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AXOLOTL Ambystoma mexicanum
Conservation status: Critically Endangered
... the Salamander, which feedeth upon ashes as bread, and whose joy is at the mouth of the furnace.
The history of the errors of mankind ... is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow ... but error is endlessly diversified [and] in this field, the soul has room enough to expand herself to display all her boundless faculties and all of her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.
The first time you see an axolotl it is hard to look away. The lidless, beady eyes, the gills branching like soft coral from its neck, and the lizard-like body kitted out with dainty arms and legs, fingers and toes, together with a tad-pole-like tail make this creature seem quite alien. At the same time the large head, fixed smile and flesh-pink skin give it a disconcertingly human appearance. Combined, such contradictory traits are fascinating. It's easy to see why one of the first European names for this creature translates as 'ludicrous fish'. The Argentine writer Julio Cortázar imagines a character gazing at an axolotl for so long and so intently that he becomes one.
The comparatively sober findings of scientific research provide another reason to marvel. Along with its newt cousins, the axolotl is able to regenerate entire severed limbs. Some specialists in regenerative medicine believe that it may be possible one day to restore human limbs and even organs in ways derived at least in part from what we have learned from these creatures. If this does prove to be the case – and even if the potential for axolotl-like regeneration in humans is not as great as hoped – much will have been learned along the way about the workings of cells, which are perhaps the most complex objects in the universe apart from the human brain. And the knowledge gained will be another step in the emergence of unequivocally better ways of understanding life and the relation of the human to the non-human.
But before trying to address such matters, this chapter will digress into what humans have believed about the order of animals to which the axolotl belongs, the actual role that the ancestors of that order played in evolution, and some of the errors people have made in interpreting the past and the present.
The axolotl is a kind of salamander, one of about five hundred species alive today. For thousands of years people believed that salamanders had a special relationship with fire. The Ashmole Bestiary, an illuminated book of beasts made in England in the High Middle Ages, mirrors this: 'The salamander lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out flames.'
Few medieval authors or readers would have thought to test this claim. They wouldn't have seen the need. They already knew that every beast in Creation was a lesson in God's plan – or several lessons at once. In the case of the salamander, St Augustine had, early in the Christian era, cited its fire-hardiness to bolster the case for the physical reality of damnation. 'The salamander', he wrote, 'is a sufficiently convincing example that everything which burns is not consumed, as the souls in hell are not.' Later commentators, by contrast, saw the animal's supposed non-combustibility as a symbol of righteousness: like the salamander, the chosen would withstand fire just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had withstood the fiery furnace.
The union of salamander and fire actually predates Christianity and perhaps Judaism. 'Sam andaran' means 'fire within' in Persian, the language of Zoroastrians – early monotheists for whom fire was an important symbol of the divine. But there was more to the salamander in ancient and medieval minds than fire. According to the Ashmole Bestiary, it is also an animal of mass destruction:
It is the most poisonous of all poisonous creatures. Others kill one at a time; this creature kills several at once. For if it crawls into a tree all the apples are infected with its poison, and those that eat them die. In the same way, if it falls in a well, the water will poison those who drink it.
These various attributes – fire creature, symbol of virtue, or poison – sit alongside each other in medieval European bestiaries. By the Renaissance, however, the connection with fire had come to dominate. An unburnable cloth from India is 'salamander wool' (this is probably an early mention of asbestos). For Paracelsus and other European alchemists, the salamander was the 'fire elemental', the essence of one of the four fundamental substances of the universe, which could be summoned to the practitioner's aid. A salamander amid flames also became a piece of branding for a king: a Nike swoosh for Francois I of France competing with Henry VIII of England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In the following centuries, storytellers from Cyrano de Bergerac to J. K. Rowling have rejoiced in the fantastic qualities of the fire-living salamander. For some it is entirely make-believe. For others it is definitely real but extremely rare, like – say – the snow leopard today. The Renaissance artist, sexual predator and murderer Benvenuto Cellini provides a good example of this second view:
When I was about five years of age, my father happening to be in a little room in which they had been washing, and where there was a good fire of oak burning, looked into the flames and saw a little animal resembling a lizard, which could live in the hottest part of that element. Instantly perceiving what it was he called for my sister and me, and after he had shown us the creature, he gave me a box on the ear. I fell a crying, while he, soothing me with caresses, spoke these words: 'My dear child, I do not give you that blow for any fault you have committed, but that you may recollect that the little creature you see in the fire is a salamander; such a one as never was beheld before to my knowledge.' So saying he embraced me, and gave me some money.
It's easy to see that if your only knowledge of the salamander came from bestiaries and the stories they inspired then a real sighting such as the one Cellini recalls would seem to confirm it. The actual explanation – that they like to sleep in cool, damp places such as piles of logs, get carried along when the wood is taken in for burning and, far from sporting in the flames, are writhing in their death throes – would seem dull and unconvincing.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had been more empirical, if not always right, in their claims. When Aristotle refers to a salamander in his History of Animals, written in about 340 BC, he makes it clear that he is relying only on hearsay in claiming that they walk through fire and in doing so put the fire out. And in the Natural History, written more than four hundred years later, Pliny distinguishes the salamander (an amphibian) from lizards (which are reptiles), describing 'an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over; it never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather becomes clear.' This is a good description of the golden Alpine salamander and of some subspecies of the fire salamander. But Pliny also writes – in a passage that inspired later bestiaries – that a salamander is 'so cold that it puts out fire on contact' and that it can be toxic.
Pliny's History is full of things that seem fantastical and bizarre to our eyes. In Ethiopia, he writes, there are winged horses with horns, manticores, which have the face of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion, and something called a catoblepas, which kills you if you look into its eyes. Even creatures we know to be real become fantastical. The porcupine, for example, can shoot its quills like spears. If a shrew runs across a wheel-rut it dies. Frogs melt away into slime in the autumn and coalesce into frogs again in the spring. The anthiae, a kind of fish, rescue their hooked companions by cutting fishing lines with their fins.
But while Pliny accepts, or reports, many claims that are plainly false to us, he is not entirely gullible. He is for example scathing about astrology and the afterlife, which are items of faith for vast numbers of people today. And when he realizes he doesn't know something, he says so plainly. In the case of the salamander he does at least start from observed reality. Salamanders are indeed 'cold-blooded' – more precisely, ectotherms, which means they take their temperature from their surroundings – so if found in a cool damp place they are indeed cool to human touch. You'd be ill-advised to lick a salamander, but it would be an exaggeration to call it more than mildly toxic. Fire salamanders, which are common on forested hillsides in southern and central Europe, extrude secretions onto their skin containing a neurotoxic alkaloid, Samandarin, when they think they are under attack. This can cause muscle convulsions, high-blood pressure and hyperventilation in small vertebrates. Perhaps this is their real 'fire within'.
The Natural History is a remarkable attempt, perhaps the first in the West, to compile all knowledge. Still, Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century English physician, is pretty unforgiving of what Pliny actually achieved: 'there is scarce a popular error passant in our days', he writes, 'which is not either directly expressed, or deductively contained in [it].' He tried to put the record straight with the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors (the Bad Science of its day, it ran to six editions between 1646 and 1672). Browne identifies the causes of popular delusions as, variously, 'erroneous disposition, credulity, supinity, obstinate adherence to antiquity' and 'the endeavours of Satan', but most of his energy goes on demolishing the delusions themselves. The myth of the salamander is one of 'fallacious enlargement', and is easily demolished by a bit of solid English empiricism: 'We have found by [our own] experience, that it is so far from quenching hot coals, that it dieth immediately therein.'
Browne was a practical man but he was also fascinated by symbols and mysteries. His Garden of Cyrus is an exuberant vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the universe. For Browne, God is a universal geometer, who places the quincunx (the X shape formed by five points arranged like the five spots on dice) everywhere in living and non-living forms. As W.G. Sebald notes, Browne identifies the quincunx everywhere: in crystalline forms, in starfish and sea urchins, in the vertebrae of mammals and the backbones of birds and fish and in the skins of various species of snake; in the sunflower and the Caledonian pine, within young oak shoots or the stem of the horsetail; and in the creations of mankind, in the pyramids of Egypt and in the garden of King Solomon, which was planted with mathematical precision with pomegranate trees and white lilies. Examples might be multiplied without end.
The salamander reappears in a riddle unearthed more than fifty years after Browne's death when the Swiss physician and naturalist Johann Scheuchzer found a fossil of a creature whose large skull resembled that of a human child, he declared it to be Homo diluvii testis, or man, witness to the Great Flood: 'a rare relic of the accursed race of the primitive world'. And this judgement stood for another hundred years until the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier examined it. The fossil, he declared in 1812, was definitely not human. A positive identification, however, wasn't made until 1831: Diluvii testis was a giant salamander of a type now extinct but related to the enormous creatures that are still found in a few Chinese and Japanese rivers.
Cuvier and others showed that many species that had once roamed the Earth were now extinct, and it was increasingly apparent that there had been vast periods of time before humans appeared. What, then, was our true place and role in Creation? For James McCosh, a philosopher in the once influential but now little remembered Scottish School of Common Sense, the answer was clear: man was the culmination of a process that had produced the ideal form in nature. 'Long ages had yet to roll on before the consummation of the vertebrate type,' McCosh wrote in 1857; 'the preparations for Man's appearance were not yet completed. Nevertheless, in this fossil of Scheuchzer's there was a prefiguration of the more perfect type which Man's bony framework presents.'
Words and phrases like 'consummation' and 'perfect type' are out of fashion today. 'Prefiguration' less so. Amphibian fossils do prefigure much of what we see in modern vertebrates, ourselves included. The bodies of salamanders alive today (not to mention those of geckos, grebes and gibbons) share a lot with ours. Salamander limbs may be smaller and slimier than those of most people, but they have essential similarities: they are encased in skin and contain a bony skeleton, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and blood vessels. There are big differences of course – their hearts, for example, have three chambers rather than the four found in reptiles and mammals – but what's a ventricle between friends?
The palaeontologist Richard Owen, a contemporary of both James McCosh and Charles Darwin, thought such similarities, or homologies as he called them, were evidence of 'transcendental anatomy', of a divine plan, with God as a carpenter running off creatures on his workbench as variations of archetypal themes. (He called this the 'axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things'.) But, Owen insisted, each species was separate: one did not evolve into another, and man stood outside as a unique creation. Darwin, by contrast, argued that the similarities seen in so many living creatures, including man, were better explained by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
Most of us now accept that humans are continuous in an evolutionary sense but we continue to insist that there are essential differences in our way of being. As the anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote in the 1950s, man is a 'creature of dream [who] has created an invisible world of ideas, beliefs, habits and customs which buttress him about and replace for him the precise instincts of lower creatures'. Eiseley thought that 'a profound shock at the leap from animal to human status is echoing still in the depths of our subconscious minds'.
What could account for our apparently unique ability to be the carriers of such dreams in a way that creatures with superficially similar anatomy – like the salamander – are not? The answer pieced together by paleobiologists and geneticists over that last hundred years is, of course, that after diverging from a common ancestor with our nearest ape cousins, our hominid ancestors acquired much larger brains in a series of evolutionary spurts, notably in the last two million years, until they reached a form very close to ours less than 200,000 years ago. But there is a problem with such an account – at least I have stated it here.
The problem is not that this account is in any way misleading – it is not – but that it is too matter-of-fact; it fails to convey how singular it is that, after so many hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate life – much of it, as we shall see, filled with strange creatures resembling the axolotl – something as marvellous as the human brain evolved in such a comparatively short period of time.
People have looked for all kinds of ways to get around this counterintuitive truth. Among those that claim to be scientific here are two of the most delightfully absurd. In 1919 a distinguished English physical anthropologist named F. Wood Jones argued that large-brained proto-humans were actually tens of millions of years old and 'utterly unlike the slouching, hairy ape-men of which some have dreamed'. They were, rather, 'small active animals' resembling tarsiers, already endowed with legs longer than arms, small jaws and a greatly enlarged cranium.
Excerpted from THE BOOK of BARELY IMAGINED BEINGS by CASPAR HENDERSON. Copyright © 2013 by Caspar Henderson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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