Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Build a Dinosaur (Jack Horner and James Gorman)

How to Build a Dinosaur
Jack Horner and James Gorman
Nonfiction, Dinosaurs/Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For decades, paleontology was mostly about digging up fossilized evidence of extinct life-forms, then studying them in the lab, using comparative anatomy, modern animals, and educated guesses to reverse the evolutionary clock. Now, new disciplines are joining the effort, such as molecular biologists studying microscopic remains and the new discipline of developmental evolutionary biology, or devo-evo, which studies embryonic development for clues to macroevolutionary changes. As we learn more about life on Earth now and then, would it ever be possible to actually reverse the genetic clock? Could we unlock the changes in development to "wake" ancestral characteristics? Could we rebuild a dinosaur from a modern chicken?

REVIEW: This is an intriguing book, offering both an update on where modern paleontology is going and a speculation about what we'll be capable of in the future. For large stretches, the question of the authors' hypothetical "Chickenosaurus" takes a back seat as they catch us up on new trends and breakthroughs that continually rewrite the proverbial book not only on dinosaurs, but on evolution, genetics, development, and modern life on Earth. Even when we think we know something - like how simple it should be to grow a tail - we discover we were wrong, leading to new science and potential breakthroughs with wide-ranging consequences, and not just for the books; ongoing studies in the surprisingly complex embryonic development of tails, once considered too basic to bother with, may lead to new preventative measures and treatments for a wide range of human spinal disorders. Several "guest" scientists are featured, from mentors to colleagues to students of the authors who have gone on to their own boundary-breaking careers. As for the chicken connection, scientists have long recognized the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, though the birds branched off long before the fall of the "terrible lizards" at the end of the Cretaceous. So, theoretically, the genetic instructions that could lead to dinosaur-like characteristics are still there in the modern chicken. Would it be a true-to-life dinosaur, a real Jurassic Park? No - at best, it would be an approximation, a way to prove or disprove the developmental changes of millions of years. The authors debate the ethics of "resurrecting" dead species and the potential benefits to science and humanity should such an animal ever be feasible outside mere hypothesis. At times, especially in the early parts, the book feels stretched, but overall it's a fascinating look at how far we've come in our understanding, how much we still have to learn, and how interdisciplinary cooperation, rather than the old compartmentalization, leads to new answers and even more questions. All in all, it's a decent read for us average folk who are curious about the topic, but not obsessed (or wealthy) enough to afford a PhD.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton) - My Review
Dinosaurs (Carl Mehling) - My Review
Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) - My Review

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