Apr 13

Non-Fiction Friday: How to Build a Dinosaur

It’s hard to have even a passing interest in paleontology and not know the name Jack Horner. He and some of his colleagues have shaken the world of dinosaur paleontology more than a few times over the years. In the book How to Build a Dinosaur he and James Gorman tell a compelling set of narratives about the state of modern dinosaur paleontology. The increasing importance of biochemistry in the study of fossils and some of the unexpected discoveries that molecular methods have brought to light in recent years are highlighted as Mr. Horner leads us gently toward the implications of his most recent major project, the resurrection of non-avian dinosaurs from their DNA, hidden within the genomes of the world’s extant bird species.

If you are well versed in the field this book is not likely to cover any new ground. But if you aren’t an expert and you would love to know how we can tell that a sixty-eight million year old T. rex fossil was a girl or you find fascinating that within her mineralized bones were found fossilized red blood cells then you will enjoy this book.

After exploring the advancements of modern paleontology we learn how advancements in biology can help us dig for dinosaurs from the bedrock of bird DNA. We find that experiments have already begun to turn back on ancient genes that have gone dormant. We learn how the emerging sciences of developmental biology are cracking open windows into the deep past that we could only dream about a few generations ago. It isn’t just a matter of mere possibility that one day we could hatch a living dinosaur. That we might be capable some day is highly probable. Whether we should do so is a question that the authors leave open. Maybe it shouldn’t be left to the scientists to decide whether we should resurrect extinct animals. Then again maybe it should. Either way I hope raptors prove easy to house train.


  1. 1

    I’ve gone over this book with my 6 year old daughter, who determined she was going to be a Paleontologist at 2. (What can I say, she’s precocious and has a geek for a a dad.) Her concern is whether they should be resurrected as well. As much as I hate to quote pop culture, Ian Malcolm makes very important points about recreating dinos. There is a cornacopia of things that could go quite horrificlly wrong here, slavering man eating dino’s on the run being the least of them.
    Who decides? Who should decide?

    1. 1.1

      Well the lucky thing about the kind of ressurection that might be possible is that we’re talking about the genes of dinosaurs that were the direct ancestors of birds so don’t expect to get any T-Rex’s or Triceratops’s out of the deal. These guys were small and seem pretty harmless. Still, it is an issue that has ethical dimensions and the public needs to be in on the discussion. The problem is that it needs to be an educated public, not a superstitious lynch mob.

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