Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nabokov was right about those butterflies

In the NY Times: Nonfiction: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated.

Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. 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.
I wonder why the professional lepidopterists didn't take his ideas seriously? I suspect credential-related snobbery, a form of argument from authority. Looking at the science is more important than looking at the degrees of the scientists.

Update: more about VN and butterflies here. And: Neo-neocon has a thoughtful post on this.

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