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Nabokov: from lepidopterology to 'Lolita'

Nabokov's Butterflies: unpublished and uncollected writings by Vladimir Nabokov; edited by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle (Allen Lane, £25)

There are many instances of professional zoologists being excellent authors - from Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins - but few examples of great novelists doubling up as proficient zoologists. Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Russian émigré intellectual and expert lepidopterist, is the "type specimen" of a renowned novelist with a creditable reputation as an insect taxonomist. In butterfly circles, Nabokov was a monarch.

Butterflies and literature were Nabokov's twin passions. He started in 1906, aged seven, when he caught his first specimen on his family estate. A few years later, Nabokov was precocious enough to think he had found a new species, only to have his dreams dashed. Undaunted, he set out on a life of butterfly hunting, interspersed with equally passionate forays into fiction.

Nabokov not only realised his dream of finding a new species; he had several named after him. He became an authority on the taxonomy of a family known as the "Blues".

"It is not improbable," he said, "that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology." To him, butterflies represented a form of immortality, whereby the asexual, shuffling caterpillar transmogrified after "death" into an aerial acrobat with the sexual potency to impart a physical presence to future generations.

Although not avowedly religious, Nabokov suspected a conscious design to the world and thought it likely, according to his biographer, Brian Boyd, that there was some transformation of human consciousness beyond death. The astounding metamorphosis of ugly bug into beautiful, if ephemeral, butterfly epitomised this magical passage of the upwardly mobile soul. "We are the caterpillars of angels," he wrote.

At Trinity College, Cambridge, Nabokov switched from natural sciences to French and Russian literature. Writing became his spouse, but lepidoptery was his mistress, with whom he spent summers in the montane regions of Europe and America.

Nabokov's contribution to taxonomy is unquestioned. In addition to describing new species, he formulated a novel method of classification based on the counting of wing scales, with his beautiful illustrations reproduced in this new anthology. Nabokovian humour shines through these writings, illustrated by a note he penned to Hugh Hefner pointing out how the carefully positioned wings and eyespot of a butterfly can be made to look like the Playboy bunny motif.

Nabokov became an expert in classification based on the structure of butterfly genitalia. This has given rise to many ill-informed comments; in fact, genitalic description shows a remarkable utility. Wing patterns often mimic each other, making taxonomy difficult. But genitalic morphology determines who can mate with whom - the ultimate definition of a species. "Excuse me, I've got to go and play with my genitalia," Nabokov would quip to his Harvard guests.

For all his scientific expertise, Nabokov had a problem with Darwinian natural selection. Faced with excessive variation, he found Darwin's explanation inadequate. He was particularly interested in mimicry, the powerful ability of butterflies to look like something else, such as a pair of owl's eyes or a worm-infested leaf.

Darwinists say mimicry is explained by the need to avoid being eaten. Nabokov was unsure. He explains that butterfly mimicry has achieved such levels of "subtlety, exuberance and luxury" that it seems "far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation."

According to one lepidopterist, Nabokov had such a "strong metaphysical investment in his challenge to selection" that he could not change his mind. Had he received formal training in population genetics, he might have seen the light. Darwin's engine of evolutionary change was, in fact, responsible for making those butterfly genitalia so reliable in his eternal hunt for new species.

The reviewer is science editor of 'The Independent'