(Dutton, 320 pages, $25.95)
Dinosaurs could walk the earth again within five years, says paleontologist Jack Horner. It won’t happen the way it did in Jurassic Park, the novel and movie inspired in part by Horner’s work. No active DNA from history’s big lizards is likely ever to be found, he says. But birds carry dinosaur DNA. As embryos, they sprout the beginnings of teeth, claws, and a lizard tail before certain genes cancel and redirect that growth. Horner’s dream these days is to bring out a chicken’s inner dinosaur by turning off those controlling secondary genes. He dreams, in fact, that one day in the not-too-distant future he will walk onto The Oprah Winfrey Show followed on a leash by a long-tailed, sharp-toothed “chickenosaurus.”
The 62-year-old Horner is putting his money where his mouth is, said Damon Tabor in Wired. He’s used earnings from his role as a technical advisor for the Jurassic Park films to fund researchers at two universities. The actual hatching of a reverse-engineered dinosaur, he claims, could be achieved for only a couple of million dollars. Explaining how that might be done “makes up only a small part” of his new book, said Brian Switek in Smithsonian.com. The great value of How to Build a Dinosaur is that it illuminates how the work of paleontologists has changed in the past few decades. No longer are they all digging up bones in the desert. Many are making their discoveries in laboratories through the study of evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo.” It turns out that embryos of living species “hold records of the past just as the strata of the earth do.”
The amusing Oprah scenario serves as an example of “Horner at his best,” said Jeff Hecht in New Scientist. His goal isn’t to become a celebrity. It’s to “make people think about how evolution works” so that they become more comfortable with the life-enhancing advances that modern biology can achieve. His ideas are “provocative yet firmly grounded in science,” and New York Times science editor James Gorman has helped Horner fashion them into a “good read.” Horner promises, by the way, that his test-tube monster won’t mutate into a mortal threat to humanity. “If he mates with a chicken, you still get a chicken,” he says. “It’s not like dinochicken will overrun the world.”
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