White Meat or Dark? Eating Chickenosaurus

In the movie Jurassic Park, scientists used genetics to bring dinosaurs back to life. The death and destruction that results from this attempt to play God are a clear warning about where human hubris can lead.

Apparently, the message wasn’t clear enough—not even to those who worked on the movie.

Paleontologist Jack Horner, who was the technical advisor on the Jurassic Park films, has a book out entitled How to Build a Dinosaur. Horner wants to build his “dinosaur” differently from the people in the movie: Instead of wasting resources looking for intact dinosaur DNA in amber or other fossils, “he wants to hatch a dinosaur straight from a chicken egg.” And he’s serious.

The theory goes that modern animals, like birds, share genes with their “distant ancestors” that have been “switched off.” That’s why, according to Horner and others, birds don’t look much like their dinosaur ancestors.

Their goal is to turn these genes back on and produce what they’re calling a “chickenosaurus,” a bird with “clawed hands, teeth, a long, [dinosaur-like] tail and ancestral plumage.”

An obvious objection is that they are not really “building a dinosaur”—they are creating a freakish bird whose relationship to dinosaurs depends on the validity of contemporary theories about long-extinct animals and their modern descendants.

But the biggest problem with what Horner and others are doing isn’t scientific—it’s moral. Even if we can bring back long-extinct animals, which is by no means a given, the question remains, “Should we?”

Horner misses the point when he assures readers that the “chickenosaurus” wouldn’t be dangerous—and if stuffed and roasted it would “taste like chicken.”

The danger isn’t from Tyrannosauruses loose in San Diego—it’s from people wielding “God-like” powers. What should worry us is not scientists wielding this power over chickens, but over human beings.

We would be trying to “resurrect,” as the media invariably puts it, dinosaurs or other species to amuse ourselves or make some point. For instance, the “chickenosaurus” is intended as a “conversation piece” in a “public debate about evolution.” function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;window.open(‘http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,’toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

I’m all for such a debate, but that is a dangerous prop to use. If scientists succeed, as Horner puts it, in “rewinding evolution” by manipulating the DNA of animals, are humans next? Why not?

While genetics holds great promise, that promise is coupled with a temptation to play God. Never forget that the field started out as eugenics, the attempt to “improve” the human race by weeding out the unfit. What author Edwin Black calls “newgenics” still sees human beings as a work in progress in need of substantial tweaking.

There is already much talk about “controlling our evolution.” What’s not talked about nearly as much is who decides what should be switched on and what should be switched off. Evolution, if it were true, we are told, doesn’t play favorites—but man certainly does. What in recent human history makes anybody think that isn’t a recipe for great evil?

Except that in the real world, the monsters won’t have clawed hands.

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