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Economic and Social History Blog

21. Back to the dinosaurs (8-4-2020)

Back to the dinosaurs (8-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Spring has now really arrived in our garden. The hedge sparrows have reoccupied their nest, the robin has disappeared, and the song of the song thrush is all over the place early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but he has not impressed a female member of the species sufficiently. Two blackbirds – perhaps the same couple that frequented our garden last year – explored it yesterday, but left again. Perhaps because I am home all the time, and from my desk almost have to look at the garden, we have already seen seven different butterflies. I don’t know their official names, but we call them ‘blauwtje’, ‘geeltje’, ‘witje’, ‘zandoogje’, ‘oranjetipje’, ‘dagpauwoog’ and ‘kleine vos’.

The magpie is the capo di tutti capi of the birds in our garden, cheeky, dominant, confident – when he or she comes down from their nest high up in the pine tree, other birds know their place and that is not within sight. Our neighbour does not like magpies and has even offered to destroy the nest, which becomes larger and larger every year. None of the storms we have had this year has damaged it a lot, so it is quite robust;  they seem to really enjoy adding new branches anyway.

I quite like them, as they remind me to the velociraptor in the first Jurassic Park movie – the scene with the children in the kitchen. They jump or hop in the same way as these dinosaurs – powerful, aggressive, determined. This is not a coincidence, because they – in fact birds in general – are the descendants of the great dinosaurs, in a way the only ones that survived from that evolutionary branch. Some time ago this was a wild speculation, but now this lineage has been clearly established – even to the point that is has been shown that many dinosaurs such as the velociraptor already had feathers (a fact that could not be known to Steven Spielberg in 1993). Of all living dinosaurs 65 million years ago, only a few who were able to fly survived, and the 10.000 different species of birds that we know now, all radiated from these ancestors.

The most fascinating question is perhaps: can we ‘reverse engineer’ this process, starting with our birds, breeding back the dinosaurs from which they descended millions of years ago? The original Jurassic Park idea that DNA of once living animals could be extracted from amber, where it would have been preserved for millions of years, making it possible to reconstruct the original animals, does not work. DNA simply does not survive that long. That birds descend from dinosaurs implies that they must have a large part of DNA in common, and that it is perhaps possible, by selecting the right traits, to  try to reverse-breed the original species – in a way roll back the evolutionary process. If you think this is a crazy idea, I can tell you that scientists of Harvard University are already working on this for over a decade. Their main challenge, so far, has been to turn the beak of a bird into the snout of a dinosaur. But, according to interviews they gave 5 years ago, they expected a lot of progress in 5 to 10 years, so perhaps they are almost there. In 2009 Jack Horner and James Gorman published a book ‘How to Build a Dinosaur. The new Science of Reverse Evolution’. I would not start buying tickets to Jurassic Park yet, however. I think they made a big mistake: the starting bird they selected is the chicken, and in their PR activities they show very unattractive animals combining the features of chicken and dinosaurs. If they had selected the magpie the road back would have been much easier.

This kind of research raises fundamental questions, however. Are we allowed to create ‘new’ species in this way? What breeders do with pets – creating new races which lack any link to nature, and sometimes suffer from major handicaps – is already questionable, but really new species? Our DNA is very similar to that of the Neanderthaler – so the next step would be to recreate our sister species?

Continue reading: The growing pains of the digital economy 2.0 (9-4-2020)


Jack Horner and James Gorman, How to Build a Dinosaur: The new science of reverse evolution. Forever, Penguin, 2009.