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27 February 2017

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

This long-running debate tells us something important about science and ourselves. 

By Yo Zushi

Plutarch was born a Greek and became a Roman. He was a priest in Delphi, where he served the temple of Apollo, but he was also a man of the world: a magistrate, an archon, an ambassador and even a celebrity of sorts, known across the Greek-reading world for his philosophical ponderings and biographies of emperors. He had a thick head of hair and an almost eerily symmetrical face – at least, the bust of him at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi, dating back to the second or third century, presents him that way. His marble forehead is dirty with what looks like ancient mud. Here he is serious, even sullen, and deep in thought.

This is the expression I imagine on his face when his friend Alexander the Epicurean, during a meal one day, asked him “that perplexed question, that plague of the inquisitive. Which was first: the bird or the egg?” Today, we are more specific about which bird – it’s a chicken we’re talking about – but that extra bit of detail hasn’t helped to settle the debate once and for all. Sylla, another friend dining with Plutarch and Alexander, suggested that “this little question” had far-reaching ramifications; indeed, it gestured towards the matter of “whether the world had a beginning”.

A few centuries earlier, Aristotle had fudged an answer, concluding that all creatures (including, therefore, chickens) had their first being in spirit, and anyway-what-if-both-chicken-and-egg-have-always-existed-did-you-ever-consider-that? Plutarch presented both arguments – that the egg was first as “it begets and contains everything”; and that the chicken was first because creation, in the very beginning, was “vigorous and perfect, was self-sufficient and entire”.

It’s a simple question and it should have a simple answer. Or so John D Morris at the Institute for Creation Research argued in a 2005 blog post, which channelled (without mentioning him) the 16th-century Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi and his insistence that “the hen did not come from the egg but from nothing”, because the “sacred books” said so. Morris wrote, in a somewhat unnecessarily strident tone:

According to the Creator of chickens, and the author of the Record of their origins, chickens came first. It was on the Fifth Day of Creation Week that He created “every winged fowl after [their] kind” (Genesis 1:21) complete with the DNA to reproduce that kind. Then He “blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply” (v.22) using that DNA. For the chickens this meant lay chicken eggs. Problem solved.

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Although it’s hard to argue against anyone citing “the Creator of chickens” as a source, evolutionary biologists have largely backed the notion of the egg’s priority. Luis Villazon, a science writer at the BBC’s Focus magazine, summarised the Darwinian position as follows:

If you go back over 10,000 years, you eventually reach the wild ancestors of the domestic chicken, which were probably the red and grey jungle fowls of south-east Asia. You could draw a line there and say all ancestors prior to that were not chickens, but everything from that point on was. Whatever attributes qualified this individual to be a chicken, they were set at the moment the egg and sperm met. I would argue this means the egg came first.

It’s a plausible theory, but some scientists disagree. In 2010, researchers at the universities of Sheffield and Warwick announced that they had discovered the “proof that shows that, in fact, the chicken came first”. This had something to do with a protein – ovocledidin-17 (OC-17) – that was required for the formation of the shells of chicken eggs and was found only in chicken ovaries. I’m not sure how this settles the matter (those ovaries were in chickens, which must have come from eggs, which came from chickens, which came from eggs…) but the scientists had consulted a machine called Hector, and Hector should know, since Hector is “the UK’s largest, fastest and most powerful supercomputer… capable of over 800 million million calculations a second”.

So, Team Chicken Priority has the backing of Hector (kind of – it just worked through a batch of data), many creationists and the “Creator of chickens”. Team Egg Priority has Darwin and the scientists who follow him. As with most seemingly irresolvable arguments, perhaps it just comes down to picking a side. But what I find most interesting about this “little question”, as Sylla called it (remember him?), is that the two sides seem to have engaged with the problem quite earnestly, and for centuries. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that science “finds its truth if it considers itself as a free engagement of thought”, even if an absolute state of “being” could not be contained or possessed entirely. Sometimes not knowing can be as valuable as knowing, because it rouses the faculties to think.

In a recent animated video made for the Atlantic, the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates says on the subject of journalism: “There are satisfactory answers but there are no right answers. And even the satisfactory answers, at the end of the day, ultimately just lead you to more questions.” The important thing, I suppose, is to ask.