Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nabokov in the pulpit: the story of dead man's gulch

There is a great NY Times article about Vladimir Nabokov by Carl Zimmer. This article, which links literature, taxonomy, and biogeography, is definitely worth a read. Nabokov is best known as the author of Lolita, a story made even more famous by Stanley Kubrik’s film. As Zimmer points out, Nabakov was also the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, a position now held by Dr. Naomi Pierce. Pierce just published a paper vindicating an old hypothesis of Nabokov (Vila et al. Proc Roy Soc B online early). There have also been a lot of interesting blog comments related to Zimmer’s original article (for example here at Bioephemera and here at Denim and Tweed).

This story of Nabokov reminded me of a striking experience I had last year on a trip to visit my family in the midwest. On the plane ride home, I read a copy of Sean Carrol’s book Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The book has a section about Nabokov, highlighting his work on butterfly evolution.

I was thinking about this book while I sat in the hard wood pews of our Lutheran church that Sunday. The pastor had just begun his sermon, a discussion of selfishness. The sermon caught my attention when the pastor mentioned Nabokov. He told a version of the following story (cribbed from the internet - see below).

You’ve heard of Dead Man’s Gulch? It was named because of the perseveration of a novelist named Vladimer Nabokov, who visited the poet and publisher James Laughlin at his home in Utah. Nabokov was an ardent lover of butterflies, always wandering landscapes wherever he visited to add to his collection. Laughlin told the story that Nabokov, while visiting his house, went looking for butterflies. When he returned at dusk, he told Laughlin that during a hot pursuit of a butterfly over Bear Gulch, he heard someone groaning down by the stream. “Did you stop and check it out?” asked Laughlin. “No,” Nabokov replied, “I had to get that butterfly.” Sure enough, the next day a prospector’s body was discovered there and it was renamed, in Nabokov’s honor, Dead Man’s Gulch.

-- from Preposterous! The Sinning Christian, by Siegfried S. Johnson

It turns out that pastors and priests draw some of their sermon ideas from the web - I found sermons very close to the one I heard that Sunday on Johnson’s page, but also here, here and here. When attribution is given, the anecdote is credited to Clifton Fadiman’s “The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes,” published in 1985. I can find no reference to this story anywhere outside of Fadiman’s book and thousands of online sermon links.

I think that Nabokov is a useful symbol in today’s church for two reasons. First, he wrote Lolita. I can only suppose that many churchgoers disapprove of this book, even if they haven’t read it. Second, the story ties this morally questionable author to evolutionary biology, effectively making it a parable of the “dangers” of modern science.

I really doubt that this story is true. But tying evolution to questionable morals is an old goal of those who seek to undermine the foundations of science. I thought that this was a particularly good - and timely - example.

Ed: Spelling corrected, thanks!

Twitter: @lukejharmon


Armchair Biologist said...

Interesting post, but I feel bound to point out that it's NabOkov.

Anonymous said...

oops! fixed.

Reed A. Cartwright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reed A. Cartwright said...

It looks like Deadman's Gulch is in Colorado, not Utah, and it is named for prospectors who died in the 1800s.

It would be easy to use maps to verify that the name predates Nabokov.

Joe Felsenstein said...

At the anti-evolution blog Uncommon Descent, the ever-astonishing Denyse O'Leary was crowing that Nabokov did not accept the Modern Synthesis. As good a lepidopterist as he may have been, he may have been a figure from the science of an earlier century (or at least, decade).