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Tweety, Son of Dinosaur

March 22, 1998

Nobody wants to "go the way of the dinosaurs," for therein lies extinction--or so goes the saying. But a study in last week's Science magazine persuasively argues otherwise.

Catherine Forster, a State University of New York paleontologist, reveals new evidence that some dinosaur species, far from dying off, instead ascended into flight. Studying a 65-million-year-old fossil of a raven-size bird called archaeopteryx ("ancient wing"), Forster shows how various features link the bird to small biped dinosaurs called theropods. Their wicked sickle-like killing claw would be familiar to any moviegoer who has gasped at a theropod attack scene in "Jurassic Park."

Forster is hardly the first scientist to cite the archaeopteryx as proof of the dinosaur-bird link. That distinction belongs to Darwin's intellectual sidekick, Thomas Henry Huxley, who conjectured late in the 19th century that modern birds evolved from fast-running dinosaurs with feathers initially developed for insulation. Other scientists disagreed, arguing that modern birds evolved from reptiles that developed feathers for gliding down from the trees in which they lived.

Most scientists now view the debate as settled in Huxley's favor because of clear dinosaur-bird links found through sophisticated new "cladistic" analyses of Forster's archaeopteryx and a feathered dinosaur found in 1996 by Chinese paleontologists.

Classical archeology has focused on matching bones like jigsaw puzzle pieces, but cladistics looks more broadly at how nature engineers physical features that provide an advantage in meeting environmental challenges. Its focus on problem-solving has recently piqued the interest of scientists struggling to meet engineering challenges in human society.

Cladistically minded engineers, for instance, point out that the Wright brothers would have experienced fewer stalls and crashes had they studied the archaeopteryx's alulae. Alulae are thumb-like components (shared by modern birds) that are used to produce high lift at slow speeds, just as modern airplanes use "leading-edge flaps."

Today, the organ that scientists seem most eager to emulate is the human brain. Cognitive scientists like MIT's Steven Pinker and computer scientists like speech-recognition pioneer Ray Kurzweil say the key to building a computer with sophisticated artificial intelligence lies in understanding how the brain builds a complex system, the human mind, out of the relatively simple rules governing neurons.

Scientists, in other words, are slowly discovering that one of the best ways to engineer new designs is to look at nature's old ones.

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