Nabokov had the butterfly blues


Vladimir Nabokov is famous for his novel ‘ Lolita’, but he had a secret life. He was an accomplished butterfly expert and contributed to the understanding of butterfly evolution in the Americas, writes EUGENIE REGAN

VLADIMIR NABOKOV is regarded as one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century. Yet his contribution to the world of science is little known. Nabokov worked as a scientist in the 1940s and made bold, controversial hypotheses on butterfly evolution that were dismissed by his contemporaries. However, almost 70 years later, scientists have discovered that Nabokov’s hypotheses are true.

Nabokov’s success as a writer has completely overshadowed his career as a lepidopterist. In the early 1940s, Nabokov was curator in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard specializing in the “blues” family of butterflies. Although not formally trained in zoology, Nabokov was a serious scientist who made important contributions to the understanding of the evolution of butterflies of the Americas. His peers, however, often referred to him as an amateur and didn’t take his science seriously.

Butterflies have been avidly studied for centuries and our knowledge of their natural history is arguably better than for any other insects. Nonetheless, their evolution is far from understood. This is especially true for the Polyommatus butterflies, commonly known as the “blues”.

There are more than 400 species of the blues in the world with the richest area being the Eurasian landmass. Many species also occur in the Americas, especially the Neotropics. And this was the group in which Nabokov had a particular interest.

Nabokov’s contentious hypothesis arose from his disentangling the “ludicrous” organisation of these butterflies which was previously misunderstood. His insight derived from detailed study of genitalia, which often show distinct differences in otherwise superficially similar butterflies.

Relationships between groups of blues on both sides of the Pacific Ocean became apparent to Nabokov and he proposed that the blue butterflies of the Americas originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait and headed south all the way to Chile. He also suggested that they arrived in five different waves over the last 11 million years. However, few lepidopterists took this hypothesis seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime.

In a recent paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, scientists from Harvard reveal evidence that Nabokov’s hypothesis on the Polyommatus blues was remarkably accurate. After eight years of work and using modern gene-sequencing techniques, the team used a “molecular clock” to determine the sequence of successive waves of the butterflies arrived in America.

The Harvard team writes “our results show that Nabokov’s inferences were uncannily correct” and show the “extent of Nabokov’s extraordinary biological intuition”.

TWO YEARS AFTER NABOKOV’S controversial paper on these butterflies, he wrote to the literary critic, Edmund Wilson, that he was writing “a short novel about a man who liked little girls”. Nabokov wrote Lolita while travelling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States that he undertook every summer.

Images of and references to butterflies and lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths, appear throughout the novel. This emphasises not only the physical similarities between the fragile insect and young Lolita but also the distant clinical way in which Humbert, the protagonist of the book, views his prey.

Nabokov’s writing and lepidopterology, while seemingly very different and unconnected, actually appear to be intertwined. Both were controversial and ahead of their time and both have brought him fame but in different ways.

In 1967, Nabokov was asked what he might have done had he not become an author. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all,” said Nabokov.

He had a lasting connection to the science, as two South American butterflies are named in his honour: Nabokovia faga and Nabokovia cuzquenha.

This poem that he wrote in 1943 has echoes of his affinity with science and recognition of the contribution that even an “amateur” naturalist can make;

On Discovering a Butterfly

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.

Eugenie Regan is an ecologist with the National Biodiversity Data Centre and co-ordinates the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme