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Novelist Nabokov’s butterfly evolution thesis vindicated 34 years after his death


Speaking of links provided by Arts and Letters Daily, here’s one— Nautilus on Vladimir Nabokov:

The life and work of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov referenced many symbols, none so much as the butterfly. Butterflies prompted Nabokov’s travels across the United States, exposing him to the culture and physical environment that he would transform into his best-known novel, Lolita. Butterflies motivated his parallel career in science, culminating in a then-ignored evolutionary hypothesis, which would be vindicated 34 years after his death using the tools of modern genetic analysis. And it was the butterfly around which some of Nabokov’s fondest childhood memories revolved.

In sorting and ordering the Polyomattus, Nabokov identified seven new species, and rearranged the group’s taxonomy. He argued that the entire group originated in Asia, dispersing to the New World across the Bering Strait and eventually colonizing South America. He then proposed an evolutionary history for the Polyomattus blues, suggesting that an earlier species had settled in North America but then vanished, followed by multiple additional waves along the same route. He proposed this sweeping hypothesis in “Notes on Neotropical Plebijinae,” (the old name for Polyomattus), published in 1945 in the entomological journal Psyche.

It was only in 2011, however, that the core of his evolutionary hypothesis was vindicated. The head of entomology at Harvard University, Naomi E. Pierce, and a team of lepidopterists organized a ten-year research study which “scour[ed] the Andes for butterflies and sequenc[ed] their DNA to test his hypothesis,” as she puts it. The study confirms the Asian origins of Polyomattus. In testing the range of temperature tolerances of the various species, it supports the hypothesis that the blues dispersed over time periods characterized by varying climate conditions, and would have been able to survive the cold temperatures of the Bering Strait.

Today, Nabokov is seen as a substantial scientist, affording a new window onto his literary work. His lepidoptery is seen as one motivation for his writing, rather than as a distraction.

One can only wonder what tenured buffoons he endured with patience in the meantime.

Also: Nabokov’s vindication: “But perhaps he could have been forgiven for his towering literary genius, had it not been for his views on Darwinism.”


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