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How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't…

How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever (original 2009; edition 2009)

by Jack Horner, James Gorman

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1571276,038 (3.63)18
Title:How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever
Authors:Jack Horner
Other authors:James Gorman
Info:Dutton Adult (2009), Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:Non-fiction, Science, Paleontology

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How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever by Jack Horner (2009)



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In a sense, the dinosaurs never actually died out. Their direct descendants are still all around us today, in the form of birds. In fact, scientifically, birds are dinosaurs, even if, externally at least, they don't look much like the images of dinosaurs most of us hold in our minds. Well, not yet, anyway. But paleontologist Jack Horner has a plan to make that happen. He figures that it should be possible to alter the embryonic development of a bird -- specifically, a chicken -- in such a way as to recreate the development of its dinosaur ancestors, giving it teeth, a long tail, and clawed forelimbs instead of wings. He believes that the process of figuring out how to do this would teach us a lot about dinosaur and bird evolution, provide a useful educational experience for the public, and perhaps yield new medical insights that could be used to prevent birth defects in humans.

This book is about that freaky, fascinating idea of his and how it might be achieved... supposedly. I mean, that's what the title implies it's about, and what the dust jacket says it's about. In reality, he mentions the chickenosaurus in the introduction, and then basically doesn't talk about it again for the next two-thirds of the book, only really going into it at all in the last two chapters. Of the rest of the book, some of it provides some moderately useful scientific background on embryonic development and evolution, and some of it is interesting even if it's not entirely relevant, but a lot of it feels like digression and padding. And not even particularly well-written digression and padding. Ultimately, it seems to me like the subject matter here would have been better served by a long magazine article or two than a book, even a fairly short one like this. And the book would have been better served by being clear about what it wants to give its readers. Because promising that you're going to tell us about turning a chicken into a dinosaur and then instead launching into fifty pages on the history of Montana is about the worst bait and switch ever. ( )
1 vote bragan | Jan 19, 2016 |
This book is a very interesting book about the history and evolution of modern birds, namely the humble chicken. It is also about the history and development of what may be the most fascinating group of animals ever, the dinosaurs. The book covers the question of whether it is possible to create a clone of a dinosaur in the same way it is done in the movies; however maybe it is not a question of cloning, but biological reverse engineering, aka “reverse evolution.” I found the book well written and very convincing. I look forward to seeing where this science leads us. ( )
  Chris177 | Nov 16, 2013 |
The study of dinosaur fossils has reached unprecedented heights and complexity. DNA can be extracted from tiny bits of bone and molecular biology is starting to unlock more and more pieces of the ancient past. Jack Horner, distinguished paleontologist and winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, along with James Gorman, bring together the fields of paleontology, paleobiology, paleobotany (and all the other paleo-s) with modern science to make a case for the creation of a living, breathing dinosaur. How to Build a Dinosaur is a look into the science involved as well as the scientists behind the discoveries leading the way.

Horner and Gorman’s thesis is that a chicken egg or fetus can be successfully manipulated in such a way as to hatch a dinosaur. Genes can be spliced, dormant sequences can be reactivated, and evolutionary changes can be undone. Once all the detritus has cleared, what would be in front of you could nominally be called a dinosaur. Since birds evolved from these ancient lizards, it makes sense to start with them and work backwards. The authors explore the science of evolutionary development to show what it can do and what implications this has on modern species.

I really enjoyed this book. This is science told by someone who is truly passionate about it. He starts with a problem and gathers together better minds to help solve it. Along the way, we hear the back stories of many scientists (and even a few fun anecdotes) about how they learned to love their fields. Granted, there are bits that could be cut to make the book tighter, but I think the rambling bits add color to what would have been a rather rote tour of the field. Horner’s infectious love of paleontology is apparent, and the book is richer for it. An informative and fun read. ( )
1 vote NielsenGW | Oct 2, 2013 |
If paleontologists were musicians, Montana State University’s Jack Horner would be a top-of-the-charts superstar. A consultant on the “Jurassic Park” films and frequently interviewed for documentaries and educational programs on dinosaurs, Horner is perhaps one of the best-known paleontologists among laypeople. Horner has consistently stayed at the forefront of paleontological research and the latest theories about those extinct monsters which have captured the imaginations of millions of schoolchildren. His latest book, “How to Build a Dinosaur,” is the logical extension of much of his earlier work.

Horner begins with a brief overview of the history of paleontology as a science, leading up to recent efforts to marry paleontology and the several branches of biology and genetic sciences, their aims often being mutually beneficial. He discusses recent work being done along those lines, including the study of dinosaur bones at a molecular level and attempts to ascertain whether it is possible to find organic material such as blood cells and collagen inside fossilized bones.

Marshalling his evidence, Horner then moves into the true thrust of his book…the recreation of extinct species using genetic techniques. Far from being a true “Jurassic Park” scenario in which scientists will be able to recover and/or reproduce dinosaur genomes in order to engineer extinct species, Horner instead posits what he believes to be a more realistic method of rewinding evolution’s clock. According to the precepts of a relatively new branch of science known as evolutionary development, or evo-devo for short, it should be possible to alter the development of avian embryos – birds being the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs – to reconstruct atavistic traits and produce, for example, a chicken with a tail and teeth like a dinosaur’s. While, of course, it is not true that ontology recapitulates phylogeny, Horner argues that it should still be possible to utilize this sort of forced evolutionary regression to discover the specific mechanisms of the development of species. Horner also discusses issues related to the ethics of experimenting on animal embryos and of creating a “chickenosaurus.”

Clear, compulsively readable, and engaging, Horner’s book is certain to appeal to anyone who ( )
1 vote kmaziarz | Dec 6, 2012 |
The title How to Build a Dinosaur is, on its own, both intriguing and kind of misleading. It kind of suggests a how-to guide for something that's already been done, for something that science has already accomplished. However, the book itself is not about the actual building of the dinosaur, but about a new kind of science that could, conceivably, allow such a thing to happen.

Was this disappointing? Kind of, though I suppose that if someone had actually managed to reverse-engineer a dinosaur I'd have heard of it through some major news channel, or at the very least through National Geographic. It's the sort of breakthrough, after all, that would definitely garner heavy news coverage. A living, breathing dinosaur, even if it isn't as spectacular as T. rex or even one of the larger and more famous herbivores, would definitely make a lot of noise in the media, and it would definitely make more than a few headlines.

Happily, the disappointment didn't last very long once I really started reading the book. Jack Horner, one of the most famous paleontologists in the world (not the least because he was one of the primary consultants for Jurassic Park) writes in his Introduction how he, like many other paleontologists, would like nothing more than to "Bring 'em back alive." Sure, bones and "mummies" are all well and good, but it's nothing compared to the living, breathing animal. However, since all the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, this isn't something anybody can do, right?

That might not necessarily be the case. For some time now many scientists have come to the consensus that birds are actually the descendants of dinosaurs. You read that right: birds did not simply evolve from dinosaurs (like we evolved from chimps), but are descended from them - or at least, a branch of the dinosaur family tree that, interestingly enough, includes the raptors and some of the larger, meat-eating dinosaurs. In fact, scientists have concluded that T. rex's closest living relative is the bird that goes by the scientific name Gallus gallus - otherwise known as the chicken.

This link between birds and dinosaurs is one of the anchor points of Horner's proposition, or "campaign," as he calls it in a later chapter. He talks about the science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo or devo-evo for short), which is a combination of embryology, molecular biology, genetic engineering, and some paleontology on the side, and how it could take a chicken embryo and carefully manipulate specific genes so that what hatches out of the egg isn't a chicken, but something like it, exhibiting atavistic traits - traits which belong to a more primitive ancestor. One can, in short, reverse-engineer a chicken into a dinosaur.

The idea, laid out in a direct manner like I've just done, might sound absurd, more like the premise for a sci-fi story instead of actual science. Fortunately, Horner takes his time to build his case, offering factual evidence in support of the experiment he's suggesting. How to Build a Dinosaur doesn't describe the process as a past-tense, done-and-over-it sort of thing. Instead, it presents the process as an almost magical possibility, one that can most definitely be accomplished if enough time, effort, and of course, money are put into the endeavor. If that's the case, it's entirely possible that the first living, reverse-engineered dinosaur will hatch within my lifetime.

This does not mean, though, that it's going to be easy. Horner makes that clear as well, describing the sort of research that must first take place before scientists can even begin to play around with a chicken's genes to get the results he's suggesting. Take the tail, for example. Dinosaurs have them, but birds, including chickens, don't. You'd think it'd be easy for scientists to figure out which genes they need to tweak to give a chicken a tail, but as it turns out, it's not so straightforward as that. Scientists haven't really done research into tails, so they're only now really beginning to focus on it (in the hopes of finding solutions to deadly spinal mutations in human embryos), but Horner hopes that whatever is learned in that department can be used to make a chicken into a dinosaur.

The appendix contains two images: one of an Saurornitholestes, a small dinosaur from the same evolutionary branch as birds. The other is the hypothetical Chickenosaurus, the possible result of reverse-engineering a chicken embryo into an atavism. It is these two drawings that, I think, drive home Horner's point in the best way possible, especially when you see the incredible similarities between the skeletons. The drawings prove Horner's point: with enough research and study, it is entirely possible to turn a chicken into a dinosaur with just a few genetic tweaks here and there.

Horner's enthusiasm and determination to "Bring 'em back alive" is very clear in the book, and it's easy to get carried away with it, especially if you're a dinosaur enthusiast and hence share in his hopes. Fortunately, this enthusiasm is balanced by the realism essential to many a scientist, and he describes the pros, cons, and difficulties of the course he is determined to explore, and is encouraging other scientists to explore. He knows it's possible, but he never, ever suggests it'll be easy. This pragmatism is something I completely approve of.

Another interesting (and valuable) thread that runs through this book is the fact that scientists from different fields really have to work together if they are to understand the story of life on Earth. The study of evolution has benefited from the input of the various branches of biology, but Horner is of the opinion that if the field is to truly move forward, it is time to come together and bring the skills and concepts essential to these (usually) disparate fields to bear upon one another. He espouses an interdisciplinary approach, one that will allow fresh eyes and fresh skills to come to bear on the study of evolution and, hopefully, yield new and incredible insights into life itself.

The only snag that I can see with this book is that it really is specific to the dinosaur enthusiast, even more specifically someone who's more scientifically inclined. A lot of this book would have been difficult and somewhat confusing if I hadn't read books like Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth and Lane's Life Ascending before starting on this one. The bits focused on molecular biology, in particular, can be slow-going if you haven't really read up on the basic concepts. Not to say that Horner doesn't attempt to simplify everything in layman's language, but I'm glad that I read Life Ascending first, since it explains the details of molecular biology in a more comprehensive manner than Horner does (or can't, really, given the scope of his book). After reading Lane's book, the more technical bits of How to Build a Dinosaur weren't so bad.

From now on, I'm holding out on the possibility of having my own pet Velociraptor in maybe ten or twenty years, maybe sooner, given how quickly science and technology progress. And if they can do this same process on an ostrich, well... I've always wanted a pet Deinonychus too, which is even better since I can put a saddle on that and ride it around. Imagine the amount of money I'd save on gas and parking, plus the reduced - immensely reduced - likelihood of theft!

After all, if my personal transport comes with its own anti-theft system consisting of massive sickle-shaped claws that can disembowel anything, plus a head full of razor-sharp teeth, I don't think I really need an alarm. ( )
1 vote SamMartinez | May 6, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0525951040, Hardcover)

A world-renowned paleontologist reveals groundbreaking science that trumps science fiction: how to grow a living dinosaur

Over a decade after Jurassic Park, Jack Horner and his colleagues in molecular biology labs are in the process of building the technology to create a real dinosaur.

Based on new research in evolutionary developmental biology on how a few select cells grow to create arms, legs, eyes, and brains that function together, Jack Horner takes the science a step further in a plan to "reverse evolution" and reveals the awesome, even frightening, power being acquired to recreate the prehistoric past. The key is the dinosaur's genetic code that lives on in modern birds- even chickens. From cutting-edge biology labs to field digs underneath the Montana sun, How to Build a Dinosaur explains and enlightens an awesome new science.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:08 -0400)

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Jack Horner and his colleagues in molecular biology labs are poised to create a real dinosaur based on the latest breakthroughs - without using prehistoric DNA. The mystery ingredient in this recreation is the genetic code for building dinosaurs that lives on in modern birds.… (more)

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