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(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)

REACHING again into the basket of generally accessible examples, let us recall the analogy noticeable between the development of individual and species. Here an examination of the human brain can be most fruitful. We emerge from darkness and infancy and regress into infancy and darkness, completing an entire circle of existence.

More Aspects of Collecting
"I know you're no nature lover, but all the same I tell you it's an incomparable pleasure to clamber up a virtual cliff at 12000 feet and there observe, 'in the neighborhood' of Pushkin's 'God,' the life of some wild insect stuck on this summit since the ice ages."

In the course of life we learn, among other things, the concept of "species," unknown to the ancestors of our culture. Yet, not only is the history of mankind parodied by the developmental history of the writer of these and other lines, but the development of human ratiocination, in both the individual and historic senses, is extraordinarily linked to nature, the spirit of nature considered as the aggregate of all its manifestations, and all the modifications of them conditioned by time. How is it conceivable, in fact, that amid the huge jumble containing the embryos of countless organs (of which up to forty-three are currently represented), the magnificent chaos of nature never included thought? One can doubt the ability of a genius to animate marble, but one cannot doubt that one afflicted by idiocy will never create a Galatea. Human intelligence, with all its limitations and rights, inasmuch as it is a gift of nature, and a perpetually repeated one, cannot fail to exist in the warehouse of the bestower. It may, in that dark storehouse, differ from its species seen in sunlight as a marble god is distinct from the convolutions of the sculptor's brain -- but still it exists. Certain whims of nature can be, if not appreciated, at least merely noticed only by a brain that has developed in a related manner, and the sense of these whims can only be that -- like a code or a family joke -- they are accessible only to the illuminated, i.e., human, mind, and have no other mission than to give it pleasure -- we are speaking of the fantastic refinement of "protective mimicry," which, in a world lacking an appointed observer endowed with artistic sensitivity, imagination, and humor, would simply be useless (lost upon the world), like a small volume of Shakespeare lying open in the dust of a boundless desert. This fact, even taken alone, implies a silent, subtle, charmingly sly conspiracy between nature and the one who alone can understand, who alone has at last achieved this comprehension -- a spiritual alliance concluded above and beyond all the seething, the stirring, the darkness of roaming reveilles, behind the back of all the world's organic life.

Corporal Concerns
"I have again got fat and flabby."

Just as an increase in the brain's complexity is accompanied by a multiplication of concepts, so the history of nature demonstrates a gradual development in nature herself of the basic concept of species and genus as they take form. We are right in saying quite literally, in the human, cerebral sense, that nature grows wiser as time passes, that in a given period it has reached this or that specific stage. The only nit that can be picked is that we do not know what we imply when we say "nature" or "the spirit of nature." But, as we shall see, this monstrous "X" to which, taking advantage of its infinite spaciousness, we ascribe responsibility even for our ignorance about its true countenance, does not avoid us in some inviolable mist, but merely does not turn our way. This particularity, in turn, opens the way toward identification, and strikes the first blow toward concrete comprehension, promising us what we, who were raised on the idea of orbits, can naturally expect, upon the sighting of anything revolving away from us, that it will keep rotating until it turns back to face us.

Until that happens we must be content with the half-smile of averted lips, a conspiratorial sign, an elusive glance from narrowed eyes. In order to bring into focus the concrete subject that interests us -- the formation of the species concept in nature's mind -- this sign should suffice; but the path of thought pursuing the given objective is such a mirror-slippery slope -- follows, like any correct but barely passable path, such a narrow ledge above such a chasm of nonsense -- that its very novelty can already give a sense of falling.

Illustration by Vladimir NabokovWe must imagine a certain remote time on earth, when the concept of species (or genus) was as foreign to nature as it is foreign to the infancy of a human or of humanity. A three-year-old child thinks a cow is the wife of a stallion, and a dog the husband of a cat. Even the Stagirite, although he could distinguish between a "cabbage butterfly" and a moth that flew flamewards (that, apparently, was the extent of Aristotle's lepidopterological erudition), understood less about this distinction than a child or a layman today. Yet, long before the dawn of mankind, nature had already erected stage sets in expectation of future applause, the chrysalis of the Plum Thecla [Strymonida pruni, the Black Hairstreak] was already made up to look like bird droppings, the whole play, performed nowadays with such subtle perfection, had been readied for production, only awaited the sitting down of the foreseen and inevitable spectator, our intelligence of today (for tomorrow's, a new show was in preparation).

Tranquility and Harvard
"To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope ... all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it ..."

However, in that most remote of times that we must now imagine, none of this had yet been conceived. Nature was ignorant of genera and species; the specimen reigned supreme. As a crude illustration of the position it occupied one might say that a squirrel that mated with a goose would give birth to a giraffe, a sturgeon, and a garden spider. In reality, of course, such common creatures did not yet exist and, if so clamorous an example is given, it is only to jar the reader's imagination from its habitual stance....

* * *

AT this point we shall take the liberty of digressing somewhat, or, rather, of opening some parentheses, with a reminder that numerous accumulated observations had persuaded [my father], in the first place, of the absolute impossibility that given similarities were attained through evolution, through the gradual accumulation of resemblance, or through the fixation of magical mutations (the very thing that caused him to reexamine and reject the more "logical" theory of the origin of species); and, secondly, of the utter uselessness (which incidentally disproves the obtuse lex parsimoniae of the old-time naturalists) of such resplendent masks for the well-being of mimetic forms....

Sphingids Over Water
"The delicate wake produced by the immersion of the proboscis was a special feature of the performance."

Let us also consider that, through a natural concomitance of circumstances (and it could not be otherwise), we arrived in time for the main act of the comedy of mimicry. In nature as it exists today one does not note forms of half- or quarter-resemblance that would indicate that we are present as well at certain intermediate stages of the phenomenon in question, together with some closer to accomplishment. Obviously one cannot number among such approximations the ability of a certain caterpillar to assume, impromptu, the color of a plant or a net with which the experimenter has surrounded it. Perfection of color tonality is attained immediately. At the same time, this does not represent a "new" manifestation of protective coloration occurring before our eyes, but rather a play of the same nature-inspired possibilities inherent in the object under investigation, and withholding its secret from forced demonstration. Thus, not only the "aimlessness" of the accomplishment (the "aimlessness" of pure art), but also the absence of transitional forms, the ultimate clarity of observed phenomena, arouses strong doubts about the evolutionary progressive character of their genesis. The impossibility of achieving false similarities via a gradual accumulation of corresponding traits, whether by chance or as a consequence of "natural selection," is proven by a simple lack of time. If the former process occurred, then, by the most generous calculation, by the removal of the mime's birth date into the most distant depths of centuries, the line beyond which lie fossil species whose organic harmony coincides with the existence of other, extinct representatives of the animal kingdom could in no way harmonize with the existence of any species (or genus)familiar to us -- that line confines its history to some kind of limits susceptible to some kind of calculable extremes. Yet a trillion light years would hardly be sufficient, even thanks to a series of happy coincidences, to disguise a multitude of disparate species by one and the same process (for instance, endowing a folded butterfly with the exact appearance of a certain variety of leaf with the artistic bonus of a realistic flaw: a small hole eaten through it by somebody's larva)....


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.