wrath of the Darwinians could severely disenchant that market. A long time supporter of Herbert Spencer, Allen did not flinch from spelling out Spencer's distinctive contributions some of which antedated Darwin's (e.g. Feb. 1897 in Contemporary Review). Yet the subtleties of Romanes' and Butler's independent cases were probably beyond Allen's understanding as they were that of the Darwinians.

     The following non-hostile letter from Newton to Romanes is dated 13th Jan 1882 and was probably written before Newton read Animal Intelligence which was published later that year:

44 Davies Street, Berkeley Square W.                                                    13 Jan 1882

Dear Mr. Romanes,

     Calling yesterday at the Linnean Society's rooms your card was presented to me.

     To what extent the association of various kinds of bird may be beneficial to one or more of the parties concerned I do not pretend to know; but I think one may presume that it was not the contrary effect.

     The more experience I have, the more suspicious I grow of attempting to interpret the motives or the actions of animals.

     Bands of the Golden-crested wren may frequently be observed in winter consorting with bands of the Coal-Titimus [?], and in a large degree with those of the Long-tailed Titimus [?]. While parties of Redpolls and Sishkins will for a time form their company, or vice versa.

    The flocking together of Rooks and Daws is of course an everyday event as is also -- .  Whether there is really any social feeling to prompt these assemblages is more than I can pretend to say. They may be only drawn together as Finches and Buntings of various species are in a farm yard, higher provender than acceptable [?]. .. I have tried to abstain from theorizing on the facts observed -- but it is open to you or anyone else to do so."
    I remain here until about Thursday next, when I shall return to Cambridge.

Believe me to be [?] Yours [?] Alfred Newton

End Note Sept 2012: Another factor in the Romanes-Newton controversy relates to Newton's need for testimonials when applying in 1865 for a chair at Cambridge. Both Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley refused (Birkhead and Gallivan 2012). Although later correspondence between Darwin and Newton reveals no animosity, it is possible that Darwin's negativity influenced his younger collaborator, Romanes.

Birkhead TR & Gallivan PT (2012) Alfred Newton's contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154, 887-905.


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This page was established in September 2010 and was last edited 12 Nov 2020 by Donald R. Forsdyke