Wildly exaggerating dinosaur technology as a recipe for attention


It’s happening again. I’m seeing the idea of dinosaurs being resurrected in the lab in the news again. It happens all the time. I saw it in 2009; in 2013, they were predicting it would happen within 5 years (what year is it now?). Ever since, there are these frequent outbursts of “scientists say they can recreate living dinosaurs!”,
over and over and over and over again. They always say “scientists”, plural, but if you plow through that deluge of articles, it always turns out to be one scientist, singular, and that scientist is Jack Horner. One man is constantly making this claim, usually with references to Jurassic Park so that credulous reporters will understand it.

Let’s stop, OK?

In theory, we may someday be able to genetically modify extant organisms to give them attributes associated with dinosaurs — sharp teeth, long claws, long tail, etc. — but they will not be recreating dinosaurs. They would be creating organisms of no practical utility and only the most tenuous connection to dinosaurs. They would be big ugly variations on modern birds, which could nominally be called “dinosaurs”, but we don’t need Frankenstein’s lab to do that…just go look up emus and ostriches.

Horner’s skills are in paleontology. Doing this would require expertise in genetics, molecular biology, and development. He doesn’t have that. He just keeps getting up in front of journalists and lay audiences and announcing that can do that. I think he has just enough smarts that he recognizes an eventual possibility, but not enough knowledge to appreciate how difficult what he wants is.

He’s a perfect example of the cocky ol’ white man confidently declaring that something will be done, while not knowing how to do it, and the press throws all skepticism and concern for evidence to the winds because, well, how can you doubt the credibility of a successful white man? If anyone else said this (and no one else is), they would be dismissed as a crackpot.

But hey, he’s got a reference: a 1990 science fiction novel by a Luddite whose primary point was that science was overrated and technology was evil. That’s pretty much it.

If you think Horner is prescient and wise, I’ll just remind you that, in his late 60s, he married a 19 year old undergraduate student (which did not produce so much as a reprimand from his university, surprisingly. Or not.)

I repeat: making a monster chicken might be possible with a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of molecular/genetic expertise. There is no motivation to do so, no big initiative to make it happen, no cutting edge team of biotechnologists working away in a secret lab to “recreate” dinosaurs. There is one old guy making extravagant claims to gullible audiences.

Stop treating this as news, please.

Comments

  1. says

    It’s happening again. I’m seeing the idea of dinosaurs being resurrected in the lab in the news again.

    Yeah, after Jeff Sessions, we really don’t need to repeat that experiment. They’re just going to pass repressive legislation, red in tooth and claw and all that.

    The idea of lab-creating animals raises a lot of really interesting problems, though. Would one be creating a life-form that was immediately an endangered species?

  2. HappyHead says

    Of course scientists can create living dinosaurs easily – just go to the local farm, get some fresh eggs, stick them in an incubator, and wait. Instant domesticated mini-velociraptors. (about half sized). No genetic engineering needed.

    a 1990 science fiction novel by a Luddite whose primary point was that science was overrated and technology was evil

    It’s kind of sad that I immediately recognised a reference to Michael Crichton just from that description. Even his “regular fiction” (ie: not billed as sci-fi) books are like that.

  3. Dunc says

    The idea of lab-creating animals raises a lot of really interesting problems, though. Would one be creating a life-form that was immediately an endangered species?

    It’s quite a lot worse than that. Firstly, you’ve got the problem of not just trying to recreate an individual, but enough genetic diversity for the population to be viable. Secondly, there’s the fact the animals exist as part of ecosystems – so if you want to recreate a herbivorous dinosaur, you would probably also need to recreate the plants that it fed on, the dung beetles that ate its poop, the gut bacteria that made its digestive system work properly, etc, etc…

    Unless all you’re interested in is creating a doomed, one-off lab freak that’s probably going to die in fairly short order, of course. But I’m not sure that “endangered species” really goes far enough in that case…

  4. scott says

    We have wild turkeys roaming my neighborhood occasionally. If they’re not dinosaurs, nobody bothered telling them that.

  5. kestrel says

    I raise chickens and I totally get the appeal here. I spend a lot of time protecting my chickens from predators; how awesome it would be if, instead, the chicken was looking through the bars of the pen thinking, “here, kitty kitty” to that pesky raccoon. Then, instead of the raccoon reaching in and ripping the wing off the chicken, the chicken rips the arm off the raccoon. I get it.

    But just because it would be “cool” does not mean it’s easy, advisable or even possible in my lifetime. Also, i’ve been hearing this for years. Not news, Mr. Horner.

  6. Kevin Karplus says

    Dinosaurs seem infeasible to me—we have no way of getting the genomic information. I believe that there is some possibility of reconstructing the ancestral bird genome, because bird genomes are surprisingly similar and trees fairly easily constructed. Considerable research work has gone into figuring out what the ancestral bird genomes must have looked like.

    There may be enough information to engineer genomes to reconstruct species that have gone extinct, but it would be a very expensive and rather pointless exercise. Beth Shapiro’s book How to clone a mammoth has a good lay explanation of both the technical possibilities and the futility of actually attempting the experiment. She brings up the most feasible of the de-extinction projects (the passenger pigeon) and shows why even that “easy” case is unlikely to lead to anything worthwhile.

  7. Snidely W says

    we may someday be able to genetically modify extant organisms [to ‘recreate’ an ancestral-bird kind of dinosaur]

    Even if they pull this off it will be so disappointing. All of the dinosaurs in the line to birds were small. You know, bird-sized. All the big meat eaters were side lineages that have left no descendants. Hell, ALL of the big dinos left no descendants.

    The best that one could come up with would likely look a lot like some modern passerine with a long tail like some grackles. The only differences (to most people) would be some funny feathering of the tail and some very small teeth that you would see only when it opens its mouth.

  8. petesh says

    @7: Yes, my main criticism of Shapiro’s book is the title, which is exploitative in a wink-wink ironic way.

  9. lumipuna says

    in his late 60s, he married a 19 year old undergraduate student

    I predict they will be producing children with the help of frog DNA.

  10. microraptor says

    Horner has long struck me as someone who has entirely too high an opinion of themselves and a desire for media attention. Like his silly attempts to argue that T-Rex was somehow an obligate scavenger.

  11. chris61 says

    The headlines are stupid. The science ( i.e. genetic manipulation to recreate a snout from a beak or a leg from a wing) is potentially very informative.

  12. Colin J says

    @kestrel , #6:

    I raise chickens and I totally get the appeal here. I spend a lot of time protecting my chickens from predators; how awesome it would be if, instead, the chicken was looking through the bars of the pen thinking, “here, kitty kitty” to that pesky raccoon. Then, instead of the raccoon reaching in and ripping the wing off the chicken, the chicken rips the arm off the raccoon. I get it.

    I don’t fancy collecting eggs from those chickens.

  13. chrislawson says

    I have no doubt that as genetic engineering and molecular biology progress, we will one day have the capability to create an animal with a strong resemblance to dinosaur anatomy. And that someone will actually go ahead and make one. But it won’t be a dinosaur. After all, if we had had the technology 30 years ago, we would have given our “dinosaur” skin like a crocodile. If we made one now, it would have feathers. Obviously the best we can do is make something that looks like our best estimate of what dinosaurs were.

    Also, you haven’t described Crichton accurately. Technology and science were only bad to him if they are new and he had only a superficial grasp of it. If it’s an established technology with a powerful industry he’s adamantly for it. The whole plot of Airframe is about how evil journalists are exaggerating the dangers of jets falling apart and making life unfair for poor maligned airlines. And of course he was a well-known and vocal denier of global warming — he was 100% against putting any restraints on a technology poses a greater existential threat than genetic engineering, AI, and nanotechnology combined.

  14. Crudely Wrott says

    Way to be a major buzz-kill, PZ.
    I’ve been so looking forward to having a stegosaurus to keep my lawn neatly trimmed and fertilized. I was so anticipating waxing and polishing its plates and putting protective rubber balls on the tips of its tail spines.
    Then along comes you to dash my dreams.
    Why do you hate me so?
    Is there nothing sacred? Not even lawn maintenance devices?
    There’s no justice in the world anymore. Just ask the next dinosaur you meet.

  15. jack16 says

    I thought Horner’s presentation of TREX as a scavenger was reasonable. Has anyone suggested that T’s forearms may have been used for nesting behavior? Egg handling, egg turning, predator defense at the nest, construction?

    The whiptails of Diplodocus might have slain (broken legs, etc) of thousands of predators. Fossils are so rare.

    jack16

  16. microraptor says

    jack16 @16:

    I thought Horner’s presentation of TREX as a scavenger was reasonable.

    It really wasn’t. The “evidence” he cited ranged between superficial to outright wrong and to the best of my knowledge it was never treated as credible among paleontologists, only TV shows. He’s had a rep for hating T-Rex’s popularity for decades.

  17. Owlmirror says

    @jack16, @microraptor:

    Robert DePalma, currently in the news for the K-Pg impact Lagerstätte he discovered and is publishing about, also published something a few years ago:

    Physical evidence of predatory behavior in Tyrannosaurus rex

    I seem to recall seeing someone claiming that Horner responded with something to the effect of: “Well, maybe the hadrosaur was sleeping, and the Tyrannosaur thought it was dead and took a bite, and woke the hadrosaur up.”

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