NABOKV-L post 0006061, Mon, 9 Jul 2001 21:00:03 -0700

Abstract of Kurt Johnson's paper at 2001 ALA session
EDITOR's NOTE. I had hoped to run the three ALA VN papers as a group. I
have not been able to contact two of the panelist but take pleasure in
presenting Kurt Johnson's summary. Together with Steve Coates, he is
the author of NABOKOV's BLUES (now out in paperback).

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: ALA papers
Date: Fri, 29 Jun 2001 18:02:46 -0400
From: "Johnson, Kurt" <>
To: "'


After the recent Harvard ALA "Nabokov" session, moderator Dr. Charles
Nicol asked us to send "Abstracts" of our papers to Nabokov-on-line.

Since "Abstracts" in scientific papers are generally quite telegraphic
and my ALA paper included voluminous scientific information, in the
interest of communicating here I've made this "Abstract" into more of an
"informative summary" aimed at non-scientists.

Lepidoptera, Evolutionary Science, and Nabokov's Harvard Years-More
Light and Context

by Kurt Johnson
The Florida State Collection of Arthropods
Gainesville, Florida

"During the early years of the 20th Century, Darwin's theory had lost
much of its popularity"-
Peter J. Bowler in Evolution, The History of an Idea

Part 1. Nabokov's Methodology-- Innovative and Unconventional but
Taxonomically Correct

Part 2. Understanding Nabokov and His Science in the Larger Context of
Evolutionary Biology

Part 3. Nabokov and Mimicry- Adjusting Our Views to the Modern

This paper aimed at addressing three questions (summarized in the 3
subtitles above) that seemed to linger after the butterfly-related books
of the Nabokov centenary. The need for discussing these was also
stressed in my December 2000, MLA paper "Recognizing Vladimir Nabokov's
Legacy in Science-- Where We Are Today; Where We Go From Here" which
will appear in a forthcoming issue of Nabokov Studies.

The ALA paper was quite long (about 75 pages plus a long
bibliography). The reason for this was its attempt to be a "working
paper" supplying substantial scientific information as a background for
further evaluation of Nabokov's contributions to science. I will
briefly summarize each part below:

1. This section concerned Nabokov the lepidopterist as an innovator.
I detailed manuscript materials discovered by Brian Boyd (mostly from
Nabokov's Butterflies) which help illuminate Nabokov's stepwise genesis
of the nomenclature published in his 1945 paper "Notes on Neotropical
Plebejinae" ("Notes"). These comparisons indicate that Nabokov
initially planned to publish the more traditional and conservative (but
genealogically incorrect) nomenclature later used by Norman Riley (in
1975) to "sink" most of Nabokov's own names. A few weeks before the
publication of Nabokov's 1945 "Notes", he received a draft manuscript on
blues, and new specimens, from William P. Comstock at the American
Museum of Natural History. Based on this new information, at the last
minute (perhaps at galley proof), Nabokov decided to break Huebner's
historical genus Hemiargus into several genera. This was the hallmark
of the originality in Nabokov's Caribbean work-- which was vilified and
ignored for nearly 50 years by other lepidopterists but is correct by
modern systematic standards. From this I suggested that Nabokov
conducted his scientific research with an open mind and without any
prior, arbitrary, theoretical commitments. I further suggested that
this characterization of Nabokov as scientifically "open-minded" be
carried into consideration of parts 2 and 3 of the ALA paper.

2. This section included a very detailed summary of the history and
development of evolutionary biology (and particularly population
genetics) interdigitated with the events of Nabokov's life and the dates
of his scientific research and writing. As initial historical
"markers", I defined and generally dated "Darwinism", "Neo-Darwinism"
and today's "Modern Synthesis". Most important to these
considerations was the fact that Nabokov's years at Harvard occurred
right on the "cusp" between the significant developments of modern
genetics (which are included in "Neo-Darwinism") and the very beginning
of their successful integration into a concept of speciation and
adaptation which are part of today's "Modern Synthesis". Thus: (1)
the elements of the modern synthesis of most interest to Nabokov and his
work--speciation and adaptation-- came about AFTER Nabokov's years at
Harvard; (2) major works "pro" and "con" concerning Neo-Darwinism, and
foreshadowing a synthesis concerning speciation and adaptation, were
occurring precisely while Nabokov was at Harvard (and thus he could have
"credibly" sided with either); and (3) full elaboration of population
genetics within the Modern Synthesis (the major "gap" in Nabokov's
understanding of evolutionary biology) did not occur until the 1960's,
1970's and even beyond. Thus, views articulated by Nabokov while at
Harvard differ little from other mainstream scientists of the day. I
emphasized that "Father's Butterflies" is generally dated from 1939,
significantly before knowledge of modern developments in evolutionary
biology would have been available to Nabokov. I concluded (noting that
Dieter Zimmer has similarly opined independently [in a paper read at the
SSEES conference at Jesus College, Cambridge, July 6-10, 1999]) that
Nabokov would have most likely altered his view of evolutionary theory
with these new data. I also pointed out that the views of evolution's
Modern Synthesis need not interfere with Nabokov's "magical" view of the

3. This section presented a detailed review of modern science's
knowledge of mimicry. I first reviewed in detail animal sensory
systems and predator/prey behavior as they pertain to mimicry. This
review clearly showed that Nabokov's view (held by many in his day) that
detail in mimicry exceeds the perceptual needs of predators is simply
not true. Extensive modern data indicate that insect and bird sensory
systems perceive extensive detail and, accordingly, no amount of detail
in mimicry needs explanation outside a mechanistic understanding of
mimicry as driven by natural selection. Further, I noted that modern
research indicates that detailed mimicry actually occurs in a minority
of cases in nature while an wide range of imperfect mimicry is much more
common and also successful. Thus, Nabokov's appeal to "detail" in
mimicry as an argument against natural selection was in vain and based
simply on the inadequate knowledge of his day. I suggested that Nabokov
would have most likely altered his view on mimicry upon seeing these new

In summary, based on the above, I reviewed a number of recently
published Nabokov anecdotes (mostly from Nabokov's Butterflies) which I
thought might suggest Nabokov did alter some of his positions with
time. These anecdotes have not gained much attention heretofore, but
seem to "make more sense" if interpreted in this manner. I noted that
Victoria Alexander's extremely useful elaboration of Nabokov's science
as "teleo-mechanism" (1) helped explain the aims of his elaborate work
on wing patterns and (2) allow for a characterization of Nabokov as a
true mechanist but one concerned with inherent "direction" in
evolution. Such a characterization rings truer for Nabokov than the
term "creationist" since, as Victoria noted, "teleo-mechanism" does not
require an "outside" force. From these observations I speculated that
perhaps the crucial "missing documents" concerning Nabokov and mimicry
(the text of his speech on mimicry to the Cambridge Entomological Club
[April 12, 1943] and any notes he may have made toward his "mimicry
book" contemplated for Houghton Mifflin) were removed from his files, by
him or someone else, as the "spectre" of research in these areas was
seen not to be turning in his favor. I found it odd that the while the
Cambridge Entomological Club speech on species and speciation (October
10, 1944), which speaks well for him, survives intact, the other speech
is missing. I also noted that some of the anecdotes I reviewed anew
make more sense if Nabokov had indeed changed his mind on mimicry to
some degree. Of course, I noted there is no clear evidence that
Nabokov changed his mind; it is quite possible that he held on to a
highly personalized "teleo-mechanistic" view of natural process and
simply never had the chance to fully articulate it. In closing I
suggested these speculations have merit because currently in entomology
Nabokov is still viewed as an opponent of natural selection whose
personal views did not change but simply faded from the scene as his own
career became more and more detached from the discipline.

I hope to publish this paper in its entirety in the near future. I am
grateful to Brian Boyd, Dieter Zimmer and Victoria Alexander for their
help regarding this paper.