NABOKV-L post 0005429, Fri, 4 Aug 2000 11:28:57 -0700

Subject
TLS review of _Nabokov's Butterflies_
Date
Body
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> From: Mvoscol@aol.com Manfred Voss
>
>
> A review of Boyd and Pyle's Nabokov's Butterflies takes pride of place in

> this week's Times Literary Supplement (August 4, 2000), pp. 3-4
("Humbert's
> humming-birds: Butterfly mind: Nabokov, Linnaeus, lepidoptera and
Lolita",
> one of a number of reviews of books dealing with natural history). The
> reviewer is Mark Ridley, a lecturer at Somerville College and a member of
the
> Zoology Department at the University of Oxford. The butterfly on the TLS

> front page is unidentified and does not look very blue to my untutored
eyes,
> but then, as we have learned, not all blues are blue. "Nabokov's
pursuits"
> in large letters refers to the review inside. On p. 3 there is a
> reproduction of a familiar photograph of VN wielding a butterfly net
> (Halsman, Montreux, 1968).
>
> The review itself is largely positive. At the outset some of the history
of
> VN's involvement with lepidoptera is rehearsed. The reviewer points out
that
> Boyd/Pyle "have overlooked one nice caterpillar. In the scene late in
The
> Gift when Fyodor loses his clothes, there is a conversation in which
Fyodor
> is "watching a little geometrid caterpillar that was checking the number
of
> inches between the two writers": a neat description of the looping,
> earth-measuring movement that is distinctive of (and etymologically
proper
> in) geometrid caterpillars (p. 3)."
>
> "The anthology is more of a source-book than one to read cover-to-cover,
but,
> if it is read as a whole, it provides a picture not only of Nabokov's
> scientific contributions but also of the relation between his science,
his
> writing and his life. [...] One point that the editors wish to make is
that
> Nabokov was not some lightweight dabbler, but a scientist who can be
judged
> by professional standards. They can seem excessively defensive of
Nabokov's
> reputation, but the anthology drives their point home. Two long papers
> reorganized two taxa of blue butterflies, and they still remain a
starting
> point for taxonomic research on the blues (p. 3)."
>
> "Nabokov also thought about taxonomic theory. He disliked the newfangled

> species concept which defined species in terms of interbreeding. He
thought
> it an impractical criterion, for a museum taxonomist working with dead
> specimens. He preferred the older "morphological" species concept, which

> would define a butterfly by what it looked like rather than who it could
> breed with. Here he backed the wrong horse. The interbreeding concept
has
> won, and the morphological concept has been discarded, not least because
of
> the arguments of Ernst Mayr - who was working near Nabokov at Harvard.
The
> anthology includes a letter from Nabokov to Mayr, and it reveals that
they
> had formerly discussed species concepts: but Nabokov was one "typologist"

> whom Mayr failed to persuade. Nabokov was something of a taxonomic
splitter,
> and his morphological concept of species was part of the reason.
> The anthology includes an amazing document about Nabokov's taxonomic
> thinking, in the unpublished addendum to The Gift. It is a thirty-six
page,
> unused final chapter for the novel, purportedly describing the taxonomic
> ideas of Fyodor's father. But it is reprinted as a whole and can be read
as
> a stand-alone essay. It reminded me of the idealistic "quinarian" system
of
> the pre-Darwinian taxonomist MacLeay, though MacLeay was probably not
> Nabokov's source. Nabokov suggests that the subgroups within a taxonomic

> group make up a circle of forms. He is not explicit, but I believe that
he
> had in mind something like this. Suppose a genus contains six species.
The
> six species might be forms that were respectively white, pink, red,
purple,
> dark blue and light blue, as the light blue form closes the circle back
to
> the white form. MacLeay's quinarian system suggested that there are
always
> five subgroups per group, arranged in a circle. Nabokov does not favour
the
> number five, but suggests other numbers, such as four, six, or eight.
> Nabokov's ideas will sound crazy to most biologists. Biologists
interpret
> the Linnaean pattern of groups and subgroups in terms of the accidents of

> when species split or become extinct in the evolutionary "tree" of life;
> there is no evidence for circular sets of forms, and no reason to expect
them
> to exist. Nabokov himself made no use of his theoretical system in his
later
> taxonomical research. Where did his ideas come from? Nabokov saw the
> circular sets of species as reflecting a concealed design in nature -
> concealed, but accessible to an artist-scientist with the right
intelligence.
> Biologists might here sniff religion, or even creationism; but I suspect
the
> inspiration lies elsewhere as becomes clearer in his equally unorthodox
ideas
> about mimicry. (pp. 3-4)." Etc.
>
> Manfred Voss