Tag Archives: complexity science and the arts

Tonstant Weader Reviews Fine Lines

…I also enjoyed Victoria Alexander’s Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the ‘Non-Utilitarian Delights’ of Butterfly Mimicry. “The chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower” as Nabokov described how nature seems to do more than it needs to do merely for survival. While some of the science is quite technical, her writing is clear and also lyrical.




The New Yorker reviews Fine Lines


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My contribution to the volume is an essay entitled, “Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes and the ‘Non-utilitarian Delights’ of Insect Mimicry.”  See more at http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/vladimir-nabokov-butterfly-illustrator?intcid=mod-latest

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


VN Alexander selected to be Public Scholar for the NY Council for the Humanities

I will be available to give public lectures through the New York Council for the Humanities.  Qualifying non-profit organizations in New York State can apply online at nyhumanities.org


I will lecture on the following topics:

Vladimir Nabokov and Insect Mimicry: the artist as scientist

Vladimir Nabokov, controversial novelist and equally controversial butterfly scientist, didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty viceroy species look like the bitter tasting monarch, allowing it to survive better.

Nabokov thought look-alike butterflies could appear in a single generation, by chance, without serving any purpose. He had spent years studying and drawing wing patterns with an artist’s eye and could guess how they were likely to change. Since Nabokov was also a devout empiricist, he tasted the monarch and viceroy for himself and found both bitter. It took other scientists thirty years watching mockingbirds do taste tests to come to the same conclusion. He also thought the deadleaf butterfly is a product of chance, because, for one thing, it doesn’t look anything like the leaves in its neighborhood. Nabokov claimed he “found in mimicry the kinds of non-utilitarian delights he sought in art.”

The Darwinists in the 40s didn’t appreciate Nabokov’s logic or his audacity and attacked him for being unscientific. But recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic intuitions were incredibly accurate. It now seems amazing new forms may appear in a single generation. In his fiction, Nabokov compared such coincidences as mimicry to a funny typo that could give new meaning to a sentence: “the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower.”

The presentation will include many fantastic images of insect mimicry and Nabokov’s own butterfly drawings. We will discuss how Nabokov’s experience creating imaginary worlds gave him insight into the process of creation in the natural world and how important art is to good science.

What can Art teach us about Artificial Intelligence?

With the rise of smart phones and weapons and artificial intelligence, we may wonder, What is intelligence?  What’s the difference between an organism and a machine that can seek an object, read a sign, or preserve itself?  Both can obtain goals, set either by evolution or design.  Can a robot learn?  If so, do organisms and machines use similar methods for learning, remembering and interpreting?

Philosophers have long debated whether or not animals are really organic machines. Some think that an animal interpreting something in the environment and apparently making a choice is actually controlled by countless physical forces. If so, then eventually science should be able to create true artificial intelligence.

Or maybe not. Biologists studying cell signaling have found that even the simplest unit of life can make interpretations in ways that most complex smart machines cannot. Biological processes can be creative; they can seize upon chance associations, which machines are usually designed to ignore. Some smart technologies now use fuzzy logic or neural networks to make them more flexible and precise, but as yet machines are still unable to invent new knowledge in the way that organisms can.

Questions about interpretation and learning are questions about contextual meaning and creativity, topics that traditionally have been viewed as off limits to science and left to artists and poets to ponder. Now some scientists are turning to artists to better understand intelligence. Examining smart technologies can inspire us to learn about our own learning processes and improve the way we approach education and communication. It may also help us decide whether or not it’s a good idea to make truly intelligent machines. This presentation will give audiences access to the abstract world of cognition through clear visual models and creative examples using puns, narratives, and poetry.

Creativity and Value: How A NonProfit Art Foundation Can Use Complex Systems Theory

The following is a talk I gave at a conference in 2010. -VNA

Creativity and Value: How A NonProfit Art Foundation Can Use Complex Systems Theory
August 2010
Adelphi University
Conference on Social Entrepreneurship

The question everyone is interested in and the one I would like to be able to answer, at least in part, is the question of how a non-profit organization can avail itself of complex systems theory to make its complex system work in a complex world.

For 12 years, I have been a director of a non-profit arts organization in Manhattan called the Dactyl Foundation.

I studied at the Santa Fe Institute and have used complex systems theory to try to understand how artists come up with new ideas.

I think I have a pretty good understanding of the creative process and I think I have made some advances in the theory of creativity. The Foundation’s mission is partly based on these theories.

At the moment I have no idea how to apply what I know about complex systems to the task of making my Foundation more financially successful. It’s not as if I haven’t given this a lot of thought. It’s just a really though problem.

We currently get about 3000-4000 visitors to our website per month.  Our art openings attract 200-300 people.  We don’t profit by this. The more people come, the more we spend for wine and staff.  We don’t charge admission and we couldn’t. This is not done. Sometimes we help the artist sell artwork and get donations from art collectors. But art is expensive and only available to a few wealthy people.  Books, by the writers we feature at readings, just don’t sell and even if they did sell out, the income would be so small it wouldn’t matter.

If it weren’t for a very few wealthy people, Hollywood actors and supermodels, who keep the Foundation alive, we would disappear. This is not the complex system model of success.

Here’s the problem, the problem most art foundations share. I do not have a commercially viable product. Fine art and quality literature do not have commercial value because they appeal to a very small portion of the population.  That’s sort of the point of a Foundation, to present work that is not commercially viable.

A marketing person looking at this situation might say that I do have a viable product, but it is a niche market product. I just need to make use of the Internet, grass-roots approaches, social media and etc to reach my niche audience.   And this is what I try to do.  After years of not knowing what to do, about the literature part of our program, for example, recently I had an idea. We’ve launched a Web 2.0 literary review website that is linked to a literary award and is designed to be developed by literary public themselves.  It’s a perfectly designed site in every way, according to the professionals whom I have asked to evaluate it.  The website is valuable to literary writers. They can use it to promote their own work and active participants might possibly win a substantial monetary prize. There is lots of motivation to use the site.

The purpose of the website is to nurture the literary fiction community.  Currently, there is no dedicated literary fiction review publication. There is no peer system of review.  And  for readers of literary fiction, it is very difficult to find the type or style of writing one is interested in because literary fiction is such amorphous category.  The website addresses all these issues. I think it’s great. I came up with the idea because it’s the sort of thing I need as a reader looking for something to read. The site is www.DactylReview.org.

Few visit the site.  It hasn’t gotten off the ground.  Conceptually, it’s a great complex system approach insofar as it is designed to help a community self-organize. I probably just need to spend more time and effort.

The Foundation’s visual art project has a different kind of problem.  Whereas there is quality literary fiction out there and it’s just hard to find, the kind of artwork that the foundation is interested in promoting doesn’t exist.  Much.  Our task here is to try to promote a new aesthetic in art that values skill, training, and knowledge of the science of image-making and yet still looks cool.  We not interested in promoting old school boring stuff or trendy stuff. For ten or more years, we have been out of step with the artworld. But more lately our aesthetic is becoming more acceptable and we have found a handful of artists to support.  I have also worked hard to publish articles on aesthetic theory explaining and defending our perspective.

Our Foundation, like many art foundations, exists to oppose the anti-intellectualism so prominent in the US.  Literary fiction is often described as “affected” because the language is poetic, the reader is sometimes sent to the dictionary, and it often concerns weighty subjects. The author is often obviously learned. Regarding art, the artworld isn’t anti-intellectual so much as pseudo intellectual and uses rhetoric to promote its values.  This is actually anti-intellectualism in disguise (I almost said “in drag,” which works too).

So that’s my quandary.  I don’t have a product a lot of people can buy.  What I’m doing is not popular.  I have something that is valuable:  an appreciation of art and literature is valuable to human beings, intellectually, morally etc., etc. in all sorts of ways that I won’t attempt to explain here and now.  Trust me, art is really important to the well-being of individuals and society.

Our programs are great.  They are small but they are working.  They should be small; small is better for the arts. We don’t want to support a lot of artists, only the best. Being elitist is sort of the point of having non-profits, as we do in the U.S —unheard of in European countries. Centralized, government supported art is too formulaic to foster creativity.  Allowing numerous, sometimes eccentric, individuals and groups to form non-profit foundations for the arts helps promote diversity and creativity.  You need lots of diverse, niche foundations for overall diversity.

We want more of an audience, not more artists. Ultimately, we want to help but the audiences by giving them something meaningful. This approach also incidentally helps more artists find support, but it’s the audience, not the artist, that is our priority.

So what do I know about creativity and complex systems?  I know that innovation turns upon luck.  Individuals can make themselves lucky—that is adaptable—by gathering and incorporating a lot of information from their environments.  You could say a complex system grows by turning the world into itself.  Artists are creative because they are somewhat narcissistic. They obsess over their own projects and interpret everything in terms of what they are interested in. They translate and transform the world into their own terms. This is what, I argue, individuals or organizations must do to come up with that new wonderful idea that will make them blossom and survive.

Narcissistic communication and interaction obviously has its problems. Openness to others’ ideas is usually seen as the healthier approach. But a complex system has to preserve its identity. That’s key. My Foundation cannot start delivering what everybody understands and wants. We wouldn’t be who we are and we would have anything of value to offer. And, since our product, our view, isn’t the popular one, we can’t come right out and say to the artworld, for instance, the kinds of things I’ve said here today.

So, in the past years we have worked on getting the pieces in place. We have found a few really talented artists who exemplify our mission and can educate audiences. We have made some progress developing a vocabulary and locating our niche.  So now with more discussion, more interaction we might get somewhere.  I have a new book coming out, The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature, targeted at “popular” audiences, about the Foundation’s history, and about the topic of emergence and creativity. Although the subject is weighty, it’s written in a conversational tone.  Although the expense of interaction –advertising and PR—remains a challenge, we may be poised, after a dozen years of labor, to be the next “overnight success.”

As Hamlet says, “the readiness is all.”  There is a limit to what an organization can actively do to make itself successful.  We can only make our selves ready, and, like a Hopeful Monster, we can come up with a great mutation, but we must wait for the world to recognize our value in our interactions with it. The survival of the fittest notion does not work for ideas (that’s our product) because we can’t reproduce on our own. Our reproduction and dissemination requires meaningful recognition, which depends on the public’s ability to understand at least as much as on our own ability to communicate.  Our task is not just to flourish in an environment, but to help create that environment first.  Unlike a for-profit company, we do not answer a demand; we must create a demand.