Lolita's Lepidopterist Lover



"L" and alliterations thereof, turns out to have immense importance in literature and science. Science and art can co-exist. Surprised? Let me explain.

The creator of the infamous character "Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov, turns out to have been not only one of the most influential writers of the past century, but to have been an amateur scientist with keen insight into evolution, recently validated by modern DNA technologies.

"Lolita" is a novel that has been revered, reviled as pornography, banned and studied by scholars since its publication in 1958. I am in no way qualified to discuss its relevance in English literature, but I will share this. I love language, and the first time I read "Lolita" I was stunned by the beauty and art of Nabokov's use of language. He wrote this novel not in his native language Russian but in English and was able to express love in written language something most of us can only feel at a deep emotional level, often left breathless and speechless.

Here's a peek at some of his artistry:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Do you feel it? No? Here's one of my favorites:

Think of a mural in a lodge in the country, adjacent to a children's camp site normally bustling with activity during the summer. You're relaxing after a long nature walk in the Fall having appreciated nature's palette of foilage, warming up with a cup of tea. You casually notice a painting, on a wall opposite the lodge's fireplace. We've all seen them: those kitschy paintings depicting riders on horses, foxes hunting. Think of how you would write a description so that the reader would actually "see it" {a great exercise, this.} Here's Nabokov in "Lolita," his imagination, love for "Lolita," artistry and creativity run wild:

Are you ready? Its beauty is so rich that it begs to be read out loud - forget the words' meanings - pay attention to their rhythm.

There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies - a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group, Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh...

Can you see it, feel it?

Well, this artist, writer and visionary dabbled in evolutionary theory while studying butterflies as a curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

According to The New York Times:

And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

This paper published in 1945 has been supported by recent genetic studies by Prof. Naomi Pierce at Harvard University.

"By God, he got every one right," Dr. Pierce said. "I couldn't get over it -- I was blown away."

Dr. Pierce and her colleagues also investigated Nabokov's idea that the butterflies had come over the Bering Strait. The land surrounding the strait was relatively warm 10 million years ago, and has been chilling steadily ever since. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that the first lineage of Polyommatus blues that made the journey could survive a temperature range that matched the Bering climate of 10 million years ago. The lineages that came later are more cold-hardy, each with a temperature range matching the falling temperatures.
Nabokov's taxonomic horseshoes turn out to belong in Nome after all.
"What a great paper," said James Mallet, an expert on butterfly evolution at University College London. "It's a fitting tribute to the great man to see that the most modern methods that technology can deliver now largely support his systematic arrangement."
Dr. Pierce says she believes Nabokov would have been greatly pleased to be so vindicated, and points to one of his most famous poems, "On Discovering a Butterfly."

The 1943 poem begins:

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.

I want no other fame, indeed. But, Mr. Nabokov, you have revealed the power and beauty of language and have touched many hearts.

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Give 'em L!

Of course, being lulled by the poetry of Humbert Humbert and not attending to its meaning is part of Nabokov's point--and warning. It's the poetry of a pedophile, after all, and the passage you quote is rife with metaphors of molestation.

Also, I seem to recall that Nabokov was not exactly enamored of Darwin's theory of Natural Selection. He felt that the luxurious details of mimicry couldn't be explained by adaptations over time.

You are correct; sometimes art can be messy and can reveal the dark side of humanity. It does not diminish this compelling example of a connection between science and art. Thank you for your insightful comment.

One thing to keep in mind is that, contrary to the authors' claim, they actually didn't test Nabokov's hypothesis. What they did accomplish is to infer a separate hypothesis from DNA data. That is not the basis for testing Nabokov's hypothesis, which was inferred from anatomical data. The act of hypothesis testing is a far different affair, too often misrepresented in the systematics/evolution community.

By Kirk Fitzhugh (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your expert opinion. Note to readers: Kirk Fitzhugh is Curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

In the historical sciences where hypotheses usually can not be tested in the Popperian sense. Ideas about historical events can usually not be outright falsified, but through the examination of independent evidence they can be strengthened ...or weakened. The major prediction of Nabokov's data-generated hypothesis is that other data sources would yield the same results; as they do we have a stronger hypothesis. If it did conflict, we could look into a third data source, e.g. different genes, animals parasitic on butterflies etc. At no point would the hypothesis be clearly falsified; thus using "test" in a strict sense is not really meaningful in systematics and its related disciplines.

Thank you for your comment. Can you please "translate" for the general public?

Actually, Popper aside, one cannot validly predict new characters from cladograms. Indeed, I've never yet seen anyone correctly test phylogenetic hypotheses. The findings of the paper do not offer any strength to Nabokov's hypothesis. There was only more data presented that also is in need of being explained. It is conceivable to test phylogenetic hypotheses, just as we do all causal explanations. It's just that it's an extremely difficult process to accomplish.

By Kirk Fitzhugh (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

Thank you. You are quite gracious. My request was to commenter #6, "Gunnar" whose point was relevant, but in my opinion, inaccessible to the general public.

This is getting lengthy - I will get back to you.

I appreciate your comment. Can you translate this such that the average person on the street could understand it? Thanks very much.

Rephrasing for a general audience is hard! - hence the delay. The following is not a repeat of my previous statement as I am more interested in hearing opinions than delivering them. After hearing more from Fitzhugh, my opinions may very well change.

Dr. Fitzhugh:
Reading your article, I realise that we agree about Popper; that debate will thus be fruitless. I would appreciate elaboration on the statistical/Bayesian views - does not a cladogram predict character states at least in a probalistic sense?
A common argument for basing classifications on phylogenetics rests on the supposed predictive power of a cladogram. The idea is, if I have understood it correctly, that if you discover a new species and know approximately where to put it in the cladogram (i.e. classification) you will be able to reconstruct _most_ of its character states (except autapomorphies and unexpected synapomorphies with other species).
Also, what is your view on hierarchical hypotheses?

Thank you, Gunnar.
The view that cladograms have predictive ability is long-standing, but with no attendant justification showing that novel characters can actually be deduced. The difficulty is that cladograms only have the capacity to explain the characters used to infer the cladograms. In other words, a cladogram only has explanatory relevance to those characters from which the cladogram is inferred. Certainly it is possible to deduce valid predictions for the purpose of testing, but those predictions would only be with regard to the specified causal conditions outlined by the cladogram. Novel characters are irrelevant to that process.
With regard to Bayesianism, it's important to keep in mind that evidence, e, in Bayes Theorem refers to test evidence. Again, no amount of character data can be brought to bear as test evidence. Unfortunately, it has become common to think that Bayesianism can be used to infer cladograms. But this is just a gross misconstrual of Bayesianism, which only works in the process of testing hypotheses, not their inference.
I have a number of publications I can send you from my research on the philosophy of systematics, if you're interested. My email is

By Kirk Fitzhugh (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

Ironically enough, while Nabokov -- who grew up speaking French and English as well as Russian, and learned German as an adult -- may have first learned to speak in Russian, he first learned to read and write in English. (He came from a very wealthy and intellectual family; he got his love of lepidoptery from his father.)

Here's a peek at some of his artistry:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Ok there is some artistry there, but is a hollow artisrty. A deliberate purple passage.
It is a setup trap.
The real artistry follows a paragraph later, the undercutting: "You can always count for a murderer for a fancy prose style".
Only THAT is the real artistry

By Wim Nijenhuis (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

There is any french translation "On Discovering Butterfly"?

Delighted to learn that the good master Nabokov continues to draw scientific as well as literary attention, and well deserved that attention is. For all the flamboyance of his language, his writing is very factual, very concrete. His beauty is quite real... never sentimental, just as the butterfly is factually more beautiful than could ever be the tired literary trope that the popular Hallmarkian imagination typically makes of the creature. There is no possibility of sentiment in the exquisitely tormented desire and fettered imagination of a Humbert Humbert. He's much too real a human (which frightens some who think only of his social pathology). In any case, thanks for sharing... both your blog and a common enthusiasm for Lolita, which is one of my favorites also.

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