Sun January 30, 2011

'Lolita' Author Nabokov Was Right About Butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov is best known for penning classics like Lolita and Pale Fire, but he was also pretty handy with a butterfly net.

Nabokov was a talented amateur lepidopterist. So good, in fact, that he was appointed to a research fellowship at Harvard University in the 1940s, where he ended up in charge of the butterfly collections. It was there that Nabokov came up with a theory that Harvard biology professor Naomi Pierce was astonished to find to be true.

An Asian Butterfly In South America

Nabokov's particular specialty was a group of South American butterflies called the Polyommatus blues, which at the time were not well-understood by the American scientific community. In 1945, Nabokov published a paper laying out a very complex theory about the origins of these blue butterflies.

"He believed that they came from ancestors in Southeast Asia," Pierce tells Weekend on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Pierce is the curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology — essentially the same job Nabokov held more than 60 years ago.

The Time-Traveling Biologist

In the paper, Nabokov laid out how these butterflies left Southeast Asia and came across the Bering land bridge and down into South America in five waves, beginning about 11 million years ago. The paper was written with the flair of a fiction author.

"He describes a biologist in a Wellsian time machine, coming up through the Cenozoic," Pierce says. "First they'll see this group, and then the next group, and then the next group. And he's very precise about both the ordering of those groups, the classification of those groups, and the timing."

Nabokov didn't have access to modern molecular technologies; he arrived at his theory after painstaking hours spent at the microscope studying butterfly genitalia. But when Pierce and her colleagues recently decided to use DNA testing to examine those theories, they were astonished at their findings: Nabokov had been right. About everything.

"I was blown away," Pierce says, "because he made these five predictions about what our time traveler would see, and he was spot-on correct about all of them." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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