The Artist as Scientist: Nabokov and Insect Mimicry, talk by VN Alexander

It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting. Maybe they should. This talk presents the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.

Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better. Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms. This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?

Talk based on “Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the “Non-utilitarian Delights” of Butterfly Mimicry” by V N Alexander, in Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art. Eds. Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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