February 7, 2011

Darwin-Doubter Vladimir Nabokov Vindicated

David Warren
February 7, 2011
Ottawa Citizen

Were it not for the enchantment of love, I should have to admit that I know nothing about butterflies. At best I have watched, with the help of field guides. I have no credentials in lepidoptery; though as a child in Pakistan I was once riveted by a butterfly with wings of an iridescent emerald (no idea what species). I was able to induce it to alight upon my finger!

By contrast, Vladimir Nabokov was a lepidopterist of real accomplishment. He was also a capable novelist, essayist, poet, and among those extraordinary writers who are able to transform themselves from a presence in one language (his native Russian) to a presence in another (American English). One turns naturally to such characters for an insight into what is called "evolution" -- the purposeful "translation" of a creature who is compelled to move from one environment, into another.

Nabokov died in 1977. His novels are still very much in print, and from what I can see, read widely. Unfortunately, one of them is read more widely than all the others, and continues to be taken as an essay in pornography, when it is a deeply moral work about the fallen nature of human love. Lolita is a true tragedy, about a man broken by a love that is perverse, but which nevertheless stands the test of self-sacrifice.

Nabokov himself was taken for a man of letters with an eccentric hobby -- butterfly collecting -- but that was not his view. He took himself for a student of butterflies with the eccentric hobby of writing novels. This was not entirely eccentric, however, for he needed the royalties from the novels, and the easy cash from college lecturing on "lit," to support his butterfly work.

My reader may be tempted to titter again, when learning that he spent a significant part of his life staring through microscopes at butterfly genitalia. In his own lifetime he earned grudging respect for distinguishing, from their private parts, species of butterflies which had seemed indistinguishable. He was long associated with "Nabokov's blues."

You make money however you can, and Nabokov also obtained a research fellowship at Harvard, proving so proficient that he was ultimately left in charge of the university's butterfly collections. There he found the materials to speculate on the evolutionary descent of the whole range of New World "blues," and to concoct the "imaginative" hypothesis that they were derived from Eurasian species, which had been "able to see Alaska from Russia," and began crossing the Bering Strait during a warm spell in the Earth's climate history, 11 million years ago.

In five major waves, corresponding to falling temperatures, successive butterflies crossed, then spread, finally advancing all the way to Chile. The proof that speciations within South America had not been the result (as previously assumed) of the separation of groups by the rise of the Andes, was a demonstration that butterflies on either side of that young mountain chain were more closely related to proposed ancestors in Southeast Asia, than to each other.

Enter the Harvard biology professor, Naomi Pierce, who has had the honour of telling the world this last fortnight, that Nabokov's fanciful hypothesis is true, down to the most provocative assertions. Using the most advanced current molecular technology, she has tracked the whole history through DNA, confirming Nabokov dead right through fine details on five out of five.

This does not surprise me. It would have surprised many drudges in the field, however, who ignored Nabokov's remarkable paper of 1945, I think for two reasons.

The first is that it was written with real literary style. Nabokov invites his reader to step into a Wellsian time machine, and imagine the sequence of these migratory waves from the inside. He is unrelentingly poetical in his descriptions. He is indifferent to the conventions of modern scientific papers in which the author must be aggressively boring and statistical, while posing as inhumanly modest, objective and collaborative. From what I can see, all Nabokov's writings on butterflies are an affront to the bureaucratic mindset that controls all academic scientific funding.

But perhaps he could have been forgiven for his towering literary genius, had it not been for his views on Darwinism.

These surface in his memoir entitled, Speak, Memory. But I gather a great deal of scattered, unpublished, perhaps unpublishable writing lies below his passing remark, that "natural selection" in the Darwinian sense, "could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behaviour, 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."

As Nabokov continues, "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."

This is the world that Darwinian drudges are incapable of appreciating. It is also the explanation of why significant scientific advances are made, invariably, by eccentric, artistic, and religious people, acting alone, and never by richly-funded committees.

Read also:

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

Vladimir Nabokov, "Furious" Darwin Doubter