Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nabokov's Butterfly Hypothesis + Poem: Nabokov

In the introduction to his brilliant study of MFA programs and their effects on American literature, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard, 2010), UCLA professor Mark McGurl relates the anecdote of how, when Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was proposed as a potential professor in Harvard's English department, the eminent scholar and linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) responded negatively, stating, "I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?" I mention this not to launch into a discussion of the conflicts that have existed between creative writers and scholars, but rather to note how wrong Jakobson, in making his categorical statement, not only dismissed an entire group of people, but Nabokov in particular. Jakobson wasn't the only person to underestimate Nabokov's genius.

In the field of entomology, it turns out that Nabokov's theoretical insights were far reaching and predictive, far beyond, it's clear, the experimental capacity of his time.  A self-taught expert on butterflies who worked as the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, in 1945 he proposed a theory to explain the evolution of the butterflies he was studying, the Polyommatus blues (at left, photo Vlad Dinca, New York Times) suggesting that they reached the New World via Asia, in successive waves, over thousands of years. Trained entomologists of his era did not take this theory seriously, nor did several subsequent generations of professional scientists.  Over the last decade, however, a scientific team, using gene-sequencing, did decide to take his theories seriously, and it turns out, as was published last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, that Nabokov was correct.

According to Carl Zimmer's article in yesterday's The New York Times
Only in the 1990s did a team of scientists systematically review his work and recognize the strength of his classifications. Dr. [Naomi] Pierce, who became a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera in 1990, began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. She was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming from Asia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’ ”


Working with American and European lepidopterists, Dr. Pierce organized four separate expeditions into the Andes in search of blues. Back at her lab at Harvard, she and her colleagues sequenced the genes of the butterflies and used a computer to calculate the most likely relationships between them. They also compared the number of mutations each species had acquired to determine how long ago they had diverged from one another.

As Professor Pierce came to realize, "By God, he got every one right....I couldn’t get over it--I was blown away." His hypothesis about the butterflies crossing the Bering Strait also turned out to be correct too. It's not hard, knowing even a little about Nabokov's ego, to imagine that he would have been very pleased to have been proved right. The Times quotes only the first stanza of his poem on lepidoptery, so I'll quote the entire poem here. The man was, to put it simply, a marvel.

On Discovering a Butterfly 

by Vladimir Nabokov

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.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

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.

(From so full of noise and riot)

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