An Axolotl

Just this morning (Oct. 31) The New York Times ran an article about the difficult situation faced by Mexico’s axolotls, among the world’s strangest creatures, and facing danger of going extinct. These are truly extraordinary animals, large salamanders that are essentially “stuck” in a larval form, which then reproduce and create new adults who don’t progress beyond this curiously immature state.

As an axolotl admirer, as well as someone who mourns our planet’s loss of biodiversity, I very much hope that Mexican scientists and government are successful in their current efforts to save and protect the axolotl, which is threatened especially by pollution, habitat loss and a non-native competitor (introduced Tilapia fish).

Each species is unique, and thus precious, but a case can be made that the axolotl is “more unique” and thus, especially precious. Axolotls – highly unusual among vertebrates – are capable of fully regenerating a lost limb.  As a result, they have been studied intensively by scientists particularly interested in seeing whether anything can be learned from the axolotl’s remarkable capability that might be applied to easing the lot of human amputees. It would indeed be wonderful if such victims could be enabled to grow back a lost limb.

Thinking about axolotls and their remarkable – borderline “miraculous” – capacities has led me to meditate on “miracles” more generally, and specifically the Catholic Church’s fondness for them. Canonization, for example, requires evidence for a bona fide miracle, which often involves healing people previously suffering from some serious illness. For example, just last year, when former Pope John Paul was canonized, his case consisted of allegedly healing one Sister Marie Simon Pierre, a French nun with Parkinson’s Disease, who had prayed for the already-deceased Pope to intercede on her behalf. She has in fact recovered, after which, according to The New York Times at the time, several doctors were consulted, whereupon “their testimony was then notarized, and the committee certified the miracle.”

As it happens, Parkinson’s Disease nearly always gets worse over time, although sometimes it remains unchanged for months, even years. Cures are indeed rare and worth noting when they occur. But just a few minutes of Googling makes it clear that remissions and possible cures for PD have in fact been reported, and attributed to all sorts of things: changing one’s diet, adding herbal remedies, getting more exercise, and, of course, prayer. (Also the genuine possibility that in specific cases PD had simply been wrongly diagnosed in the first place.)

In any event, I can’t help noting that “miracle” cures always pertain to maladies such as cancer, stroke or Parkinson’s, which do occasionally remit … even in the absence of appeals for divine intervention. Never—at least in recent times, such that they can be genuinely evaluated—do they involve something that is otherwise truly impossible, such as spontaneously regenerating an amputated limb. Which poses an interesting question: Why doesn’t God cure amputees? Given the horrendous carnage experienced by so many presumably God-fearing Americans, who have lost hands, feet, arms and legs—and, moreover, have done so while fighting those infidel Muslims—at least some of whom have, I bet, prayed in good faith, why hasn’t God “cured” them? I’d settle for just one.

There have been and I very much hope will continue to be remarkable recoveries of brain function even after the most serious wounds (e.g., Gabrielle Giffords, so far as we can tell), but I guarantee not a single case in which a wounded veteran or member of Congress has sprouted a new head. Now that really would be a miracle!

Maybe the absence of miraculous head-regeneration is because those jerks from the Westboro Baptist Church are correct, and God hates America because of its gradually liberalizing attitude toward gays. Or maybe God is lazy and only chooses to do the easy stuff (that which is, just coincidentally, concurrent with the laws of biomedicine and probability). Or maybe He doesn’t like doing anything really unlikely because this would smack of pandering to the disbelievers.

Of course He or She doesn’t regenerate foreskins, either, doubtless because He/She, being Jewish, approves this particular amputation. Well, maybe Muslim, too! But then again, to my knowledge there have been as yet no cases in which female genitalia have regenerated after the barbaric, inhumane practice of “female circumcision,” yet I’d hate to think that He/She approves of that, as well!

The simplest conclusion? For whatever reason, God just hates amputees.

Puzzling over this, I trolled the Internet yet again, and discovered, somewhat to my chagrin, that in fact others have beaten me to this conclusion (which makes me think that perhaps Ecclesiastes was right, and there really is nothing new under the sun). Thus, there exists a Web site to which I direct anyone who might be interested:

On the other hand, He or She evidently has a soft spot in His/Her heart for starfish and certain lizards who autotomize their tails, after which they sometimes grow them back, presumably without prayer. (Or—leaping lizards!—maybe there are praying lizards, too.) Of course there are also numerous limb-regenerating salamanders, especially, as noted above, the regeneration champ among vertebrates, the axolotl, (Ambystoma mexicanum) … but then again, its very name derives from the ancient Mexican Nahuatl language, referring to an Aztec god, Xolotl. Which explains everything.

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