The Horner/Larsson quest: a “chickenosaurus” to publicly demonstrate evolution!



Two paleontologists met one day to have a chat. No, this is not the start of a joke—though aspects of it might sound that way when we see what they talked about. When Hans Larsson, the Canada Research Chair in Macro Evolution at Montreal’s McGill University had discussions with internationally renowned paleontologist Jack Horner (who served as scientific advisor for all three Jurassic Park movies), they came up with a truly astounding project.

How to build a dinosaur

The two were conferring about how they might better illustrate evolution to the general public, when Horner boldly shared his personal vision with Larsson. Horner, who gives “an awful lot of lectures”, pictures himself strolling on stage before a crowd, not with the standard lecture notes or powerpoint slides, but “the ultimate prop: a real live dinosaur on a leash”.1

How could such a wild dream become reality? In a nutshell, Horner told Larsson it should be possible to grow a dinosaur from a bird embryo. Larsson was so enamoured by Horner’s vision, that he is now heading up a research program to make it happen. He is experimenting with chicken embryos to create the animal Horner describes, which they have dubbed “chickenosaurus”. They are aiming to produce a creature with clawed hands, teeth, a long dinosaurian tail and “primitive” feathers—characteristics they say are shared with “the dinosaur we know that’s closest to birds, little raptors like the velociraptor”.1

While that might sound ridiculously impossible to many readers, Horner and Larsson are actually being logically consistent with what they believe about origins. Their notion of growing a dinosaur from a bird embryo is simply applying what evolutionists have taught for years in school and university textbooks. As New Scientist wrote earlier this year, “Look closely at a developing embryo and you can see some ancestral forms briefly appear.” Hence Larsson’s belief: by flipping certain genetic levers during a chicken embryo’s development, he can reproduce dinosaur anatomy.

Other science media reports echoed this developmental idea, right in line with the long-discredited Haeckel’s embryo drawings of a century ago:

“It’s one of the basic principles of evo devo:2 as an embryo morphs from just a few cells into a fully formed creature, it shows echoes of ancestral traits, bumping up against evolution along the way. Chicken embryos, for one, start off looking fairly generic, much like the fishy ancestor they share with humans and other vertebrate creatures (it was in the fish that nature first learned how to lay down a backbone, [Sean] Carroll3 says). As the embryo continues to transform, there’s a brief window when, according to Larsson, it takes on ‘dinosaurian traits’.”1

And, in a similar vein (emphases added):

If the chickenosaurus mated with a hen or rooster, ‘the result would be an old-fashioned chicken,’ says Horner. ‘If it died, we could stuff it and roast it. It would taste, as the proverb says, like chicken.’
If the chickenosaurus mated with a hen or rooster, “the result would be an old-fashioned chicken,” says Horner. “If it died, we could stuff it and roast it. It would taste, as the proverb says, like chicken.”
According to Larsson, a creature’s evolution over millions of years—which can be traced in fossils like the T. rex skull—provides valuable insight into the individual animal’s development over its lifetime. Likewise, a chicken’s progress from embryonic blob to feathered fowl says something about evolution, and maybe even how to reverse it.1

This is another classic example of how evolutionary theory leads researchers astray.4 And we should note that it’s not their own money that’s being diverted to chasing chickenosaurus figments of imagination, but other people’s money. Larsson’s research project is being funded by no less than the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs program and National Geographic.

Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the overtly evolution-proclaiming National Geographic would support the Horner/Larsson quest for chickenosaurus. Remember that Horner and Larsson’s motivating purpose for this project is to promote evolution to what they probably see as an apparently resistant public. They had decided that altering the development of chicken embryos could be “a very public, visual way of doing that.”5

“It’s a demonstration of evolution,” says Larsson, emphatically. “If I can demonstrate clearly that the potential for dinosaur anatomical development exists in birds, then it again proves that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs.”6

Horner is equally vociferous. While he dreams of one day walking on stage on The Oprah Winfrey Show with a chickenosaurus following him on a leash, what really excites him is that a dino-chicken “would be shockingly vivid evidence of the reality of evolution … The creature would be its own sound and vision-bite.”7

So, how is the project progressing? Horner has written a book confidently entitled How to build a dinosaur in which he refers to Larsson’s embryo work. However, so far, the results haven’t exactly been Oprah-worthy. Larsson has tried to grow a dinosaurian tail on a chick by splicing the fast-growing tip from a young chicken embryo onto the tail of an older embryo before it turned into the normal chicken pygostyle (which holds the tail feathers), but the experiment didn’t work.

However, instead of questioning the long-taught “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” premise on which it was based, Horner and other evolutionists say the failure “points to the tremendous complexity of the development process”.7 Interesting that evolutionists would invoke complexity, when complexity would indicate design, and therefore, a designer.

Horner and Larsson’s enthusiasm for the project remains undampened:

“Yet both men insist they’re almost there. ‘I believe it will happen,’ Larsson says. It’s just a question of when. If all goes according to plan, he adds, Horner will have his pet dinosaur within five years’ time.”1

Now there’s a bold prediction—it’s rare to find researchers willing to make such assertions that can be tested before their likely career retirement date.8 Horner and Larsson are obviously confident of a successful outcome, for what would be the logical conclusion if the project doesn’t produce a chickenosaurus? The following report of Horner’s views, at first reading, might seem as if Horner is inadvertently setting evolutionary theory up for a fall (emphasis added):

“But for Jack Horner, making people stare is exactly the point. The chickenosaurus will be a conversation piece, he says, sparking a public debate about evolution by winding its tape backwards for all to see. ‘Let’s put it this way,’ Horner says. ‘You can’t make a dinosaur out of a chicken, if evolution doesn’t work.’1
Renowned American paleontologist Jack Horner dreams of one day walking on stage on The Oprah Winfrey Show with a chickenosaurus following him on a leash.
Renowned American paleontologist Jack Horner dreams of one day walking on stage on The Oprah Winfrey Show with a chickenosaurus following him on a leash.

Is Horner really laying it on the line? That is, when the chickenosaurus doesn’t eventuate (for evolution doesn’t “work”), will it shake his and Larsson’s confidence in evolution?

Probably not. That’s because it seems that Horner and Larsson have pre-defined9 “chickenosaurus” in such a manner as to preclude failure:

If his efforts succeed, what will Hans Larsson have created? “Within five years, I think we could get a chicken with a tail, forearms, and teeth,10 and transform its feathers back to their ancestral shape, which is probably a hollow quill,” he says. It would be slightly larger than a standard chicken, although using another bird species (say, an emu) or treating it with growth hormones could produce different results. It would still have a chicken genome, and so wouldn’t technically be a T. rex or a velociraptor; but it wouldn’t be a chicken, either, at least not as we’d recognize it. So what, exactly, would it be? “It would be a dinosaur,” Larsson says. But then he adds (in a telling phrase that seems like “heads I win, tails you lose” for evolutionists), “because chickens are dinosaurs.”1,11

Similarly, this time in the context of downplaying the risks of the Horner/Larsson chickenosaurus escaping from the lab:

In his book, Horner notes that if his dinosaur escaped, it would have about the same chance of survival as a lone chicken. “If by some miracle it did mate with a hen or rooster,” he writes, “the result would be an old-fashioned chicken. If it died, we could stuff it and roast it. It would taste, as the proverb says, like chicken.”1

So the “chickenosaurus” will actually have the genome of a chicken, be able to mate with chickens, and have offspring that are, well, chickens!12

And yet, all of this is claimed as evidence for evolution—with many people no doubt being deluded into thinking evolution is true. No joke.

Published: 17 September 2009


  1. Lunau, K., The quest to build a dinosaur, Maclean’s, <http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/08/20/the-quest-to-build-a-dinosaur/>, 20 August 2009. Return to text.
  2. The evolutionary concept of “evo devo” (evolutionary developmental biology) has been thoroughly refuted in our earlier article Evo Devo refutes neo-Darwinism, supports creation; and also in: White, D., Climbing Mt Improbable “evo devo” style, Creation 31(4):42–45, 2009. Return to text.
  3. Sean Carroll is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is the author of the book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: the New Science of Evo Devo, reviewed here. Return to text.
  4. For example, the evolutionary idea of vestigial organs, or organs that have no use but are merely remnants of our evolutionary past, has adversely affected surgery. Conversely, treating them as though they had a function, consistent with design, has greatly helped patients. See interview with Dr Ross Pettigrew: Performing surgery upon evolutionary thinking. Scientific advances resulting in real benefit to society haven’t the slightest thing to do with evolution—see “Does Science need Evolution?”, Section I in Science, Creation and Evolutionism. Return to text.
  5. Scientist aims to genetically manipulate chicken embryos to create dinosaur traits possibly leading to a chickenosaurus, Next Big Future, <http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/08/scientist-aims-to-genetically.html>, 25 August 2009. Return to text.
  6. Canadian scientist aims to turn chickens into dinosaurs, Physorg.com, <www.physorg.com/news170426405.html>, 25 August 2009. Return to text.
  7. Hecht, J., Review: How to build a dinosaur by Jack Horner and James Gorman, New Scientist 201(2697):44, 28 February 2009. Return to text.
  8. In stark contrast, compare the 30-to-100-year predicted timeframes of “climate change” researchers. Return to text.
  9. Leading evolutionists appear to follow a strategy that “Whoever defines the terms, wins the debate”. See Definitions as slippery as eels. Return to text.
  10. If the project does successfully induce teeth development in a chicken embryo, it would not be the first time that such would be, wrongly, touted as proof that birds had evolved from reptiles. See Teeth developing in bird embryos—does it prove evolution?; also see Chickens with Teeth. Note that while no living bird exists with teeth, extinct birds such as Archaeopteryx, Sinornis, Confusiusornis, Hesperornis, and Ichthyornis all had teeth. Mutations can cause some living birds to develop teeth. Note, too, that not all reptiles have teeth. Turtles are toothless. The Pteranodon, an extinct flying reptile, did not have teeth. Teeth are not defining characteristics of either birds or reptiles. Return to text.
  11. Larsson is not the only evolutionist to claim that the feathered visitors splashing in your backyard birdbath are dinosaurs. See: Living dinosaurs or just birds? Return to text.
  12. Larsson’s team are experimenting with drugs to try to override certain parts of embryo development. They are alert to the possibility of generating deformities akin to the “flipper-like hands and feet” of thalidomide-affected babies in the 1960s, and want to avoid that, “so we don’t develop a mutant chicken that has nothing to do with development or evolution”. Nevertheless, it would not be surprising if, in 5 years’ time, a “chickenosaurus” is paraded as evidence of evolution, when in fact it will be nothing more than a horribly development-impaired “mutant chicken”. Return to text.