bioephemera

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

- excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s “On Discovering a Butterfly”

It’s not very well known that novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was also a lepidopterist; for six years, he was a Research Fellow at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (now part of the HMNH). Carl Zimmer recounts in the NYT how Harvard professor Naomi Pierce recently set out to test Nabokov’s hypotheses about blue butterfly speciation, and discovered that the novelist’s account of successive migratory waves from Asia was probably right. Nabokov, whose poorly received hypothesis was based entirely on meticulous anatomical observations (he specialized in comparative studies of male genitalia), has finally been vindicated by genetic techniques developed years after he died.

The late Stephen J. Gould pondered Nabokov’s legacy as an author-scientist in “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov” (collected in I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History). Gould concluded that Nabokov was brilliant in one domain, but not the other: the novelist’s “general genius” did not in fact make “his lepidoptery as distinctive and worthy as his literature.” But would the belated verification of Nabokov’s blue butterfly hypothesis force Gould, if he were here today, to revise this conclusion?


Gould’s argument goes something like this: when a genius in one field (like art) spends substantial intellectual capital laboring in another field (like science), it troubles us. Why was Nabokov dabbling with pedestrian butterfly morphology instead of writing another Lolita? (My personal variation on this lament: why on earth did Dorothy Sayers abandon her delightful Lord Peter Wimsey novels to write theology? It’s so. . . unjust!)

Gould calls this, somewhat obscurely, “the paradox of intellectual promiscuity.” Basically, he says, we try to explain away the “wasted” mental effort which could have produced another classic like Lolita in one of two ways: either the hobby or diversion took so little time that it had trivial impact on the genius’s creative output (don’t worry, Nabokov didn’t waste much time on butterflies), or the second activity somehow wasn’t a waste at all. Gould explores (and dismisses) two variations on the second solution: that the hobby was really unrecognized genius-level work (Nabokov was a scientific genius too, people just don’t appreciate it!), or that it somehow enhanced the artist’s “true” vocation (Lolita was so great because Nabokov studied butterflies).

Clearly, Nabokov spent years of his life on butterflies, so we can’t dismiss his scientific work as trivial. And Gould viewed those who sought to ascribe genius to Nabokov’s scientific work as falling prey to the second of these “false solutions” to the “paradox of intellectual promiscuity”: they strain to label Nabokov a genius in both fields, so his scientific work would not be a tragic waste of his gifts. Gould was not so generous:

no natural historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator. . . Nabokov may have been a major general of literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained career infantryman in natural history. . . . He divided and meticulously described; he did not unify or generalize.

Rather than seeking to explain away Nabokov’s scientific activities as equal to, or contributing to, his literary genius, Gould instead offers an alternative solution. He views Nabokov’s scientific inclinations and authorial brilliance as two sides of the same coin, both driven by an underlying “mode of mental functioning.” The most salient characteristic of this mode might be Nabokov’s passion for detail (“In high art and pure science,” Nabokov said, “detail is everything.”) In this view, we shouldn’t seek to justify Nabokov’s scientific work in isolation, or explain it away as mere fertilizer for his writing, because both outputs were natural expressions of his unique intellect. This framing fits nicely with Gould’s well-known rejection of “conventional distinctions” between art and science: “Nabokov’s story may teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity (or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in mutual recrimination, of art from science.”

I think Gould’s take-home message was right. Scientist-artists bring their idiosyncratic frame of mind to every field they engage, and trying to categorize various areas of work as “hobby” vs. “vocation” just reifies the largely artificial bounds between different realms of scholarship. But Gould’s parable doesn’t work quite so well if the literary critics Gould dismisses – the ones who sought to explain away Nabokov’s scientific efforts as unrecognized genius – were in fact correct. Gould’s conclusion probably still stands either way, but in light of Pierce’s vindication of Nabokov, was Gould wrong to dismiss the “Nabokov was a scientific genius too” argument so readily?

To answer this question, we must ask whether Nabokov’s hypothesis was, in fact, a genius-level leap of insight (whatever that means). Nabokov was not laboring in isolation years ahead of others, like Mendel; instead, he was centrally ensconced in the butterfly collections at Harvard. So why wasn’t his hypothesis embraced by other researchers? Jason Hartley cites Nabokov as an example of a self-taught expert, who, for lack of formal education/credentials, could not garner respect from the scientific establishment. (Hartley is quite critical of the establishment’s refusal/inability to recognize unconventional genius).

But it is not at all clear that was the case for Nabokov. According to Gould, the professional consensus is that “Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with recognized “world class” expertise.” Gould’s essay pointed out that Nabokov’s meager salary ($1K a year) and low-level appointment as a “Research Fellow” are not necessarily indicia of disrespect in science – many skilled researchers suffer such conditions. And while Gould didn’t explicitly address what Nabokov’s contemporaries thought of his skill (as opposed to Gould’s own contemporaries), Gould didn’t seem to think Nabokov was treated unfairly because he lacked formal graduate training (something not uncommon among taxonomists). After all, Nabokov was able to publish more than a dozen papers.

Was it the way Nabokov wrote his papers, perhaps? The article in which Nabokov proposed his successive migration hypothesis is about 50 pages of butterfly morphology, prefaced by Nabokov’s caveat that “it seems worth while to publish the present paper despite its rather superficial and incomplete nature.” (I’m unqualified to assess whether that was false or conventional modesty, or whether Nabokov honestly thought he lacked enough data to make a persuasive case). Nabokov concludes that

One can assume, I think, that there was a certain point in time when both Americas were entirely devoid of Plebejinae but were on the very eve of receiving an invasion of them from Asia where they had been already evolved. Going back still further, a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine with the purpose of exploring the Cenozoic era in a “down-ward” direction would reach a point presumably in the early
Miocene where he still might find Asiatic butterflies classifiable on modern structural grounds as Lycenids, but would not be able to discover among them anything definitely referable to the structural group he now diagnoses as Plebejine. On his return journey, however, he would notice at some point a confuse adumbration, then a tentative “fade-in” of familiar shapes (among other, gradually vanishing ones) and at last would find Chilades-like and Aricia-like and Lycceides-like structures in the Palearctic region. It is impossible to imagine the exact routes these forms took to reach Chile, and I have no wish to speculate on the details of their progress, beyond suggesting that throughout the evolution of Lycenidae no two species ever became differentiated from each other at the same time in the same habitat. . .

Roger Vila, one of Pierce’s co-authors, suggests that Nabokov’s prose style (Wellsian time machine!) did his hypothesis no favors:

The literary quality of his scientific writing, Vila says, may have led to his ideas being overlooked. “The way he explained it, using such poetry — I think this is the reason that it was not taken seriously by scientists,” Vila says. “They thought it was not ‘hard science,’ let’s say. I think this is the reason that this hypothesis has been waiting for such a long time for somebody to vindicate it.”

That’s a little harsh toward scientists, but it seems plausible: creativity in scientific writing is rarely rewarded.

Anyway, whether his hypothesis was “genius” or not, Nabokov certainly saw a pattern in the blues. It was a unifying pattern, and one that defied pre-existing specimen classifications. Neither his contemporaries nor later researchers perceived this pattern, so it could hardly have been obvious (the Pierce paper characterizes Nabokov’s hypothesis as “bold.”) And all this seems to conflict pretty squarely with Gould’s assessment of Nabokov as a “career infantryman in natural history.” Gould’s essay dismisses those critics who, seeking glimmers of the genius behind Lolita in Nabokov’s scientific work, have “tried, almost with an air of desperation, to identify some aspect of Nabokov’s methodology that might be labeled as innovative.” Yet isn’t that exactly what Pierce, Vila, and their co-authors have verified?

In the end, all I can really do is raise the question. Sadly, Gould isn’t here to respond. Moreover, determining whether Nabokov’s hypothesis qualifies as sufficiently innovative or genius-like to cast doubt on Gould’s argument (or to comfort literature majors who fervently wish Nabokov had instead written another Lolita) is a subjective, value-laden inquiry. Where does professional skill stop and “genius” begin? Does a discovery have to shift paradigms or rock established dogma to be “cutting-edge”? What yardstick could one possibly use to assess whether hypothesizing about butterfly evolution was as worthy an endeavor as writing Lolita? I don’t think we can ever get a satisfactory answer to these questions; genius is largely in the eye of the beholder. But Gould, whose essay does not even mention Nabokov’s ideas about blue butterfly speciation, may well have been too dismissive of the author’s scientific originality. And I’m thrilled to have Nabokov as an examplar of someone who made significant, even if not equivalent, contributions in both art and science.

In the end, though, Gould was almost certainly right that “if Nabokov had pursued only butterfly taxonomy as a complete career, he would now be highly respected in very limited professional circles, but not at all renowned in the world at large.” The attention paid to Nabokov’s science, at least recently, has been largely a result of his literary notoriety. The motivation behind the 100th birthday exhibit that first brought Nabokov’s hypothesis to Pierce’s attention, not to mention the media attention garnered by her team’s results (including Zimmer’s article), is not voracious public interest in butterfly evolution, but rather our cultural fascination with the author of a particularly polarizing and controversial novel. As the MCZ’s own website observes, with a palpable lack of enthusiasm, “[t]he collection is also noted for specimens collected by the novelist and cult-figure Vladmir [sic] Nabokov during his stay at the MCZ from 19_ to 19_. [sic]* Because of this, Nabokov scholars and devotees frequent the Lepidoptera collections.”

Would Pierce have tested Nabokov’s hypothesis, if he were not a “cult-figure” warranting a hundredth-birthday exhibition? Likely not. Nabokov couldn’t have verified it himself (he seems to have disdained non-anatomical studies, and lacked genetic tools), and his ideas didn’t get enough traction to warrant testing once the requisite analytical tools were developed. So it’s quite possible that we know what we know about ancient butterfly migration across an Alaskan land-bridge only because Nabokov wrote Lolita. And that puts a bittersweet spin on the novelist’s poem, “On Discovering a Butterfly,” in which he described his scientific contributions as the surest path to immortality:

“I found it and I named it. . . and I want no other fame.”

Sources:

SJ Gould, “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov” (collected in I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History

Carl Zimmer, “Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated”

V. Nabokov, “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinæ (Lycænidæ, Lepidoptera)”

Roger Vila, Charles D. Bell, Richard Macniven, Benjamin Goldman-Huertas, Richard H. Ree, Charles R. Marshall, Zsolt Bálint, Kurt Johnson, Dubi Benyamini and Naomi E. Pierce, “Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World”

*Gould’s essay places the dates of Nabokov’s tenure at 1942-1948.