December 28, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Dino Expert Plays Chicken

Jack Horner, the dinosaur hunter who was science advisor to the Jurassic Park movies, wants to create a real dinosaur.  He won’t use the movie method, trying to extract blood from Jurassic amber, because “DNA degrades too quickly,” he said.  But he has a method he thinks will work: un-evolve a chicken back into its dinosaur ancestor.

Stephanie Pappas on Live Science had to caution readers that her dino-chicken interview with Horner was  a “wacky but serious science idea” of 2011.  Horner’s thesis appears to be based on Haeckel’s recapitulation theory, vestigial organs, and a firm faith in Darwinian evolution:

Anyone who’s seen “Jurassic Park” knows that birds are dinosaurs, part of the evolutionary line containing those toothy Velociraptors. What’s less known is that organisms carry their evolutionary history with them. Human embryos, for example, have temporary tails, which are absorbed by the body during development. Rarely, babies are born with vestigial tails, the result of scrambled genetic processes that prevent the tail from getting re-absorbed. These evolutionary remnants are called atavisms.

Horner believes that all the genes and regulatory mechanisms for dinosaurs are present in the DNA of a chicken.  All science needs to do is learn which genes or regulators can be switched on and off to turn a wing back into its evolutionary precursor, an arm with claws, and so on.  This would be a real twist on Goldschmidt’s old saltational theory of evolution; only this time, a bird will lay an egg and a dinosaur will hatch.

Part of Horner’s motivation is to prove evolution to the world.  “The most important thing is that you cannot activate an ancestral characteristic unless the animal has ancestors,” he told the interviewer.  “So if we can do this, it definitely shows that evolution works” – even if he has to prove it by intelligent design of an unnatural embryo.  And if birds are dinosaurs, according to Darwin’s hypothesis of universal common ancestry, could he not just as well say that birds are fish?  Why not save a step, and say birds are bacteria?

Pappas asked Horner how far along is he in his quest to create “chickenosaurus.”  Not very far.  He’s looking for a post-doc to work with before he can start to get ready to begin to commence.  This time, though, he won’t make the mistake John Hammond made in Jurassic Park.  He’ll hatch out a small, plant-eating pet chickenosaur that won’t eat him or his pets.  Ah, but we all know where that technology will lead in the evil mind of a dastardly lab assistant.

It was really sweet of Dr. Jack to inform the world that there are still people “misinformed” about evolution.  The “uninformed,” he believes, can be brainwashed taught the error of their ways.  As for the “misinformed” (i.e., heretics),  he said, “If they’ve been misinformed and don’t mind being misinformed, then they probably will continue to be misinformed” (in the zoo or the insane asylum, presumably).

All right, Dr. Science, we shall just have to wait for your chickenosaurus to “emerge.”  If you want to do it Darwinly, you must keep your  hands off the experiment, otherwise you will be proving intelligent design, not evolution.  Don’t count your dinosaurs before they hatch by an unguided, purposeless process of evolution.  But beware; if your “wacky” idea (serious science) is correct, someone may decide to re-evolve you back into your ancestor, a blob of protoplasm in a warm little pond, long, long ago.

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  • Charles says:

    I never knew it was that easy. Using the same principle, engineers can un-evolve a space shuttle back into a Sopwith Camel, just by finding out which bits to remove.

  • rockyway says:

    – As you say, if this ‘theory’ were true, it should be possible to turn a chicken into a fish. e.g. a tuna (Chicken of the sea indeed.)

    But seriously… – I didn’t think this would be possible. I’ve heard or read that you can breed from a wolf to a poodle but not back again. i.e. because once information is lost, it’s lost.

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