De Mortuis Nil Nisi Genesis: Or, A Horse of a Different Dolor

Not to beat a dead horse, this is a story of fallen giants.

By an odd coincidence, two of the world’s great geneticists died yesterday. One, Richard Lewontin, held an endowed chair at Harvard; the other, Axel Kahn, lived in Paris, where he edited a major biomedical publication.

World’s tallest horse, Big Jake
Big Jake, who stood at 20 hands 2¾ inches, was crowned the world’s tallest horse by the Guinness World Records in 2010. 

While Lewontin made momentous contributions to the literature, Kahn denounced most of what appeared in his own and other scientific journals as useless rubbish. Both men were exceptions to that rule — and, despite their divergent backgrounds, utterly congruent on all of the life-and-death issues they each confronted, both as scientists and humanists, throughout their distinguished and turbulent careers.

To make matters even more morbid — in a horse of a completely different dolor — another illustrious name passed from the scene just recently, who had something in common with both savants. His death was not announced until yesterday, which suggests that karma is alive and well, even if the rest of us are all ailing and tumbling downhill.

Born in Nebraska, but raised (and fed) in Wisconsin, Big Jake stood 6’11” high and weighed 2,600 lbs, which made him the ideal pivot man for any NBA team. Despite his heft (8x that of Shaquille O’Neal), he could outrun anyone on the court, play outstanding defense, and (if necessary) eat the netting on the basket, to facilitate rebounding while blocking shots with a pair of outstretched hooves. Unfortunately, he preferred to stay down on the farm, despite the fact that he made the Guinness Book (in 2010) as the tallest living horse, and the second tallest in hum, er, equine history.

Since his parents were both “normal height” (as that is measured), this suggests genetic modification, rather than mutation, as the reason why Big Jake became so, well, Big. You see the connection with DNA and all that, without any further horsing around, so to speak. Besides, who would name a horse Big Jake, unless they were thinking of a character (and an actor) in a film by that name [1971, directed by Richard Sherman], who, as even his most ardent admirers admit, was without doubt one of the biggest horse’s derrieres (to put it delicately) in equ — er, human history?

This can’t be due to chance — or what another eminent French scientist, Jacques Monod (1910-1976; Nobel Laureate, 1965), called Le Hasard? Indeed, Monod’s mother was from Milwaukee — not far from where Jake barnstormed, as he began moving up in the world. Moreover, Chance and Necessity, published in 1970 as Le Hasard et la Nécessité, appeared in English translation only a year later, in 1971 — the same year “Big Jake” debuted on screen. If that’s sheer randomness, then I’m a quantum tunnel linking the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers.

Add to that the fact that Big Jake first hit the hay in 2001, shortly before 9/11, and that he died in 2021, right after stop the steal stopped (or at least, paused to get rubbed down and change riders, before saddling itself with debt), and you have the makings of a good conspir — er, verifiable hypothesis about the sinister use of so-called genetic therapy to create a master racehorse somewhere between Oshkosh and Omaha, that is destined to take over the world, as Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms almost did in 1726, before the Yahoos foaled all their plans, and gave them a merry steeplechase, until they were back where they belonged — at the Polo Grounds, watching Willie Mays pound the leather as he caught the bit.

Morning and evening, I shall mourn for all three of these fallen giants. For in the end, the race is not to the swift or the strong, but to those who have all the inside dope, or are too doped up to care anymore. Where is Whiskey when we need him? Still trying to cross the road, Kirk Douglas astride, with police in heated horseless carriage pursuit. The horse didn’t make it. Neither did he. Progress dismounted both.

That’s the way it goes, from one generation of test tubes to the next. Sisyphus used the rhythm method. Be fruitless, even as ye multiply. Alas, it’s off to the glue factory, where all good recombinants go to die. My kingdom for a hip flask — or a cold petri dish, filled with horseshoe- shaped X and Y chromosomes, neighing softly in the shivering night.

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