I meant "perception," not deception.

From my otherwise laudatory review of Dieter E. Zimmer's magnificent Guide to Nabokov's Butterflies and Moths 2001, in Nabokov Studies 6 (2000-2001), 215-220, at pp. 218-19:

Zimmer does not distinguish sufficiently sharply between Nabokov’s attitude to the species concept, his taxonomic practice, his attitude to evolution and his attitude to Darwinian natural selection as the principal mechanism of evolution. Nabokov’s taxonomy not only “did not lag behind the times” (43), but was ahead of the standard lepidopterological practice of his day in its insistence on microscopic examination and the insufficiency of external characteristics, on the need for large samples where possible, on the role of female as well as male features, and on the aim of phylogenetic reconstruction. After leaving the laboratory, Nabokov unsurprisingly fell gradually behind in his knowledge of the newest techniques for taxonomic determination, but this [219] occurred only after he had stopped writing scientific papers. Writing in 1939, he showed Konstantin Godunov-Cherdynstev in 1917 as hostile to genitalic dissection, but by 1943, after two years at the microscope, he was himself extending the scope of genitalic and alar description, and there is no reason to think that had he returned to the laboratory in the 1950s or later that he would not again have welcomed and extended new taxonomic tools.

Nabokov fully accepted evolution, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to work out phylogenetic relationships within the Blues through the evolution of both genitalia and wing-markings. But what certainly did place him at odds with the direction of twentieth-century biology was his attitude to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the core explanation for the mechanism of evolution. On the one hand, one could argue that even here Nabokov, when seen in the context of his times, was not that out of step with the pace of evolutionary theory. The New Synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian particulate genetics was being worked out in the late 1930s and the 1940s, and was finally consolidated only in the 1950s, after Nabokov left the laboratory.

On the other hand, despite his antipathy to formal religion and his sense that “God” was a hopelessly anthropomorphic term, Nabokov was committed to what had seemed for millennia the natural explanation for the origins of life, a top-down, mind-first explanation. Although he accepted evolution as a principle and Darwin as a scientist of genius, he therefore strongly resisted the intellectual revolution of Darwinian natural selection and its bottom-up rather than top-down principles.

One of his main props for still retaining, a century after Darwin, his deep conviction that there was some form of Mind or Design behind life was the case of mimicry. He was convinced mimicry could not be accounted for by its protective role, because it exceeded predators’ powers of perception and seemed almost designed by some waggish artist for human discovery. But research from the 1950s to the present on many facets of the subject and in many species has presented conclusive evidence for the protective advantages of mimicry, the extraordinary perceptual discrimination of predators, and the power of natural selection to account completely for even the most complex instances of mimicry. What Nabokov’s attitude to these findings would have been—fascination, resistance, admission that his favorite prop for a mind-first version of evolution had been knocked away?—remains impossible to know. I suspect he was too emotionally attached to a top-down explanation for existence to have accepted Darwinism, although he would probably have accepted many of the local advances in Darwinian theory and especially the clarifications of the power of natural selection in mimicry.

Brian Boyd

-----Original Message-----
From: Vladimir Nabokov Forum on behalf of Nabokv-L
Sent: Fri 18/07/2008 11:58 PM
Subject: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: B Boyd on Nabokov and Darwin]

-------- Original Message --------
Subject:        QUERY: B Boyd on Nabokov and Darwin     
Date:   Fri, 18 Jul 2008 00:17:49 -0700 
From:   Laurence Hochard <laurence.hochard@HOTMAIL.FR> <mailto:laurence.hochard@HOTMAIL.FR>     
CC:     Laurence Hochard <laurence.hochard@HOTMAIL.FR> <mailto:laurence.hochard@HOTMAIL.FR>     

I would reply to the Discovery Institute were it really interested in open
debate and facts rather than a priori convictions that (as I have pointed
out elsewhere) Nabokov's assumption that mimicry exceeds predators' powers
of deception* has been falsified.

Brian Boyd

Could you please tell us more about this falsification, or give us links or
references on the subject?
Many thanks,
Laurence Hochard
(*I suppose you mean "powers of appreciation"?)

[EDNote: I can add that some of this information is information in Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates's Nabokov's Blues, but I can't give a specific reference right now. SB]

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