Thursday, June 25, 2009

Baby Dinosaurs and Ancient Red Blood Cells

John R. (Jack) Horner is an example of a highly successful dyslexic with minimal traditional academic skills but maximum productivity in his field of research. Horner flunked out of the University of Montana seven times. (I used to say six times, but he corrected me.) However, after he had established himself, “his brilliant synthesis of evidence . . . forced paleontologists to revise their ideas about dinosaur behavior, physiology, and evolution.” Horner never earned an undergraduate degree or graduate degree. But now he is a professor with many graduate students, an honorary degree and many, many honors. He failed “just about all his science courses, and never [completed] his undergraduate work.” Although he had great difficulty with his course work, it is clear that at a deeper level he was continuously learning--absorbing the knowledge needed to understand and then revolutionize a field of knowledge.

As Horner tells the story, his difficult beginnings helped him to be a risk taker. “ ‘Back in the days when I was growing up, nobody knew what dyslexia was. . . . So everybody thought you were lazy or stupid or both. And I didn't think I was, but I wasn't sure. I had a lot of drive, and if somebody told me I was stupid, that usually helped--it really helped me take a lot more risks. For someone that everybody thinks is going to grow up to pump gas, you can take all the risks you want. Because if you fail, it doesn't matter.’ ”

But the risks paid off. According to the curator of the museum of vertebrate paleontology at the University of California at Berkeley: “A lot of people have tended to underestimate Jack because he hasn't come through the traditional academic route. But he is, without question, one of the two or three most important people in the world today studying dinosaurs.” Horner is able to see things differently and he observes things others do not see. For example, he believes that it is really of little interest to find the fossil bones of a large adult dinosaur. What he is interested in finding are fossils of many dinosaurs of many sizes, in their environment, in order to understand the life of the animals and the way they interacted with other animals and plants in that environment. Horner is known not only for his markedly different way of looking at things, but also his unusual ability to see, in the field, the tiny fossil bones of baby dinosaurs that other experts cannot find. According to another researcher: “He has a gift. . . . He can see things the rest of us don't see.”

Horner is especially worth noting because, in spite of his persistent academic failures, he came eventually to be acknowledged as one who has transformed some of the fundamental thinking in his field. His story forces us to reconsider in a deep fashion what is really important in one’s work and what is not. Horner proved to have extraordinary difficulties with things that are largely peripheral to his discipline (reading, composition, test taking), but also proved to be unusually gifted in those things that lie at the heart of his discipline (being unusually observant while searching for fossil bones in the field, being able to interpret the surprising patterns that emerge, being able to visualize easily changes to terrain and ecology over very long periods of time, thinking his way beyond and around his associates, seeing ways of using new technologies, developing innovative and persuasive arguments based on looking at the fossil evidence in a very different way).

Horner says he tries to teach his students “to think like a dyslexic” because that is where the “good stuff” comes from--learning to read the book of nature with careful personal observations and fresh insight without being distracted by the theories of others. He says the rest is “just memorization.” One of Horner’s students, dyslexic herself, recently made discoveries thought “impossible”--finding red blood cells and flexible blood vessels inside a 65 million-year-old fossil bone. Horner points out that this discovery was never made before because “all the books in the world” would say that it could not be done. He notes that it is easy for dyslexics “to think outside the box” because “they have never been in the box.” We need to see the truth of Horner’s observation that dyslexia is “certainly not something that needs to be fixed, or cured, or suppressed!” Indeed, we need to see that, as Jack says (in a recent article), “maybe it’s time for a revolution”--or at least (from a separate interview) “it may be time to start something.”

Based on section from the new Epilogue for the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye to come out in July-August 2009. See new Jack Horner book just out earlier this year, How to Build a Dinosaur.