Nabokov and His Butterflies

I always knew author Vladimir Nabokov was a self-taught butterfly expert. But I didn’t know that a 1945 hypothesis of his, regarding the evolution of Polyommatus blues, which was dismissed during his time has since become accepted by the scientific community.

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.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.

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