Nabokov and Evolution

January 26, 2011

Tags: evolution, Nabokov, Zimmer, Pierce, butterflies

Carl Zimmer has a wonderful article at the New York Times on the confirmation of Vladimir Nabokov's once-ridiculed idea about the evolution of his favorite group of butterflies, the Polyomattus blues. In 1945, when Nabokov published his idea that the butterflies had made their way from Asia, across the Bering Strait, and down to Chile in five different waves, there was no way to test his hypothesis. Today, thanks to research methods built on the discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA, it's possible to construct evolutionary trees by isolating and comparing genes from closely related organisms. And that's just what a team led by Naomi Pierce at Harvard has done with these beautiful insects. Zimmer's article explains why their findings confirm Nabokov's hypothesis.

Pierce's team used some of the most advanced tools available to biologists. But their research fundamentally relies on Nabokov's painstaking efforts to develop an accurate classification of the different species within the group--classifications that the team re-examined and found reliable. To me, this is an example of the most interesting kind of biological research: the melding of advanced investigation of molecules with old-fashioned close and patient observation of organisms, both fueled by passionate creativity.

Zimmer's blog post has links to his Times article, to the Pierce paper, and to Nabokov's monograph.


"...a compelling introduction to evolution in action through the lens of spiders and their silks."

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