28 July 2020

Marmorkrebs and messed-up childhoods

"What Do You Think You Are?" cover
Brian Clegg is promoting his new book, What Do You Think You Are?, which is coming out next week. As part of his promotion, he has an article in i newspaper about what shapes adult life. (Really, the name of the paper is a single lower case letter i.) The thesis of the article is that your parents and school don’t matter much to your adult life.

Somewhat strangely, Marmorkrebs make an appearance to argue for “chaos” in life outcomes. Clegg writes:

Batches of Marmorkrebs were raised in nearly identical environmental conditions, yet they differed widely. Some were 20 times bigger than others. Some lived twice as long. Their behaviour was totally different. The tiny genetic and environmental differences made a huge difference in outcomes.

The claims here seem to be based on Vogt and colleagues (2008), and they deserve a little examination.

The “nearly identical” environment is bit misleading. Vogt and colleagues noted that the most variation in growth came when crayfish were raised together, and “without shelters, i.e. under conditions of social stress” (emphasis added).

It’s like saying Harry Potter and Dudley Dursley were raised in “nearly identical” conditions. Well, yes, they were generally in the same physical space. But the social reality for the two boys could hardly be more different. Dudley is spoiled. Harry is tolerated at best and harassed at worst.

Similarly, crayfish fight and form hierarchies. Just because crayfish were in the same tank and had ample food does not mean that their experience in the Dursley house – I mean, crayfish tank – is necessarily the same. Nor is it accurate to call that a “tiny” environment difference.

“20 times bigger” is a bit ambiguous. I image that people might imagine one crayfish an inch long and another 20 inches (over a foot and a half) long. But the measurements are mass, not length. Since mass increases with the cube of length, that means one crayfish is about 2.5 longer than another.

I am not sure how different behaviour has to be to count as “totally different.” I’ve watched a lot of crayfish. You can tease differences apart in experiment, but I think most people would have a hard time distinguishing the behaviour of one Marmorkrebs from another. It’s not obvious, like the relaxed dog you see chilling in the dog park and the barky aggro dog you have to keep on the leash.

I don’t know if Marmorkrebs also appear in the book. I hope they do but with perhaps a little more nuance than in this short article.

Related posts

External links
What makes us ourselves? Why your parents might not f*** you up as much as you think


Vogt G, Huber M, Thiemann M, van den Boogaart G, Schmitz OJ, Schubart CD. 2008. Production of different phenotypes from the same genotype in the same environment by developmental variation. The Journal of Experimental Biology 211(4): 510-523. http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/211/4/510

No comments: