Posted by: davidlarkin | July 20, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov – “Furious” Darwin Doubter

Although I do not care to have two posts on evolution and Darwinism in a row, today I was reviewing a link here to an intelligent design blog, uncommon descent. Though it is written by some very smart people, I decided that often the tone of the blog was as dismissive, derisive and proud as the public tone of the Darwinist opponents. Though it is hard to be humble in a dispute over important ideas, I deleted it from my blog links.

For me, intelligent design is not “creationist” in the sense that those who believe that God created the heavens and the earth in seven 24-hour days use the term. After review of the evidence, I simply do not believe that in four and one-half billion years, random interactions of particles in fields of force could produce biological nature as we know it without some outside source for the information embedded in DNA, and especially the information necessary for instigating the remarkable abrupt changes in organisms giving rise to what we call species, and for the incredible biological structures and ecological adaptations, both macro and micro, found on this earth. It is too improbable. Among the many conundrums, no one can yet explain how life evolved from living cells without nuclei to living cells with nuclei. It has been proposed that fusion of one living cell with another one-celled organism, which somehow becomes the nucleus of the host is an explanation for the evolutionary leap. However, there is no convincing explanation of how that could happen randomly or otherwise. Generally, the evolution argument avoids real problems like this, relying on the inner-species mutations of pathogenic bacteria to prove the case, for example. Micro-evolution within species is not controversial, yet it does not explain the big leaps, from cell with no nucleus to cell with nucleus, punctuated origin of species, and the genesis of life itself. Hence, I find myself aligned with the intelligent design proponents and other Darwin doubters.

In googling around, I found this discussion of Vladimir Nabokov and his opposition to Darwinian evolution on another ID blog, , to which which I added a blog link. I had no idea that Nabokov was at one time a research fellow at Harvard in entomology studying butterflies. According to his biographer, Nabokov was “profoundly indifferent” to religion. Nabokov is another example, like David Berlinski, that finding intelligent design in nature is not limited to theists.

Vladimir Nabokov, “Furious” Darwin Doubter

So was Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) secretly a fundamentalist Christian, a mad man, or just plain ignorant? The great novelist (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin) was, in his own telling, a “furious” critic of Darwinian theory. He based the judgment not on religion, to which biographer Brian Boyd writes that he was “profoundly indifferent,” but on decades of his scientific study of butterflies, including at Harvard and the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, this was all before the culture-wide sclerosis of Darwinian orthodoxy set in.

As Boyd notes in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, “He could not accept that the undirected randomness of natural selection would ever explain the elaborateness of nature’s designs, especially in the most complex cases of mimicry where the design appears to exceed any predator’s powers of apprehension.”

Boyd summarized the artist’s scientific bona fides in an appreciation in Natural History.

For most of the 1940s, he served as de facto curator of lepidoptera at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and became the authority on the little-studied blue butterflies (Polyommatini) of North and South America. He was also a pioneer in the study of butterflies’ microscopic anatomy, distinguishing otherwise almost identical blues by differences in their genital parts.

Later employed at Harvard as a research fellow in entomology while teaching comp lit at Wellesley, Nabokov published scientific journal articles in The Entomologist, The Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, The Lepidopterists’ News, and Psyche: A Journal of Entomology.

According to Boyd, Nabokov wrote “a major article,” subsequently lost, “with ‘furious refutations of “natural selection” and “the struggle for life.”‘” He completed the paper in 1941 but all that survives is a fragment in his memoir, Speak, Memory:

The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (“Don’t eat me–I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected”). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. “Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.

Sounds like…intelligent design?

That’s what Amardeep Singh thought. He teaches literature at the same university (Lehigh) where Darwin-doubter Michael Behe has been made to feel very unwelcome. Singh comments in a blog entry that his students are startled to read the passage from Speak, Memory. I bet.

My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov’s way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish. And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the “miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior”: any mutant variety that doesn’t exhibit a perfect imitation is going to get eaten. And if you have enough random-pattern butterflies getting eaten over time, eventually a strain that has a slightly better design is going to come around and not get eaten.

Comforting! But Singh misses the point of Nabokov’s question. It’s not the perfection of the pattern that needs an explanation. The novelist/lepidopterist asked, if a particular artistic subtlety in that perfection is beyond the ability of a predator to perceive, how did nature select it?

Related Posts
Who’s a Leftist Creationist?
Stephen Jay Gould’s Dissent
Origins of Life
Evolution “Invents” a New Photoreceptor in Humans


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