For over 2000 years, a question has stood the test of time. It has baffled philosophers, scientists and kids alike. A lot of them have chickened out from answering it (I can’t promise if this will be the only pun in this blog).
What would you call a chicken?
Is it a bird? Yes.
Is it young? Yes.
Would people eat it for its flesh? Yes.
Does it belong to the species Gallus Gallus? Yes.
Is it cute? Well, that’s subjective but I will say yes, it is.
There you have it. We have defined what a chicken is. The Oxford dictionary defines a chicken as ‘a domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, especially a young one.’ Moving on to the egg. The dictionary definition of an egg is ‘an oval or round object laid by a female bird, reptile, fish, or invertebrate, usually containing a developing embryo.’ But is the egg in question any egg or a chicken egg? If we dig deeper into semantics, does a chicken egg mean an egg laid by a chicken or an egg containing a chicken? We could go on in an endless loop if we said that the egg came from the chicken and the chicken came from another egg.
The scientist’s stance
From Evolution 101, we know that new species are formed because of mutation. A mutation is a variation in the sequence of the organism’s DNA while it is copied during reproduction. Mutations do not have a purpose and they cannot be predicted. Now imagine a bird similar to a hen. Let’s call it a proto-hen. When this proto-hen mates and lays an egg, it has a mutation and thus our first chicken came into being. It means the egg came first. Think of the chicken in our question as a placeholder for an egg layer (meaning the bird). If we reworded our question did the one who laid eggs or the egg itself come first? Evidence suggests that dinosaurs and fish existed on Earth about 400 million years ago. These animals laid eggs. Birds are descendents of dinosaurs. This indicates that eggs have been around for a lot longer than birds. Thus, the egg came first.
But if we were to specifically discuss the chicken egg and not any egg, then evolutionary process would suggest that the chicken came first. The protein ovocleidin-17 is essential for the formation of a chicken egg and it is found only in chicken ovaries. The chicken becomes a prerequisite for the egg’s existence.
The philosopher’s stance
Bacchus calls an egg the emblem of that which begets and contains everything in itself. In viviparous animals, an egg is detached from the mother’s body and the embryo grows into an offspring. So, the egg is self sustainable. Aristotle’s hypothesis of a cause and effect can be explained by imagining an Alpha Chicken — a chicken that does not need a rationale for its existence and has always been on Earth. He received support from religious believers that claimed this Alpha Chicken was created by the Supreme Creator. Some philosophers have disliked the chicken-egg conundrum because it in turn requires an answer to whether the world had a beginning. An egg is an unborn baby. It is a work in progress for the fully developed complex animal that hatches from it. It is analogous to a seed germinating from a plant. In art and in nature crude figures are refined gradually to obtain the masterpiece. Thus the egg, which merely acts as a container, comes first and moulds an animal out of it.
To this, Senecio says, a part of something makes no sense if that something doesn’t exist of which it is a part. Notice how we always say a chicken’s egg and not an egg’s chicken. Claiming that the egg existed before the chicken is the same as digestion of food before an animal is born. It makes no sense. The egg is the byproduct of an animal as much as milk is. Thus the chicken came first. To conclude this debate I would like to quote the renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson,
“Just to settle it once and for all: Which came first the chicken or the egg? The egg — laid by a bird that was not a chicken.”
There you have it. At least you won’t run around like a headless chicken when you encounter this question the next time. For those of you who can’t choose sides in the philosophical and scientific theories might enjoy this answer — of course the chicken did. It had legs!
I would like to thank Victor for the writing prompt and helping me with the content. He is a scientist working with ScienceCorps and volunteered at Aavishkaar. I’m also grateful to my co-fellow Sriram for initiating the wacky blog ideas conversation.
- ASAP Science’s Youtube video on the subject: https://youtu.be/1a8pI65emDE
- Which came first: the chicken or the egg? https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/which-came-first-chicken-egg
- Which was first the bird or the egg? https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plutarch/symposiacs/complete.html#section15
- Which Came First?, Chapter 3 from Part II of The Art of Knowing: Expositions on Free Will and Selected Essays by Christopher Langan
Image credit tenor.com, dribble.com, giffy, canva.com, giffer.com
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About The Author: Aishwarya Lohi is a chemical engineer and now an India Fellow, working with Aavishkaar in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. She is involved in engaging school students with fundamental science and math by using practical tools.