Category Archives: Comments

Very positive review of Fine Lines today in Nature!

VN Alexander’s latest work on the surprising non-utilitarian evolutionary mechanisms behind butterfly mimicry will appear in March 2016 in Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art, published by Yale University Press.Nature Fine Lines 531304a


VN Alexander on butterflies and artificial intelligence

PopMatters interviewed me about my work as a Public Scholar at NY Council for the Humanities. I am available to speak at any NY state non-profit (at NYCH’s expense) on one of two art-science topics, one on Vladimir Nabokov’s theory of insect mimicry and one on artificial intelligence. The article also links to Fine Lines a beautiful new book from Yale UP about Nabokov’s “scientific art.” I have a chapter in the book along with some really outstanding lepidopterists and science writers. The interview also gives an introduction to my work in biosemiotics. popmatters

Nabokov’s controversial theory of insect mimicry

Blackwell FineLines LJD 10_22_15
Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art
Yale University Press, March 22, 2016  $50

Coming soon, my latest work on Nabokov:

Writing about insects that play the mimic far better than is necessary to fool predators, Nabokov notes, “I found in nature the kinds of non-utilitarian delights I sought in art.” With this Rosetta nugget, we better understand how Nabokov’s art and science inform each other. As a scientist, Nabokov argued that natural selection, because it is not a source of variation, has no actual creative powers. As an artist, he understood creative processes; he saw himself in nature and nature in himself… Nabokov rejected Darwinian “gradual accumulation of resemblance” as an explanation for mimicry. Instead, he thought that some butterfly resemblances were more or less probable coincidences (as in the similarity between the Viceroy and the Monarch) while others were unlikely coincidences (as in the butterfly that looks like a dead leaf).  He did not think that fitness selection was necessary or able to explain how such resemblances came to exist. In his fiction, Nabokov compared such coincidences to a funny typo that could give new meaning to a sentence: “the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower.”  – excerpt from ”Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the ‘Non-utilitarian Delights’ of Butterfly Mimicry.”

I started researching Nabokov’s theory of insect mimicry in 2000, while I was at the Santa Fe Institute when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation (now Biologist’s Mistress). The Nabokov work is related to the dissertation, but it needed to stand alone as a separate piece. I published a working paper at SFI, ”Neutral Evolution and Aesthetics: Vladimir Nabokov and Insect Mimicry, which was later revised and published as “Nabokov,Teleology, and Insect Mimicry” in Nabokov Studies and lately translated into Czech by Filip Jaros and published in Krása a zvíře (Beauty and the Beast) in 2015. In 2010, Stanley Salthe and I went a bit deeper and wider in “Monstrous Fate: The Problem of Authorship and Evolution by Natural Selection” in  Annals of Scholarship. And now finally, I offer the culmination of all this work in my new essay, ”Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the ‘Non-utilitarian Delights’ of Butterfly Mimicry,” in Fine Lines, edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson. Available in March. I am very proud of this work, honored to be among some very distinguished scientists and Nabokov specialists, in a beautiful volume with rich colored plates showing Nabokov’s art.  

Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art
Yale University Press, March 22, 2016  $50

This landmark book is the first full appraisal of Vladimir Nabokov’s long-neglected contributions as a scientist. Although his literary achievements are renowned, until recently his scientific discoveries were ignored or dismissed by many. Nabokov created well over 1,000 technical illustrations of the anatomical structures of butterflies, seeking to understand the evolutionary diversity of small butterflies called Blues. But only lately have scientists confirmed his meticulous research and vindicated his surprising hypotheses.

This volume reproduces 154 of Nabokov’s drawings, few of which have ever been seen in public, and presents essays by ten leading scientists and Nabokov specialists. The contributors underscore the significance of Nabokov’s drawings as scientific documents, evaluate his visionary contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics, and offer insights into his unique artistic perception and creativity.

Stephen H. Blackwell is professor of Russian, University of Tennessee. He is the author of The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov’s Art and the Worlds of Science. He lives in Knoxville, TN. Kurt Johnson is author or coauthor of more than 200 journal articles on Lepidoptera and coauthor of Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.


“This collection explains to the layman just why Nabokov’s scientific work was so successful and important. The drawings are absolutely stunning—even to someone without a scientific background they are arresting. Lepidopterists will surely want to own it, but more importantly, this will be a treasure for Nabokov fans.”—Eric Naiman, author of Nabokov, Perversely

“This is a very valuable contribution to understanding one of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century. It is a superb example of how a creative mind can combine art and science in ways that make them both greater than they would have otherwise been. A landmark book.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University

“What makes this volume special is not so much its attempt to merge Nabokov’s philosophy and science, but its ability to include all the relevant authors on the subject of Nabokov’s dual nature.”—Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics

“After a period of separation during the 20th century, the convergent territories of science and art are once again providing a fertile ground for understanding the complexities of the world we live in. Fine Linespresents a welcome and rare insight into Nabokov’s obsessive attention to detail so prominent in his writing. The rich collection of his illustrations, reveal an unintended artistry born out of meticulous observation. Drawings of wing cells appear like working diagrams for Art Deco rugs and the ambiguous surreal forms of the reproductive organs of butterflies reveal a synchronous synergy with the drawings of Miro and David Smith.”—Rob Kesseler, co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers

Fine Lines presents a welcome and rare insight into Nabokov’s obsessive attention to detail so prominent in his writing. The rich collection of his illustrations, reveal an unintended artistry born out of meticulous observation.”—Rob Kesseler, co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers

“The wonderful drawings and remarkable essays in this book allow us to trace Nabokov’s steps in many ways and on many pages. The result is a long close-up of an ideal form of curiosity.”—Michael Wood, Princeton University


Biologist’s Mistress mentioned in Sagan’s article


Rethinking Evolution: Review by Bruce Clarke

A View from the 21st Century, by James A. Shapiro and: The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature by Victoria N. Alexander

From: Configurations

Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 2012 pp. 335-340 | 10.1353/con.2012.0012

In her brilliant Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), science-fiction author Octavia Butler introduces a strain of alien beings, the Oankali. Some of them possess specialized organs capable of manipulating and recombining the Oankali’s genes with those of other species. The Oankali, we learn, are gene traders: “We trade the essence of ourselves. Our genetic material for yours”; when pressed by the human protagonist to explain what this means, her Oankali interlocutor continues: “We do what you would call genetic engineering. . . . We do it naturally” (40). Researching Butler’s depiction of horizontal, interspecific gene transfer among metazoan humanoids, I queried her about the source of the science, if any, she was adapting to this fiction. Butler had indeed not made it up. She graciously specified that her sources included Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, first published in 1986. Early in that popular text, after discussing the decoding of DNA and of the mechanisms of genetic transmission, Margulis and Sagan continue, “A second evolutionary dynamic is a sort of natural genetic engineering. . . . Prokaryotes routinely and rapidly transfer different bits of genetic material to other individuals. . . . These exchanges are a standard part of the prokaryotic repertoire” (16).

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