Nabokov's Case Against Natural Selection

Nitin Ahuja (Harvard)


Despite the apparent pleasure he derived from the obscurity of his scientific specialty, Vladimir Nabokov is well-known for his simultaneous interest in literature and Lepidoptera, having made independently significant contributions to both fields. Given his isolation and exaltation of these “two pleasures” as “the most intense known to man,” one is naturally led to wonder whether some correlation exists between them, or more specifically, how Nabokov’s methods and precepts in one pursuit might have influenced his work in the other (Strong Opinions, 3). In particular, Nabokov’s long-maintained refutation of natural selection, an idiosyncrasy underscored by the current entrenchment of Darwinian theory in modern thought, invites such speculation. It is essential to note that Nabokov’s challenge to natural selection was backed by empirical observation and scientifically justifiable in light of available evidence. Still, one may easily discern, at varying depths and intensities, echoes of the elements of Nabokov’s anti-Darwinian argument in his fiction. Such intersections suggest that there exists a meaningful correlation between his scientific views and artistic inclinations, both of which may then be further illuminated.

Nabokov’s expressed rejections of natural selection are generally rooted in his belief that the theory does not fully account for the observed intricacy and sophistication of the natural world. In this regard Nabokov most often highlights the phenomenon of animal mimicry and the extreme degree to which it is often refined: “‘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” (Speak, Memory, 125). Nabokov doubts the need for selective pressure to function on such a painstaking scale, so as to produce, for example, “markings mimicking grub-bored holes” on a butterfly’s leaf-like wings (Speak, Memory, 125). Thus on a scientific level Nabokov argues that the Darwinian model of evolutionary selection is reductive, the posited mechanism being too rudimentary to have produced all of nature’s “fantastic twists and tints” (Strong Opinions, 334).

To explain the resultant stylistic surplus of the natural world, Nabokov looks to what he perceives to be its dominant function, his own pleasure. Nabokov sensibly refrains from including such conjecture in his scientific discourse, but elsewhere repeatedly implies that the natural flourish was, at its inception, intended specifically for human enjoyment. This notion yields in turn the suggestion of conscious oversight by “some waggish artist” whose creative labors in nature are meant “precisely for the intelligent eyes of man” (The Gift, 109). Natural details like the mimicking of ‘grub-bored holes’ may be seen as calling cards of this distant creator, playfully subtle signatures meant to evoke appreciation among careful observers. Amidst his ecstatic appreciation of a natural landscape, therefore, Nabokov feels obligated to honor its putative author: “A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal” (Speak, Memory, 139). Similarly, he senses in his own composition a supernatural stroke: “Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark” (Speak, Memory, 25). In both cases an excess of splendor leads Nabokov to suspect its conscious origin.

Understandably, many commentators are quick to defend Nabokov’s objection to natural selection by highlighting the contextual legitimacy and scientific rigor of his claims. For example, while the current breadth of empirical evidence in support of the Darwinian model is staggering, much of this reinforcement was achieved in the past few decades; as Dieter Zimmer writes, “at the time when Nabokov developed his refutation of natural selection, Darwinian theory was far more open to doubt and discussion than it is today” (Zimmer, 49). Furthermore, as a taxonomist, Nabokov would have been somewhat removed from the evolutionary biology work of even his own day (Pyle, 65). As he knew it, natural selection was still nascent theory, and it is therefore logical that he would consider it vulnerable to criticism.

Additional justification of Nabokov’s views is given by the science with which he backed them. Notably, he accepted “evolution as a modal formula”; his contention is expressly targeted at the notion of selective pressure and random mutation as its driving forces (Nabokov’s Butterflies, 356). Although he could not provide a measure of predatorial perception, his claim that mimetic phenomena exceed such discernment is based on observation and was, as Zimmer notes, “not at all unreasonable” (Zimmer, 50). Similarly, he includes in an early lepidopteral paper an independent argument regarding the unlikelihood of so many rapid evolutionary advancements occurring at random and in tandem: “repetitions of structure…cannot be treated as a result of haphazard ‘convergence’ since the number of coincident characters in one element…exceeds anything that might be produced by chance” (Nabokov’s Butterflies, 356). This challenge, too, has since been resolved by evolutionary biologists, but is again reflective of the scientific attention with which Nabokov developed his claim (Zimmer, 55).

Yet while a contextualization of Nabokov’s perspective is necessary, efforts to further quarantine Nabokov’s anti-Darwinian stance by suggesting that it stands independently of personal artistic or psychological inclinations may be too extreme. Zimmer, for example, asserts that Nabokov’s “concern with mimicry was not a poet’s whim” (Zimmer, 50). Brian Boyd provides an inverted formulation of the same sentiment by attempting to set aside Nabokov’s metaphysical viewpoint: “Although the possibility of a metamorphosis beyond death had everything to do with Nabokov’s art, it bore little relation to his science” (Boyd, 21). Both remarks attempt to separate Nabokov’s scientific and artistic beliefs; Nabokov’s body of literary work, however, suggests that there was in fact much shared ground between the two. Robert Pyle and Charles Remington arrive at more reasonable conclusions regarding Nabokov’s resistance to natural selection:

Perhaps because the subterfuges of mimicry so resembled his own favorite tools as a literary trickster, Nabokov was loath to consign their wonderment to strictly mechanical causes…Remington believes it was Nabokov’s ‘strong metaphysical investment in his challenge to selection’ that made him unsatisfied with a Darwinian explanation (Pyle, 65).

It seems that Nabokov’s view of nature and its governing mechanisms was not merely a formal intellectual stance, but rather lay at the heart of his conception of life and art. Natural selection’s challenge to the existing model was similarly fundamental, which may explain in part the vigor with which Nabokov (a specialist in morphology, not population genetics) attempted to attack it. One may thus identify several correlations between themes in Nabokov’s literature and the ideas employed in his refutation of Darwinism, parallels which should provide a stronger understanding of not only Nabokov’s rejection of natural selection, but also the general mindset with which he approached his scientific and artistic work.

The first theme addressed herein concerns mimicry and deception, which Nabokov identifies as definitive proof against Darwin but also employs as a familiar trope in his fiction. Zimmer notes the extensive historical use of mimetic phenomena as a test for natural selection before proposing that by evoking mimicry, Nabokov is likewise “aiming right at the heart of Darwinism” (Zimmer, 51). Yet while such phenomena may be particularly conducive to the anti-Darwinian argument, the ubiquity of the mimetic motif in Nabokov’s literature indicates an interest that is more than purely scientific. Explicit mention is often made in passing; in Ada, for example, the eponymous takes great pleasure in reproducing a “marvelous flower that simulated a bright moth than in turn simulated a scarab” (Ada, 100). Subtler and more expansive applications of mimetic deception, however, may also be cited. In Pnin, a fundamental shift occurs when the protagonist is relieved of his burden of ridiculous cliché and revealed to be a psychologically intricate individual. One might reasonably argue that this transition is the novel’s crux, in which case its central conceit is the reader’s sudden awareness of Pnin’s emotional depth. This effect vividly recalls Nabokov’s description of “the stab of wonder that accompanies the precise moment when, gazing at a tangle of twigs and leaves, one suddenly realizes that what had seemed a natural component of that tangle is a marvelously disguised insect or bird” (Speak, Memory, 298). Pnin’s initial, banal exterior may thus be seen to correspond to a mimetic disguise, the artful authorial concealment of the protagonist’s autonomous reality. This apparent embedment of mimicry in Nabokov’s literature inevitably gives the notion some artistic valence.

The idea of non-utilitarianism, which directly applies to Nabokov’s view of nature as unguided by selective pressure, is also quite palpable in his art. Nabokov himself notes the connection: “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” (Speak, Memory, 125). Both explicit and implicit illustrations of this theme are available. For instance, motifs in certain novels – specifically, the oblong puddles of Bend Sinister and recurrent squirrels in Pnin – seem to serve as little more than ambient adornment and authorial signatures. This reading is promoted by the significant role Nabokov accords himself, as creator and participant, in both narratives; his presence and influence are overt and subtly reinforced by means of this understated and otherwise ‘nonutilitarian’ patterning. He writes in the Introduction to Bend Sinister that the puddle, fittingly shaped like a “footprint,” “vaguely evokes in him [the protagonist] my [Nabokov’s] link with him: a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty” (Bend Sinister, xv). These patterns echo Nabokov’s rationalization of detail in nature as a breadcrumb trail deliberately left by the good-humored artist.

More oblique strains of non-utilitarianism may be seen to typify Nabokov’s fiction as well. In Ada, for example, the evolutionary necessity of procreation is twice flouted by the novel’s central romance between siblings: incest is openly associated with “various forms of decline,” and Van is literally sterile (Ada, 133). The “lovely and larveless” couple spends life pursuing personal pleasure, ignoring any potential obligation (especially incumbent, one could argue, on such superlative specimens of humanity) to produce offspring (Ada, 95). Nabokov also incorporates non-utilitarianism into his characterization of worthwhile art, whose composition and appreciation, he suggests, rest on seemingly insignificant details: “these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness” (Lectures on Literature, 374). Such sentiments intrinsically emphasize the view of natural detail as the primary locus of non-utilitarian aesthetic satisfaction.

The simultaneous entrenchment of these themes in Nabokov’s science and art, as suggested by their relative significance in both contexts, provides a primary link between his refutation of natural selection and his distinctly non-scientific concerns. The remaining three themes to be considered – order, immortality, and enchantment – are relevant in a more extrapolative sense, tied to Nabokov’s science in that they are made possible by his personal conception of nature. Correspondingly, each may be seen as somewhat excluded by the Darwinian model and may thus suggest specific reasons for Nabokov’s anti-Darwinian stance.

The first of these, order, is perhaps the one most commonly associated with a conceptual aversion to natural selection. The heavy emphasis Darwinism places on chance comes in stark opposition with an often inherent faith in deliberate action; in adopting Darwinian logic one is forced to recognize that nature is governed by hazard and by consequence fundamentally unpredictable. The notion, in its proscription of the underlying design and agency that one hopes to discover outside oneself, may therefore lead to psychological discomfort. Nabokov’s novels, of course, are uniformly characterized by meticulous planning and supreme control: “the design of my novel is fixed in my imagination and every character follows the course I imagine for him. I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth” (Strong Opinions, 69). The experience is by no means universal. For certain writers it is just the opposite: their fictional creatures, by sheer strength of character, seem to determine for themselves what happens in the novel. One might associate this latter scenario with natural selection in that the shaping forces are, in both cases, internally situated. Nabokov harshly condemns this view, calling such writers “very minor or insane” (Strong Opinions, 69). One might thus rationalize Nabokov’s refutation of Darwinism as a comparable denial of feeble or senseless natural governance.

Nabokov’s particular vision of nature also offers some unspoken resistance against the certainty of mortality. The potential subversion of death by means of an unconventional afterlife is another common theme in his fiction. The protagonist of Bend Sinister, for example, is finally saved from impending doom by an act on Nabokov’s part of narrative dissolution; the fictional world is terminated as convoluted proof of the fact that “death was but a question of style” (Bend Sinister, 241). Similarly in Ada the theme of Terra, a putative sister-planet to the novel’s Antiterra, is interpreted by some as a postmortem destination. In his autobiography, Nabokov frequently alludes to a personal struggle with mortality by describing ideal circumstances under which the passage of time is transcended: “nothing will ever change, nobody with ever die” (Speak, Memory, 77). This impulse may be tied to Nabokov’s anti-Darwinism for the simple reason that the hypothesized ‘contrapuntal genius of human fate’ would support the possibility of some form of eternal life. Notably, Nabokov was consistently opposed to organized religion; he was also, however, undeniably concerned with the problem of death. One might therefore contend that his skepticism of Darwinism was fostered, on some level, as a knee-jerk defense of the prospect of immortality.

Finally, one may consider the theme of wonderment in Nabokov’s literature in possible connection with his anti-Darwinian position. While it is difficult to concretely identify the evocation of wonder in any given novel, Nabokov exalts the capacity to do so as the definitive measure of a successful practitioner: “it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer” (Lectures on Literature, 5). This same enchantment, he suggests, may be found in nature, and indeed seems to be the primary motivation behind Nabokov’s scientific pursuits: “The tactile delights of precise delineation, the silent paradise of the camera lucida…represent the artistic side of the thrill which accumulation of new knowledge, absolutely useless to the layman, gives its first begetter” (Strong Opinions, 79). One may detect an undercurrent of sadness in Nabokov’s personal writing regarding the latent transience of certain manifestations of this magic: “it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel…as something in a scrambled picture – Find What the Sailor Has Hidden – that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen” (Speak, Memory, 310). This particular ‘stab of wonder’ is irreversible and tragically irretrievable. Natural observation, however, is apparently a source of more lasting amazement, a sort of never-ending game in which, as Nabokov hints in Bend Sinister, “the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it” (Bend Sinister, 106). A recurrently enfeebling portrayal of the ultimate power of science suggests his belief that natural enchantment is inexhaustible: “I don’t believe that any science today has pierced any mystery…the situation remains as hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of nature” (Strong Opinions, 44-45).

One might argue, then, that natural selection poses a threat to wonderment in that it attempts to explain life’s workings too logically and completely. If correct, Darwinism would cause the supposedly everlasting spring of inspiration to be found in the natural world to run dry. In arguing for the artistic importance of irrational considerations, Nabokov asserts, “Blood may well be the Silurian sea in our veins, and we are all ready to accept evolution at least as a model formula…But again it is one thing to try and find the links and steps of life, and it is quite another to try and understand what life and the phenomenon of inspiration really are” (Lectures on Literature, 378). One might see this investigative dichotomy as corresponding to the related tasks of Nabokov’s science and art, respectively. It is possible, then, Nabokov viewed Darwinism’s attempt to answer a latter-type question (that is, ‘what life really is’) as leaving the realm of practicable empirical argument. Perhaps Nabokov retained the hope (or belief) that natural enchantment was inherently impervious to the sort of definitive exposition that the theory of natural selection attempted.

While the above correlations and justifications may be seen as increasingly speculative, they do seem to signify, as a group, Nabokov’s deep-seated attachment to a specific conception of nature that is directly threatened by Darwinian theory. His investment in his own model, while not empirically groundless, appears to far exceed the traditional scope of scientific conviction. Ideas of mimicry, non-utilitarianism, order, immortality and wonder all carry significant aesthetic or emotive weight for Nabokov while at the same time bearing relevance to his scientific arguments. These thematic links suggest that Nabokov’s scientific and artistic views may be inextricable. Empirical justification aside, Nabokov’s refutation of Darwinism seems at least partially attributable to pre-existing aesthetic inclinations

This conclusion is not surprising in light of Nabokov’s own articulation of the intimate relationship between art and science. Although at times he seems to attempt a partition – by saying for example that butterfly hunting and writing “belong essentially to quite different types of enjoyment” – he more often suggests that he is conscious of his own tendency to bridge the two pursuits (Strong Opinions, 39-40). In reviewing a collection of entomological illustrations, Nabokov posits the existence of “a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination” (Strong Opinions, 330). Such a ridge would likely seem to Nabokov an ideal place to establish intellectual camp. Similar integrative sentiment is found in Ada: “how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously…art and science meet in an insect, in a thrush, in a thistle of that ducal bouquet” (Ada, 436). For Nabokov, the intersection of the two seems to be effortless. He embraces “the free interchange of terminology between any branch of science and any raceme of art”; one might suggest that it is a small leap from this point to the intermingling of larger guiding principles (Strong Opinions, 79).

In light of the proposed synthetic ideology, it may be worthwhile to reconsider the tendency of commentators to defend Nabokov’s work as a scientist. Zimmer, like Boyd and Pyle, stresses the point that “Nabokov’s rejection of Darwinism in no way impeded or tainted his scientific work as a taxonomist” (Zimmer, 43). On a basic level the claim is undeniably true; Nabokov’s contribution to lepidopteral systematics was real and significant (Pyle, 58). In a more theoretical sense, however, the extent to which his approach to science is directed by artistic impulses may give one pause. The idea is reinforced by Nabokov’s identification of personal gratification as the central motivation and goal of the scientific enterprise: “keen pleasure…what else should the pursuit of science produce?” (Speak, Memory, 298). Additionally, Nabokov often reiterates a philosophy of self-isolation with regard to his pursuits: “I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth” (Strong Opinions, 33). While the “ivory tower” where Nabokov advises writers to reside may be useful in artistic endeavors, its benefit to a scientist is less obvious – yet there Nabokov apparently remains (Lectures on Literature, 371). Conventional perceptions of science are closely tied to ideas of collective understanding and reason accompanied but uncolored by emotion. One might thus argue that Nabokov’s artistic inclinations do influence his scientific legacy in that they necessitate qualification: at the broadest levels, his science appears to be guided by an intensely personal perspective. The effect is not necessarily diminishing; the relative merit and ultimate distinction of Nabokov’s particular brand of science are certainly up for debate. Nonetheless, one feels compelled to individuate his work along these lines.

Boyd, Pyle and Zimmer all address the question of whether Nabokov, if privy to the full burden of proof now available in support of natural selection, would accept the Darwinian model as true. The general consensus is affirmative. Perhaps the next question to ask is how this conversion, by forcing a complete overhaul of Nabokov’s natural views, could have shaped his later fiction. Nabokov’s artistic precepts and staple themes are of course compelling enough to stand on their own, but one wonders to what extent a gloss of Darwinian utilitarianism might have altered the author’s basic literary sensibilities.


Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. “Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera.” Introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies. Eds. Brian Boyd and Robert M. Pyle. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Ada, or Ardor. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Gift. Trans. Michael Scammell and Vladimir Nabokov. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt: 1980.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Nabokov’s Butterflies. Eds. Brian Boyd and Robert M. Pyle. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Pyle, Robert M. “Between Climb and Cloud: Nabokov among the Lepidopterists.” Introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies. Eds. Brian Boyd and Robert M. Pyle. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Zimmer, Dieter E. A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths. Hamburg: 2001.