The curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University had an idea that the obscure Icaricia genus of butterfly migrated from Asia in five distinct waves over ten million years. But he couldn’t prove it, and since he was better known for his best-selling racy novels, biologists didn’t take Vladimir Nabokov seriously.
It is the accumulation of small details that provides the incredible weight of evidence for evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was a crude attempt to explain a relatively small amount of data beginning to emerge. He was on the right track, but not terribly precise. It was decades before his fellow biologists took his theory seriously – only after a great deal more evidence piled up.
Nabokov’s hypothesis, from studying physicial differences among the species known collectively as Polyommatus blues, has now been confirmed by DNA analysis. Dr. Naomi Pierce, Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera since 1990, recognized in 1999 that she had the tools to test the idea. After four separate expeditions into the Andes to collect specimens in the wild, she and the team she worked to sequence the genes of the butterflies.