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Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever

by Jack Horner and James Gorman

Pub Date: March 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-525-95104-9
Publisher: Dutton

Brash, world-renowned paleontologist confesses that if he had his druthers, he’d “Bring ‘em Back Alive.”

Horner (Paleontology/Montana State Univ.) wants to introduce readers to “evo devo,” a jazzy moniker for evolutionary development. But first he wants to tell a story—and it’s a good one, though at times meandering—about paleontology, where it’s been and where it may be going. Co-written by New York Times deputy science editor Gorman, who’s collaborated with Horner before (Digging Dinosaurs, 1990, etc.), the polished narrative has a comfortable, intelligent flow. It starts with Horner’s early career digging fossils in eastern Montana, where he famously helped in the unearthing of a T. rex that prompted a sea change in his thinking. During the excavation, it was necessary to break one of the dinosaur’s femurs in half, thus revealing fossilized bone tissue that led fellow researcher Mary Schweitzer down the road of cutting-edge molecular inquiry. Horner digresses about skinheads, Ted Kaczynski and chicken carcasses, but his main idea is reverse evolutionary engineering. Might we, by joining the research of embryo development with the study of evolution, be able to intervene in an embryo’s growth to manipulate events at the molecular level toward ancient forms? The genetic materials are there, but can we tap them? In the 19th century, German naturalist Ernst Haeckel famously declared that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”; 20th- and 21st-century expression of DNA appears to be bearing this out. “Why couldn’t we take a chicken embryo and biochemically nudge it this way and that,” asks Horner, “until what was hatched was not a chicken, but a small dinosaur?” A few centuries back, he would have been burned at the stake for this suggestion; today, it’s exciting.

Evo devo for the everyday reader, with the personal stuff adding color needed to sustain a skirmish with molecular paleobiology.