Tag Archives: biosemiotics

New Republic Reviews Fine Lines

“One of the most revealing essays in the volume is Victoria N. Alexander’s examination of the way Nabokov’s views on butterfly evolution enlivened his imagination.”



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


How can art and science interact meaningfully?

Based on a talk at the Leonardo Art and Science Rendezvous (LASER) meeting in NYC on April 12, 2014, Victoria N Alexander, PhD discusses how art can benefit science through a biosemiotic perspective. This is the second video in the “Science, Art and Biosemiotics” series, produced and directed by Lucian Rex.


The Science of Making Choices

What happens in our bodies when we decide to go right or left?  What makes our decisions? What do we really mean by choice? VN Alexander, PhD gives a complexity science-biosemiotic view on the science of making choices,  the first in the “Science, Art, and Biosemiotics” Series, produced and directed by Lucian Rex. FRS-102-WHITE-SQUARE