How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution

How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution

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by Jack Horner

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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


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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Library Journal Best Science and Technology Book of the Year
“Horner is at his best: provocative yet firmly grounded in science… His goal is to make people think about how evolution works, and by extension, about our own origins.”—New Scientist
“Straight from the scientific frontier, Horner’s work should excite anyone who’s dreamed of walking with dinosaurs.”—Booklist
“Scientists can finally begin to answer evolutionary questions that have puzzled researchers for decades.”—Smithsonian

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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page




Chapter 1 - HELL CREEK

Chapter 2 - IT’S A GIRL!




Chapter 6 - WAG THE BIRD






Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.); Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England; Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd); Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd); Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India; Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd); Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, March 2009


Copyright © 2009 by John R. Horner and James Gorman

All rights reserved


Horner, John R.

How to build a dinosaur : extinction doesn’t have to be forever /
Jack Horner and James Gorman.

p. cm.

Includes index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-02871-1

1. Evolutionary paleobiology. 2. Dinosaurs—Extinction. I. Gorman, James, 1949- II. Title.

QE721.2.E85H67 2009

567.9—dc22 2008048042



Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


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For Darwin


Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency.


—Michael Faraday




Let’s suppose you wanted to pick a moment in the history of life and play it over again, backward and forward, like a football play on a highlights DVD, so you could see exactly how it happened. Rewind. Stop. Play. Rewind frame by frame. Stop. Play frame by frame.

Stephen Jay Gould, one of the best-known evolutionary biologists of his time, wrote in Wonderful Life, his book on the weird and wonderful fossils of a rock formation known as the Burgess Shale, that you can’t go home again, evolutionarily, unless you want to risk not being here when you come back. What he was saying was that evolution is a chance business, contingent on many influences and events. You can’t rewind it and run it over and hope to get the same result. The second time through Homo sapiens might not appear. Primates might not appear.

That’s evolution on a grand scale, major trends in the history of life that involved mass extinctions and numerous species jockeying for evolutionary position. We can’t rewind that tape without a planet to toy with. But I’m thinking about a time machine with a somewhat closer focus, an evolutionary microscope that could target, say, the first appearance of feathers on dinosaurs, or the evolution of dinosaurs into birds.

This time machine/microscope could zero in on one body part. For birds we might start small, with a much maligned body part—the tail. We don’t think about tails much, not at the high levels of modern evolutionary biology, but they are more intriguing than you might imagine. They appear and disappear in evolution. They appear and disappear in the growth of a tadpole. Most primates have tails. Humans and great apes are exceptions.

The dinosaurs had tails, some quite remarkable. Birds, the descendants of dinosaurs, now almost universally described by scientists as avian dinosaurs, do not have tails. They have tail feathers but not an extended muscular tail complete with vertebrae and nerves. Some of the first birds had long tails, and some later birds had short tails. But there is no modern bird with a tail.

How did that change occur? Is there a way to re-create that evolutionary change and see how it happened, right down to the molecules involved in directing, or stopping, tail growth?

I think the answer is yes. I think we can rewind the tape of bird evolution to the point before feathers or a tail emerged, or teeth disappeared. Then we can watch it run forward, and then rewind again, and try to play it without the evolutionary change, reverting to the original process. I’m not suggesting we can do this on a grand scale, but we can pick a species, study its growth as an embryo, learn how it develops, and learn how to change that development.

Then we can experiment with individual embryos, intervening in development in different ways—with no change, with one change, or several changes. This would be a bit like redoing Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, when a ground ball ran between first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs and changed the tide of the series.

We would be doing more than just fiddling with the tape; we would be redoing the play, with Bill Buckner and all the players. And the idea would be to determine the precise cause of the Mets’ joy and Red Sox’ sadness. Was it Buckner’s failing legs, the speed of the ball, the topography of the field? What caused him to miss the ball? And when we think we know the cause, we test our hypothesis. We give him younger legs or smooth out the field and then we see if in this altered set of circumstances, he snags the grounder.

That’s impossible to do in baseball. We don’t have a way to go back in time. We can do it with computer models, of course, in both baseball and biology. But with current technology and our current understanding of development and evolution, we could also do it with a living organism. This ability is largely the result of a new and thriving field of research that has joined together the study of how an embryo develops with the study of how evolution occurs. The idea, in simple terms, is that because the shape or form of an animal emerges as it grows from a fertilized egg to hatching or birth, any evolutionary change in that shape must be reflected in a change in the way the embryo grows.

For example, in a long-tailed ancient bird embryo the tail would have started to develop and continued to develop until the chick hatched with a full tail. The embryos of descendant species, which hatched with no tails, would have to develop in a different way. We can observe the embryos of modern birds as they develop, and if we can pinpoint the moment at which the tail stops growing, we can figure out exactly what events occurred at the molecular level to stop tail growth. We can say—that’s where the change occurred in evolution. And it is an idea we can test. We can try intervening at that moment in the embryo’s growth to change the growth and development signals back to what we believe they were before the tail disappeared in evolution. If we are right, then the long tail should grow. If we can do this with a tail, we ought to be able to do it with teeth, feathers, wings, and feet.

The most studied and most available bird for both laboratory and culinary experiments is the chicken. Why couldn’t we take a chicken embryo and biochemically nudge it this way and that, until what hatched was not a chicken but a small dinosaur, with teeth, forearms with claws, and a tail? No reason at all.

We haven’t done it yet. But we are taking the first small steps. This book is about those steps, the path ahead, what we could learn, and why we should do this experiment.

Hatching a dinosaur from a chicken’s egg may sound like something that belongs in a movie. It seems very remote from my specialty, vertebrate paleontology, in particular the study of dinosaurs. Paleontologists, after all, are the slightly eccentric folks who dig up old bones in sun-drenched badlands and like to talk too much about skulls and femurs. Well, that may be true, as far as it goes. But that’s only part of the story. At heart, every paleontologist is as much Frank Buck as Stephen Jay Gould.

Frank Buck was a real person who became a hero of movies and books before and after World War II. He went into the jungles and remote places of the world and brought back not fossils, but exotic living animals. He was—and this appealed to many a small boy—not a hunter who killed his prey, but a collector of live animals. And his motto, once as well known as any of today’s catchphrases, was: Bring ’em back alive.

Well, paleontologists may deal with the long dead. But at the heart of all the digging and preparation of skeletons and museum displays is the attempt to reconstruct the past, to re-create moments in the history of life. What we would really love to do, if we could, is bring ’em back alive.

Meet the Author

John “Jack” Horner is one of the world’s foremost paleontologists, credited with finding the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, the first evidence of dinosaur colonial nesting, the first evidence of parental care among dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur embryos. He served as the inspiration for Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and as the technical advisor on all of the Jurassic Park films. Horner is Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, and Regents Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University.

James Gorman is deputy science editor of the New York Times and editor of its Science Times section.

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How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is palaintolgetic
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Aaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwssssssssoooooooommmmmmmeeeeeee full of action
CalBear2010 More than 1 year ago
First let me say that I have always appreciated Dr. Horner's contributions to Vertebrate Paleontology. Not only is his a world authority on Dinosaurs, his passion alone for past life make him an invaluable character within the Paleontological world. However I must say this book fell a little short of my expectations of Dr. Horner. Of course, biologically we are far far from ever completing the title of this book so readers do not take the title as urgent. WIth that said, I guess Dr. Horner has gotten some slack, but in the scope of things the title I believe should have been more appropriately called "Why I would like to Build a Dinosaur (and how I might be able to do it with the science of Reverse Evolution)". Not this book is a diary entry, it still has a lot of informative science and gives great insight to work of the future, I just feel this book could have waited, and instead been rewritten. But who knows, maybe its so before its time that in the future we could have a reestablished respect for it?
Kelly Caudillo More than 1 year ago
Intruiging, engrossing. Made me want to buy it. Maybe they could lower the price? Awesome book though. Enjoy