Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: How to Build a Dinosaur

Now with a title like that, you’d expect the book to deliver right? Well you can be sure that it does! I first read this book during my undergraduate days and passed it between a few friends (who were dying to read it) before reading it again myself. For those of you unaware of the author, Jack Horner was the scientific advisor for the Jurassic Park and is a well renowned palaeontologist although his views are somewhat controversial in some circles. That bring us onto his book, How to Build a Dinosaur. Horner is part of a team attempting to build a ‘chickensaurus’ by modifying the genes and proteins expressed within a chicken embryo to produce what would look like a dinosaur to us but would be genetically identical to the chickens you buy in the supermarket.

This whole concept is based on a few different ideas, one of the most important ones being that birds are dinosaurs. If you didn’t know already, know you do. Tell some ornithologist friends and blow their minds! To the ornithologists out there, step out of the Victorian classification you’ve grown up with and join the herpetologists. Together, we could take over the zoological universe and overthrow the mammalogists! Another important concept is that birds contain all of the instructions in their DNA that their ancestors (the dinosaurs) did. This has been experimentally shown in a small number of studies where chicken embryos have been artificially induced to grow teeth or extra tail vertebrae, all important phenotypic factors to make a chickensaurus.

Horner not only provides an incredible look into the world of evolutionary biology but also palaeontology, in a similar way that Neil Shubin does in Your Inner Fish. In today’s world of global ecological turmoil, a book with a subtitle of ‘Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever’ presents further optimism for the future aside from the usual de-extinction argument (that I will review in a later book review soon). How to Build a Dinosaur is presented in a very reader friendly manner, allowing it to be read by anyone. Indeed Horner recruited the help of James Gorman in writing the book as he himself is dyslexic – something that hasn’t held him back!

There are a number of gaps and I haven’t heard any updates on the project in a couple of years, I’m not entirely sure if I agree with the ethics behind it either. However Horner highlights that some of their research is helping in human medicine in field such as spinal injuries which may not have been made otherwise. If bringing back dinosaurs and learning about evolutionary biology is your cup of tea, then this is certainly a book for you. As a child fascinated by dinosaurs, I certainly enjoyed reading How to Build a Dinosaur and I hope that you do too!


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