by Jack Horner and James Gorman.
(Review written by Ryan!)
Since we were enjoying a working vacation in Dinosaur National Monument, I thought it would be a wonderful time to explore a Dinosaur themed book. I settled on pseudo-celebrity paleontologist and Museum of the Rockies Curator, Jack Horner’s book How to Build a Dinosaur.
Co-written with James Gorman, or should I say ghost written by Gorman in weird Jack Horner first person, the book introduces a strange idea from the start and then builds up to the idea from the fossil record up. The idea is that since birds are the evolutionary descendants of Dinosaurs (called by many now “avian dinosaurs”), then by studying the mutations that led along that evolution and how hormones and other chemical signals manifest those mutations in a developing embryo, scientists could suppress or alter those mutations during gestation to create a chicken that looks like a dinosaur. What changes need to be made to make a chicken into a therosaur? Well mostly letting the wings develop into limbs, growing a tail, adding some teeth, and making the feathers a bit more primitive and that’s pretty much a dinosaur right?
The first few chapters were my favorite. These discuss dinosaur dig sites in Montana and incredible discoveries in the fossil record of microscopic organic structures. These structures include medullary bone in a T-rex leg bone (one of the most fascinating exhibits at the Museum of the Rockies), proteins, amino acids, and possibly even red blood cells preserved in the fossil record. The transition from paleontology into microbiology is a fascinating subject and one that seems promising for the future. It would have made a great subject for a book, but Horner couldn’t just stop there…
After that there is a lengthy discussion that oscillates back and forth between development in embryology, evolution, and genetics that apparently all just point Horner back to his weird chicken-dinosaur idea. Frankly it all becomes a little distracting from what would otherwise be an interesting summary of the wide fields that are integrating with paleontology to round out our collective understanding of the past.
And that’s the real rub with this book. The overarching theme or premise or whatever seems to distract from the interesting information and spends too much time on the reverse evolution chickenosaurus. The theoretical monstrosity seemed unseemly next to the good hard science reporting, and the authors themselves note casually “A danger is that you could simply create an effect that looks something like the ancestral state, but you might have found another route to produce a superficially similar result and not have rewound evolution at all.” Before dismissing such a sound argument with the completely not supported “There are ways to protect against such a result, but this is a murky area and one little explored so far.”
Overall, I can’t really make a strong recommendation for the book. The truly interesting stuff is mostly Horner talking about other people’s research (such as Mary Schweitzer’s work on the T-rex bone samples). Horner appears to be trying to justify being the one taking credit for writing a book about other discoveries by tying them all into his chicken-dinosaur theory, which seems anathema to the scientific process by deciding on a discovery he wants to get to and then trying to figure out how to do it, rather than making observations/discoveries/experiments and interpreting the results.
In the end it feels like Horner stroking his own ego, and I would rather read a book by and about Mary Schweitzer’s work on fossil microbiology. I still like your museum, Jack.