Sunday, July 5, 2009

How To Build A Dinosaur

Extinction Doesn't Have To Be Forever
Jack Horner and James Gorman

The title and especially the subtitle of this book are somewhat, deliberately, misleading. Paleontologist Jack Horner was a consultant on the movie Jurassic Park, however, he is quick to point out that he does not propose, or have any idea how, to produce living examples of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the much touted Velociraptor. He wrote this book, with the help of New York Times science editor, James Gorman, to propose the idea of modifying the development of a chicken, to express the dinosaur like traits of a long tail, teeth and forelimbs with clawed fingers.

This book is written in the realm of science popularization. Like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, Horner chose to write a book explaining his idea to the general public. Why? Most popular science books are written about advances in science that are already accomplished. This one is a proposal for experiments that scientists do not yet know how to perform. By doing this he has made the reader a part of the process, the way science is really done. Here is a thought experiment that may or may not ever be tried in the laboratory.

What the book does is show how ideas are bandied about in scientific circles, how new experiments are proposed and argued for and against, how they are not necessarily ever given the chance to see the light of day. The work needed to produce this chickeasaurus would cost many millions of dollars.

There would be a lot that could be learned from the effort, according to Horner, about the development of embryos, which could be applied to medical science, possibly preventing birth defects in human children. Or possibly producing embryologically modified, designer ubermenschen. Producing a dangerous invasive species that would have to be fought and destroyed by the air force is an impossibility, however. Science fiction fans will have to live with the disappointment.

Horner says that the traits that he wants to produce, a tail, teeth and clawed forelimbs, are already present in the genes of the domestic chicken, which is a descendant of an upright walking dinosaur. Horner insists that birds ARE dinosaurs and not just their descendants. His proposal is to learn how to trigger, and to stop, certain traits that appear during the development of the chicken embryo, in order to make the tail, teeth and forelimbs appear in the hatched adult chicken. His would not be a genetically modified creature, just one that had been coached along the way to be more dinosaur like than bird like.

I rather like dinosaurs. The chapters in which he discusses the latest discoveries and theories in paleontology were, to me, the most intriguing of the book. Although I can see that there would be spin offs, like those from the Apollo space program, from his chickenasaurus proposal, I was have not really bought in to the idea. Maybe you will think differently. Horner says that he would like to be able to bring a chickenasaurus out on a leash, when giving a lecture. King Kong anyone?


  1. I am looking forward to having a bronto burger with a side order of giant palm hearts. Another piece of silliness.

  2. According to Horner, it would taste like chicken.

  3. More like snake, dinosaurs are reptiles.

  4. The latest word is that birds are dinosaurs. The chickenosaurus would just be a chicken with tweaked genes. Tastes like chicken.

  5. hello,,,greetings of peace friend! your site is very beautiful and informative! would you mind if we exchange links friend?^__^

  6. That would depend on what you want me to link to Jonas. Send me an email with a URL, please.

  7. Hi there. Great review!

    Just dropping by as the host of the Aug 2nd edition of the Book Reviews Blog Carnival, to let you know I've added you to the post.

    Thanks for submitting your review. :o)

  8. Bart,

    As the founder of the Book Review Blog Carnival I thank you for hosting this edition.


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