Vladimir Nabokov, evolutionary biologist extraordinaire

By Carl Zimmer | January 25, 2011 7:16 pm

Here’s a paraphrasing of an email I got this morning from Harvard biologist Naomi Pierce:

“I don’t know if you remember, but I mentioned a few years ago how Vladimir Nabokov, best known as a novelist, was also a self-taught expert on butterflies. In 1945 he had a wild idea about how his favorite group of butterflies evolved that no one took seriously. Well, for the past decade I and my colleagues have been scouring the Andes for butterflies and sequencing their DNA to test his hypothesis. And he turns out to have been right in all sorts of ways.

“Oh, and the paper will be published tonight.”

I got on the phone fast. And here’s my story on Nabokov’s last laugh in the New York Times.

[Update: here’s the new paper that vindicates Nabokov, and here’s his 1945 monograph [click on the pdf link for a free file!]. Check out his Nabokovian conclusion at p.44, plus his painstaking drawings of butterfly sex organs.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (9)

  1. Thanks very much for this story; what a fascinating, little-known facet of a great writer.

  2. What a great story! I have always been impressed by the fact Nabokov could write brilliantly in three different languages and that he wrote one of the greatest novels of the English language — Lolita — without being a native speaker. And now I find out he was a great scientist too. Incredible!

  3. AM

    Could you provide a citation to the paper? Cursory Googling was unsuccessful so far.

    [CZ: Yes–I’m updating the post above]

  4. Still, how does one assume ten million years?

    [CZ: They use a “molecular clock.” ]

  5. Brian113

    I thought this was an update to the Islanders goalie fiasco. Such a disappointment.

  6. Kris

    An interesting finding, and nice NYT story. My favorite intersection of Nabokov’s fiction and lepidoptery is his focus on the nymphs – the nymphet Dolores Haze in Lolita, and the family Nymphalidae in his butterfly studies. Nabokov named his first American butterfly discovery Neonympha dorothea, which always seemed provocatively close to his literary creation, the nymphet Dolores.

  7. HR

    An intriguing article. I’m more into writing than into science, so I loved that an article about a novelist into science by a really science writer (CZ) drew me in as this one did. Thanks.

    I have a question for you: if I’m following your time-line of reporting and writing correctly, you wrote this piece on Nabokov on the same day that you received the email from Pierce, right? Wow.

  8. HR

    that should have been “a really good science writer”

  9. In his book “Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” (2007), Roger Deakin writes about Nabakov’s obsession with Lepidoptera and quotes him as saying, “My pleasures […] are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.”

    Nabakov might have been onto something there.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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