Friday, July 15, 2011

Nabokov & his butterflies get a belated prize: scientific recognition

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.

(Vladimir Nabokov, "On Naming a Butterfly," 1943)

Well, the old lepidopterist has gotten his wish at last. The Royal Society of London has decided that Nabokov was right in his theory of migration by butterflies, an idea he proposed more than sixty years ago.

The author proposed his theory about a butterfly variety called Polyommatus blues in 1945. The New York Times reports that the Russian author's idea of waves of butterfly migration, once discredited as simply being unbelievable, has been proven "absolutely right" by contemporary gene-sequencing technology.

Ironically, gene technology is a method with which the author would likely have taken issue. Stephen Jay Gould once famously called the writer a scientific "stick-in-the-mud" who never accepted that genetics or the counting of chromosomes could be a valid way to distinguish species of insects, preferring instead the old-fashioned method of simple observation.

Nabokov with his butterfly net (above, from theSaturday Evening Post, 1966) has been one of the more unusual images in literary history, but it was the writer's lifelong passion with a serious intent: as the Timesreports, he was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and collected the insects across the United States. Carl Zimmer in The Times reports in the Science column that

... Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums. He used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees, where he and his wife, Vera, netted over a hundred species. The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.

Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related.

At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile.

from Nabokov's Butterflies (2001)

Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.

Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote. ...

Nabokov's son Dimitri published a volume called Nabokov's Butterflies in 2001. He writes that "in a game that asked us to associate natural kinds and famous people, 'butterflies' would yield the answer 'Nabokov' as surely as 'hemlock' would trigger 'Socrates.' ... Nabokov looked at his world tirelessly and at close range, and for all the horrors he could evoke in the darker books, he found it swarming with inexhaustible diversity and delight. Not the least of his delights was Lepidoptera." As the butterfly collector delighted in revealing time and again in his fiction, human nature resisted all efforts to be so neatly pinned down.

(Nabokov drawing of a butterfly, at top, from The Atlantic Magazine, 2000)

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