NABOKV-L post 0006068, Wed, 11 Jul 2001 10:03:09 -0700

Abstract 2001 ALA session
EDITOR's NOTE. NABOKV-l thanks Victoria Alexander. Her paper was part of
the set delivered at the Boston ALA meeting along with Kurt Johnson's.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Abstract 2001 ALA session
Date: Wed, 11 Jul 2001 12:14:03 -0400
From: "" <>

Here is my abstract for the conf. paper, as well as a link to the full

Victoria Alexander

Vladimir Nabokov argued, rather heretically, that some instances of
insect mimicry did not result from Darwinian survival strategies. I
contend Nabokov was at least partially correct in his belief that
certain forms of mimicry are not the result of the various functions or
purposes that they served at one time or another, leading gradually to
the organism's adaptation to the environment. Recent advances in
evolutionary biology, namely structural evolution and neutral
evolution, can be shown to support his arguments. I also argue it was
Nabokov's aesthetic interest in the mechanisms behind apparently
teleological phenomena that gave him the insight he needed to construct
a theory of mimicry that was quite progressive for his time.

As an artist, teleology was Nabokov's natural mode of analysis.
Teleology is, after all, derived from an analogy with the concept of
artistic intentionality. Nabokov's work recognizes that teleology
involves two distinct aspects, what I call originality and
directionality. On the one hand, art can be defined as an essentially
creative act that instigates a new causal chain. On the other hand, art
has also been defined as an engineering-like activity that synthesizes
already existing elements according to known laws. If a work of art were
completely original it would be unintelligible. If, however, a work of
art were completely directional it would be too predictable. Therefore,
an art object must be both original and directional. Likewise,
organisms in nature that are formed according to mechanistic laws and
yet function in advantageous ways not predicted by those laws seem
telic, that is, organized toward a goal. As far as Nabokov's lepidoptery
is concerned, on the one hand!
, he apparently understood the directional aspect of telos as a form of
spontaneous organization, which could, for example, help explain the
similarity between viceroy and monarch butterflies, a phenomenon then
known as Batesian mimicry. He claimed that neither species benefited
from the resemblance, so it seemed a case of design without purpose. On
the other hand, he saw a degree of telic originality in a butterfly that
looks like a dead leaf. In this case, he argued the resemblance could
not be attributed to a mechanistic cause (laws of pattern formation, as
in the viceroy-monarch relation), any more than it could to an efficient
cause (duped predators, as in natural selection), but must be attributed
to a coincidental cause.

See full text

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