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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Clearing Up The Chaos in the Genital Parking Lot

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2011

Harvard researcher Naomi Pierce and her co-authors have just published a paper vindicating a far-reaching theory about butterflies proposed by Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as a novelist.  In a nice article in the New York Times, Carl Zimmer writes:

He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

Nabokov once described the years he spent working as a professional lepidopterist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology as ”the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life.”   He found the work so rapturously diverting that at one point Vera, his wife, had to speak to him sternly about his true calling. Sulking, Nabokov pulled the manuscript of his latest novel out from under a pile of butterfly articles and recollected that, oh, yes, he could write, too.

You can read more about his ideas on classification and what I once termed “chaos in the genital parking lot” in a previous Times article I wrote, about the book Nabokov’s Blues.  It also reminds me of a passage I included in my book The Species Seekers, but ultimately had to omit because I could not locate a proper source to grant me reprint permission:

Nabokov once asserted that the satisfaction of naming a new butterfly species (“I found it and I named it …”) exceeded even literary acclaim:

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,

poems that take a thousand years to die

but ape the immortality of this

red label on a little butterfly.

To be a naturalist was to play a part in building a great and permanent body of knowledge. But, significantly, he chose to make this point in a poem.

OTHER READING:

An interesting web site says the butterfly in question was Nabokov’s pug   But you can’t name a species after yourself, and this suggests the pug was named for him by someone else. See also.

The new paper on genetic analysis is by Vila, R., C. Bell, et al  “Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World” Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print January 26, 2011, doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.2213

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