Nabokov’s taxonomy

Many thanks to Dieter Zimmer for making his fascinating work A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths available to all readers online. This Web Book is particularly valuable as the original publication is already out-of-print and rare.

This book identifies all the butterflies and moths mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov’s scientific papers and his fiction: not a simple cataloguing job, since their nomenclature has changed repeatedly both during and since Nabokov’s time. As well as being an illustrated taxonomic reference work, it includes a concordance of the many references to Lepidoptera in his novels, poems and stories. It also lists the species named by Nabokov, and those named after himself, his family and characters in his fiction. But in my opinion the most interesting section is the treatment of Nabokov’s concept of the species and his views on evolution.

Vladimir Nabokov had abilities that are often associated with autism. His synaesthesia was well documented and was evident in his literary style. So was his eidetic ability to recall and cross-reference large numbers of mental images. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight he wrote convincingly of how it feels to live in ‘constant wakefulness’ with every impression provoking a multitude of associative ideas. If there were such a thing as an aspie approach to taxonomy, the works of Nabokov might contain some clues to its nature.

While most zoologists were following the Neodarwinist fashion of downplaying morphological evidence and defining biological species based on observed or supposed limits to gene flow, Nabokov defined species on morphology and regarded biological data as secondary. Since he emphasised the morphology of the insects’ genitalia, the boundaries of his morphological species tended to coincide well with the practical limits to interbreeding of sympatric species in the field. He agreed that natural selection was the cause of an organism’s adaptation to its niche and habitat. But he remained sceptical of natural selection as the sole cause of the evolution of morphology of organisms and in particular the very widespread phenomenon of homoplasy (the evolution of similar characters in different clades and species).

Convergence was the old term for one kind of homoplasy: the independent development of similar but possibly superficial characters in widely separate clades. Nabokov understood that this phenomenon must be rare due to the number of genes involved and the statistical improbability of enough mutations with phenotypic effects in the right direction becoming fixed in a taxon. He introduced the new word homopsis for a more usual form of homoplasy: the repetition of characters in related species, due to similar sets of variations appearing in species with a similar genetic basis. This concept can be compared with homologous variation as conceived by the botanist Nicolai Vavilov – a Russian contemporary of Nabokov. Ever the synaesthete, Nabokov described a pattern of variation among species that contained gaps as a syncopated or jerky variational rhythm. For example, if two closely related moths had melanic variants and a third did not, this was an anomaly that called for an explanation.

In the 18th century Linnaeus considered genera to be more real than the species (literally, ‘appearances’) into which they could be divided. But in our time the genus has become an even more slippery concept than the species in biological nomenclature. Nabokov noted the limitations of Linnaeus’ binomial system where, following Aristotle, every species must belong to a genus. A genus of several species is defined by a particular combination of morphological characters that are common to them all. But a single-species genus has no reality beyond the implication that a common character combination would be revealed if some hypothetical, related species were to be found. Genus, species, and all taxonomic categories are noumena rather than phenomena. They exist only as mental constructs by which humans try to impose order on the kaleidoscopic variety of the world.

Many of Nabokov’s novels, and above all Pale Fire, are concerned with questions of identity. I suggest this is a key aspie characteristic: we’re so aware of everything around us that we sometimes have to think twice to find the boundary between self and not-self. Taxonomy is also concerned with postulating discrete entities among the continuous variation of organisms and drawing boundaries that identify them. It’s a branch of science that might have a natural appeal to aspies, as it did to Nabokov who took his first Cambridge degree in zoology, and later while a Lecturer in comparative literature at Harvard would work for up to ten hours per day on the Lepidoptera collection.


Nabokov, V. (1944) Notes on the morphology of the genus Lycaeides (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera). Psyche 51: 104-138.

Nabokov, V. (1945) Notes on the Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera). Psyche 52: 1-61

Vavilov, N. I. (1922) The law of homologous series in variation. Journal of Genetics 12: 47-89.

Zimmer, D.E. (2001-2003) A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths. 438 pp. ISBN 3-00-007609-3


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