The news that Vladimir Nabokov, illustrious author and respected lepidopterist, came up with a theory of butterfly evolution that was poo-pooed in his time but which has now been vindicated by DNA research has made me unaccountably happy.
Nabokov speculated that the butterfly that was his specialty, known as the Polyommatus blue, had come over from Asia over many millions of years ago in five distinct waves. It was a theory few credited at the time. My guess is they chalked it up to his artistic nature, a flight of fancy for which he could be forgiven, just this once. But now a team has applied the newest technology involving DNA to his notion, and:
On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.
“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.
Nabokov was a bona fide literary genius. Although I confess I’m not fond of the bulk of his work, what I like of it I like very much indeed: his memoir Speak, Memory, and some short stories.
The memoir is an atypical one, not really an autobiography but instead a series of vignettes, linked by the author’s elegant virtuosity and characteristic coolness, but with a warm and beating heart animating the work at its core. Nabokov’s tribute to his father, who was killed by an assassin in Berlin in 1922 under dramatic and heroic circumstances, is an exceptionally touching chapter.
Nabokov senior helped nurture his son’s passion for butterflies, which he shared. This interest of the younger Nabokov ultimately led him to the position of curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the publication of quite a bit of scientific writing as well.
An entire chapter of Speak, Memory is devoted to his fervor for collecting butterflies, which he developed as a young boy around the family estate. The following passage from the book describes one of those early efforts, and gives you an idea of the passion behind the brilliance of his later scientific pursuits:
Unmindful of the mosquitoes that furred my forearms, I stooped with a grunt of delight to snuff out the life of some silver-studded lepidopteron throbbing in the folds of my net. Through the smells of the bog, I caught the subtle perfume of butterfly wings on my fingers, a perfume which varies with the species—vanilla, lemon, or musk, or a musty, sweetish odor difficult to define. Still unsated, I pressed forward. At last I saw I had come to the end of the marsh. The rising ground beyond was a paradise of lupines, columbines, and pentstemons. Mariposa lilies bloomed under Ponderosa pines. In the distance, fleeting cloud shadows dappled the dull green of slopes above timber line, and the gray and white of Longs Peak.
I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.
Let us leave him there for now. We can visit whenever we want, by reading the prose he left behind.