Wednesday, 13 April 2016
The Comma: Above and Beyond
This morning's beauty, the Comma, is the butterfly with the ragged wing margins which, at rest, looks like a tattered flake of tree bark or a dead leaf, complete with a tiny C-shaped perforation - the 'comma' of the name. This was just the kind of extravagant, above-and-beyond mimicry that fascinated Nabokov:
'When a butterfly has to look like a leaf [he wrote in Speak, Memory], 'not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings resembling grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. "Natural selection", in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behaviour, 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.'
Passages like this earned Nabokov the scientist (which he was, a very considerable lepidopterologist) an unfair reputation as an anti-Darwinian, even a creationist, neither of which he was. Nabokov argued that the standard (neo-Darwinian) explanation of evolution in terms of a gradual accretion of the effects of random point mutations could hardly account for such extravagances of mimicry, which were more likely to be the product of a larger-scale mutation occurring relatively suddenly and, as it were, overshooting the mark. The butterfly's resemblance to a leaf need not be taken nearly so far to secure protection against predators, any more than the 'eyes' on some butterflies' wings need to so precisely mimic the play of light on an open eye (most butterflies do just as well with minimal eye-spots). Such resemblances Nabokov thought of as unlikely (and, to us, delightful) coincidences, like the happy typo that transforms the meaning of a sentence, 'the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that becomes a flower'.