Evolution Icon Evolution

Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist and Darwin-doubter, Has Expertise Vindicated

Novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov had “furious” Darwin-doubts, so he himself forthrightly said. Back in the 1940s Nabokov was the de facto curator of Harvard’s butterfly collection, writing widely in scientific journals before he became better known for novels like Pnin, Pale Fire, and Lolita. How delightful that his scientific insight and expertise have now been impressively demonstrated, as the New York Times reports.
The article doesn’t mention Nabokov’s doubt — or rather, his flat-out denial — that Darwinian natural selection could select for aspects of butterfly coloration that are evidently aesthetic or decorative in nature rather than serving any practical purpose of benefit to the butterfly (as opposed to the human observer).
Instead, the focus is on Nabokov’s published speculation on the evolutionary ancestry of the butterfly genus he studied most intensively, the Polyommatus blues.

He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.
Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.
“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper….
“He felt that his scientific work was standing for all time, and that he was just a player in a much bigger enterprise,” said Dr. Pierce. “He was not known as a scientist, but this certainly indicates to me that he knew what it’s all about.”

Exactly, he “knew what it’s all about,” better than colleagues did at the time, and better than many realized until recently. And here’s something else he knew on the subject of butterfly evolution, from his memoir, Speak, Memory:

The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things….”Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.

Given the trajectory of his reputation, how long before this view is vindicated as well?

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.