Guppy Designer – “Dr. Frankenstein, I presume”

By Philip Shaddock

Originally published on the Guppy Designer Website

From Wikipedia: “Sir Henry Morton Stanley was a Welsh journalist and explorer famous for his exploration of Africa and his search for Dr. David Livingstone. Stanley is often remembered for the words uttered to Livingstone upon finding him: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, although there is some question as to authenticity of this now famous greeting.”

Ah, but there is the rub. How do we know if Stanley actually said this? How do you go about trying to find if it was true? No scientific instrument will be able to recover the moment. It is lost in a billion billion billion swirl of atoms now history.

That is the problem. Gathering evidence to determine if a statement is true or not. Up until the moment when I looked up the famous phrase I did not know there was some doubt about the statement. I had just accepted it as true. How did that happen?

Here is what the author of the Wikipedia article writes about the authenticity of the phrase:

“This famous phrase may be a fabrication, as Stanley tore out of his diary the pages relating to the encounter. Even Livingstone’s account of the encounter fails to mention these words. However, a summary of Stanley’s letters published by The New York Times on July 2, 1872, quotes the phrase. The Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography both quote the phrase without questioning its validity.

The Herald’s own first account of the meeting, published July 2, 1872, also includes the phrase: “Preserving a calmness of exterior before the Arabs which was hard to simulate as he reached the group, Mr. Stanley said: — `Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’ A smile lit up the features of the hale white man as he answered: `Yes, that is my name’ …””

Stanley was known to exaggerate his claims and he was a man of doubtful character, so it makes sense to question his account of the the greeting. But we will never know for sure.

The situation is both similar and different in the domain of statements made about guppies. Since very few breeders keep records and have a knowledge of genetics, we should question statements made about a guppy’s genetics. However here is the difference: We can reproduce the conditions that led to a particular statement. For example, if a statement is made that a trait is autosomal recessive there are scientific tools we can use to validate that statement, such as the Punnett Square and the analysis of hybrids.

I remember once reading that two German breeders said that the magenta gene was autosomal dominant. This was an astonishing claim as “autosomal dominant” is a very rare condition. This one German breeder  is considered to be a leading expert on guppies, and knows his genetics, so I thought there was a high likelihood his statement was true. I had recently acquired a strain that the seller claimed had the magenta gene. But he could not give me a history or tell me the genetics of the guppy. Since I planned to use this gene in many crosses, I wanted to make sure I had the same gene as that described by the German breeders and that it was autosomal dominant. So I outcrossed the strain and did a backcross to one of the parental strains. Using a Punnett Square I was able to validate the statement by eliminating the other possible genotypes.

In fact I have begun what will be a lifelong undertaking to validate the genetics of guppy strains. There is a good deal of information that is correct about guppy genetics, and portion that is wrong. How do you know which is which? A case in point: The respected guppy breeder Hoshiki Tsutsui made the statement to me that the Galaxy is the result of a crossover event between a platinum and snakeskin strain. But in investigating this statement I discovered that “as a generalization” it is not true. At least the outcome of a cross I did between a Full Platinum and Snakeskin strain opened a Pandora box of problems and no Galaxies. On the Guppy Designer forum one of the scientists who occasionally contributes there suggested that the Tsutsui cross was between a Schimmelpfennig Platinum sword and a Lace guppy. So I have followed up with a test cross between a Y-linked Schimmelpfennig Sword and an X-linked Bader snakeskin guppy. Meanwhile I seemed to have produced a metal snakeskin.

See what is happening? If you ask the question in the right away, you get the right answer. And studying guppy genetics scientifically leads you to the right questions.

A hardcore scientist might question whether or not I am actually practicing science in my investigations. Perhaps my methods are more like detective work where evidence is welcomed from all domains. If you look at the Design Lab series on the books site, you will see that although I do use genetic analysis, I also come to conclusions through observation and analysis of patterns.  I think that would be characterized as speculation. Furthermore, I do not present the information in a way that would be accepted by a scientific journal.

This has led some scientists to say that my work is not “scientific.” On the other hand, many scientifically illiterate critics of my work usually argue the opposite point, that it is too scientific. I happen to agree with both views.

I would say that the only results that are “strictly scientific” are those in scientific papers published by reputable journals. They are correctly presented in the sense that they conform to current standards maintained by the scientific community for the publishing of scientific experiments. And the journals that publish such information are required to ensure that the paper submitted to them meets those criteria. They have other safeguards in place. For example, papers need to be “peer reviewed” by experts in the field as a form of validation.

But does that mean what I publish on my site is necessarily incorrect? You cannot say that just because results are not presented according to strict scientific standards they are necessarily incorrect. The corollary is true as well. Just because results of a scientific experiment are published in a respected journal according to strict standards does not mean the conclusions the authors came to are correct. All you can say is that they have been correctly presented and the integrity of the experiment has been verified by other scientists in the field. It is up to others to question the author’s conclusions, offer competing theories or contradictory results.

Following the proper procedures in presenting the results of an experiment, including if applicable genetic analysis, would definitely be an improvement over what I do here. It would reduce the chance of procedural error, including subjective bias.  And it would make the evaluation of the results by the community of interested people easier. There is otherwise no guarantee that the results were uncontaminated by incorrect data or wrongly interpreted because I lacked the theoretical framework to make proper sense of the data. But at least I do keep good records and I do analyze the data my experiments produce. And I publish them in a way that allows other people to decide for themselves. I use a scientific methodology.

But I do worry that Guppy Designer might become “too scientific.” I know what adhering to strict scientific protocols would mean. It will mean never straying too far from the body of accepted truths, limiting the extent of my exploration of guppy genetics. It will mean adopting a language that is more precise and more incomprehensible to the average hobbyist. In the end it will not be read by the hobbyist because it will be incomprehensible and not read by the scientist because it is not comprehensive enough.

I would prefer my work to be judged as science journalism, like those television programs you see on TV that popularize the latest advances in science. But the problem with that scenario is that I am publishing new information, not glossing over existing information.

Trying to publish accurate information in the hobby space is no picnic in the park. Given the general lawlessness and lack of structure and civility in the guppy hobby, it a bit like trying to hack your way through a jungle. Fortunately the scientists who applaud my work for its embrace of science out number the critics. And although my books are not big sellers, there are a few hundred hobbyists willing to hack their way through them. But then, I am sure academic science must feel the same to the people who advance controversial theories. All kinds of human emotions get mixed up in the fray.

My work has taken me into the jungle. If you run into me out there, just say, “Dr. Frankenstein, I presume.”