Hey, I Published First!

CNN reported in May:

It's a question that has baffled scientists, academics and pub bores through the ages: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Professor John Brookfield, a specialist in evolutionary genetics at the University of Nottingham, told the UK Press Association the pecking order was clear....

The living organism inside the eggshell would have had the same DNA as the chicken it would develop into, he said.

"Therefore, the first living thing which we could say unequivocally was a member of the species would be this first egg," he added. "So, I would conclude that the egg came first."

The same conclusion was reached by his fellow "eggsperts" Professor David Papineau, of King's College London, and poultry farmer Charles Bourns.

Well, that learned journal The Volokh Conspiracy actually published the same results a good two years earlier:

Which came first -- the chicken or the egg? People ask that as if it's the quintessentially unanswerable question. But of course the answer is clear: The egg.

Why? Well, here's the literal solution: There were eggs -- for instance, dinosaur eggs -- long before there were chickens. QED.

Enough of these lawyer tricks, Volokh, you say. Of course the question means "Which came first -- the chicken or the chicken egg?" (where "chicken egg" means an egg containing pretty much the same genes that an adult chicken would have).

Well, then we have the biological solution: A chicken egg will always produce a chicken, since species changes happen at the time of conception, not at the time of birth. If the genes in the fertilized egg made it a chicken egg, then it will produce a chicken. But two non-chickens could produce a chicken egg. That's the way species change operates -- the mixing of genes from two individuals, likely coupled with mutation and other genetic changes, produces an individual with a new genetic pattern that can be said to belong to a new species.

Of course, this is something of an oversimplification: Species change probably can't be delineated this precisely ("previous generation, nonchickens; this generation, chickens"). But the question itself assumes that we can somehow distinguish chickens from nonchickens, and that some change will be treated as being enough to make the resulting organism into the first chicken. Biology tells us that this change, whatever it is, will only happen at the time the egg is produced, not at the time the chicken is produced (i.e., the egg is hatched).

But doesn't that assume the truth of the theory evolution, some might ask? If that bothers you, I propose a religious solution: In my experience, most creationists are also pro-life -- in which case, the egg is a chicken.

Beat you to it, Dr. English Professor Sir.

Thanks to David Smallberg for alerting me to the Johnny-come-latelies.

douglas (mail):
seems a convincing argument.
A little ot- the problem with evolution (not that I'm a disbeliver) is that it has the idea of sepecies progression, but natural selection only makes a clear case for adaptability (which could be down or horizontally as or even more easily than up). There is no reason why more complex creatures are inherantly advantageous to survival, in fact, it may be a substantial disadvantage. Any ideas about this angle?
8.9.2006 3:30am
AbbaGav (www):
Wow, I thought I was ahead of the game by posting on this last year, but I was already a year behind you, which is a geological ice age in blogging time. I did, however, cover a few other common conundrums (like whether the glass is half-empty or half-full) so maybe there's still some shred of exclusivity in there.
8.9.2006 5:04am
ras (mail):
But a chicken is still just an egg's way of making another egg (mutations notwithstanding), right?
8.9.2006 5:10am
ras (mail):
But a chicken is still just an egg's way of making another egg (mutations notwithstanding), right?
8.9.2006 5:11am
M. Stack (mail):
What about Adam and Eve? Or all the animals that God created in the Beginning? God did not say, let there be eggs that will hatch to produce "x"; he said, let the earth roam with...and the earth was inhabited with x instantaneously.

Think about it!
8.9.2006 5:29am
zarevitz (mail) (www):
First came a chicken egg produced by a proto-chicken.
8.9.2006 5:47am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
The proposed solution falls afoul of common usage. You name the egg by what laid it. If you get a chicken from a dinosaur egg, you say, ``Hey, a chicken from a dinosaur egg!'' not ``Hey, a dinosaur laid a chicken egg!''

Common usage rules. Scientific language is merely a specialization of common language, not a better language.

If somebody asks ``Which came first ...'' he is asking in ordinary language, as to how the naming goes.
8.9.2006 6:28am
Chris Bertram (mail):
Ray Sorensen, "The Egg Came Before the Chicken", Mind 101/403 (July 1992) 541-42. (PDF)
8.9.2006 6:33am
Hugh59 (mail) (www):

Sorry, it was early in the morning and I just could not help myself!
8.9.2006 7:22am
TheGoodReverend (mail) (www):
I'm with Ron. It takes a chicken to make a chicken egg. Therefore, the chicken must have come first.
8.9.2006 8:27am
speedwell (mail):
Reverend, if a chicken came out of it, how can it not be a chicken egg?

Douglas, the idea of "progressive complexity" is not part of evolution. Evolution can, and demonstrably does, often work in the direction of increasing simplicity. Parasites, for example, might start out as complicated organisms, but reduce through evolutionary changes into little more than a digestive system attached to a reproductive system. In other organisms, features are often simplified or even lost altogether.
8.9.2006 9:11am
Well, Walter Thurman and Mark Fisher published their results in the Journal of Agricultural Economics in 1982, reaching the conclusion that chickens are "Granger caused" by eggs...
8.9.2006 9:49am
Did somebody say chicken omelette?
8.9.2006 9:51am
John (mail):
I understand that many of Eugene's colleagues were quite impressed by his analysis, and feel he should focus more on his biological studies, perhaps even to the point of switching departments.
8.9.2006 10:24am
TallDave (mail) (www):
I would argue the chicken came first. Here's why:

It must have some amount of time for the first self-replicating living organisms to evolve. Before that happened, there must have been very primitive organisms that simulated some sort of life, but could not reproduce, and quickly died leaving no descendants: chickens without eggs. Eventually, "chickens" that could produce "eggs" developed -- but the chickens were first.
8.9.2006 10:39am
TallDave (mail) (www):
Actually, "evolve" is the wrong word above. It should read "occur" or "develop."
8.9.2006 10:40am
Speedwell, I believe it could depend on the perspective. If we agree that it absolutely takes a chicken egg for the first chicken to emerge, let it be so: the egg came first. But if we consider that chickens are genetically fit to produce chicken eggs, isn't possible that the very first mutating protochicken to become a chicken as we now know it could have risen from a protochicken shell?

Lets not forget, the protochicken was to produce protochicken eggs. The first genetic mutation would apply, in that logic, to the "entity" inside the egg, being the first chicken. In return, the first chicken would be the first one to produce chicken eggs, not matter how close it would taste to the protochicken's egg...

Therefore, the chicken came first.

One question remains.

Which came up first, scrambled or sunny side up?
8.9.2006 10:45am
HLSbertarian (mail):
So, all we've come up with is that it depends on how you define "chicken egg"? If "chicken egg" means "egg that produces a chicken" then it came first; if "chicken egg" means "egg produced by a chiken" then it came second.

Abandon's point becomes key: can the first organism mutated into what we call a chicken come inside an egg unidentical to those it would lay?
8.9.2006 10:55am
Two nearly-chickens mated, there was a mutation involved in one or more party's genetic contribution, leading to the first egg with chicken genes, which developed into the first chicken.

So the egg came first. The biological logic is simple, and has been obvious since the concept of mutation was understood. I know I reasoned it out this way when I learned about evolution in middle school back in the 80s, but will leave the first published article hunt to someone with far more free time than I.

This of course ignores the questionable nature of species differentiation, which is doubly bogus for birds (a great many bird species, especially in South America, can interbreed, which means they should not be seperate species). Or just think of the poor mule...
8.9.2006 11:21am
I figured this out in high school biology class. Too bad I didn't publish--I figured it was obvious.


I think your analysis depends on how one extends the metaphorical "egg" to the situation you describe. Why, for example, is not the "primordial soup" from which these primitive organisms arise not "the egg" to their "chicken"?


This is just a definitional issue, but I personally would not identify a chicken egg with merely its shell. This is illustrated, in fact, whenever I eat "scrambled eggs" (well, mostly--I sometimes miss a bit of shell).
8.9.2006 11:24am
Joel B. (mail):
The Biblical solution is actually easy. The chicken came first, for God created the birds on the fifth day.

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

He did not however, create eggs on the fifth day. The Biblical solution is therefore that the chicken came first.
8.9.2006 11:26am
Chris Bell (mail):

Evolution does not posit the progression of more and more advanced species, just more and more adapted. More "complex" species evolve because they can fill a niche that was previously unfilled, but that doesn't make them superior or more likely to occur because of evolution.

For example, bacteria are way more successful in terms of evolution compared to humans just because there are so many of them.

Water flows downhill through any crack it can. Just because one crack-path is more complex doesn't change anything.
8.9.2006 11:50am
Reminds me of a cartoon I read once. The chicken and the (giant) egg were in bed, with the chicken reclining in a relaxed pose and smoking a cigarette, while the egg was "sitting up" (if you can imagine a giant egg with arms and legs) with its arms crossed.

The caption: "Now we know the answer to THAT question."
8.9.2006 11:54am

Great--now I didn't even publish my "I figure this out in school but didn't publish" story first. Thanks a lot.

Joel B.,

How do we know that God didn't make chickens by first making chicken eggs, and then accelerating their growth so that it occurred in a single day?
8.9.2006 11:59am
plunge (mail):
"is that it has the idea of sepecies progression, but natural selection only makes a clear case for adaptability"

Actually, genetically they are identical. It seems odd that people don't get this, but adaptability requires genetic changes, and speciation is the direct result of these sorts of genetic changes. You can even think of "interbreedability" being a characteristic that varies in just the same way that beak length or other characteristics vary.

Speciation happens when two populations have undergone enough different genetic changes that their DNA and even their morphology is no longer compatible. There is no magic line over which adaptation becomes species progression: exactly what these changes are and how many of them can cause the incompatibility varies widely. In abalone, for instance, speciation is astonishingly rapid because of a sort of sperm/egg lock/key system where both the code keys and the code lock are undergoing mutation, leading to lots of different "islands" of fertility branching off and going their own way. This leaves us with species of abalone which are almost identical but cannot effectively reproduce in the wild.

In contrast, we have dogs, which vary in their morphology to an extreme degree, but, because of (more common than the Kennel Club would like to admit) inbreeding, they have stayed reproductively compatible even while varying far more widely in their looks than do most separate species.
8.9.2006 12:02pm
joeb1113 (mail):
Apologies to Eugene, but it'physically impossible for me to read a post about a Russian publishing first without dropping a nod to the great Tom Lehrer's take on the same subject:

[N.B. Please note that Lehrer's accusations against Lobachevsky were only satirical. Do a little Googling; in the eyes of most historians Lobachevsky's independent discovery of non-Euclidean geometry is entirely genuine.]
8.9.2006 12:16pm
Dave Wright:
This problem was solved experimentally some time back.

Improbable Reasearch has all the details :-)
8.9.2006 12:23pm
Robert Racansky:
Breakfast comes before dinner.

Unless you have eggs for dinner, or chicken for breakfast, the answer is obvious.
8.9.2006 12:48pm
Joel B. (mail):
Because it says that he created "every winged bird" not that he created the egg of every winged bird. Perhaps we get a better idea of the creation of God, in the description of Adam's creation where Adam was formed out of the dust of the ground, and the the breath of life was breathed into his nostrils. While probably not happening in the same way for the birds, we do see that Adam was formed a person not a fertilized egg, I suppose we should expect the same about the other creatures.
8.9.2006 12:50pm
Randman (mail):

I saw a similar cartoon years ago. It showed a chicken and egg in bed together. The chicked was smoking a cigarette. The the caption to the drawing is the egg saying to the chicken "You came first. You always come first. That's why I never come at all."
8.9.2006 1:16pm
EV writes: A chicken egg will always produce a chicken, since species changes happen at the time of conception, not at the time of birth. (emphasis added)

I'm not sure this is true. Let's say a chicken conceives of something with DNA that is not chicken DNA. If that something is never born, is there a "species change"? For example, lets say that, the day after conception, everything (the conceiving chicken, the precursor to the egg (which hasn't been formed yet), everything) - how can you say there ahs been a species change?

I would say that the opposite from what EV says is correct.
8.9.2006 1:21pm
SeaDrive (mail):
If the eggshell had DNA, would it be the DNA of the chicken, or the egg? That would be definitive.
8.9.2006 1:23pm
Whoops, meant to say above in the "For example" sentence "everything is killed (the conceiving chicken..."
8.9.2006 1:24pm
plunge (mail):
Species are generally populations, not individuals, no matter how abberant and newthey are.
8.9.2006 1:34pm
sunship (mail):
talldave is an idiot. from this and other threads it's clear you have very little capacity for reason.
8.9.2006 2:04pm
GMS (mail):
Doesn't this assume that the Pre-Chicken (i.e., the first Chicken's mother, who purportedly popped out the first chicken egg), was actually an egg-layer? (And I assume by "chicken egg" we're talking about an egg that hatches, not a microscopic egg that develops in utero and results in a live birth). Granted, it's probably a pretty safe assumption, but let's be methodical here. What if the Pre-Chicken and its ancestors were "live birth" animals, and the mutation that tipped the scale was one which caused them to become egg-layers? Is it impossible for the first Chicken to have been born live, rather than hatched? Are birthing methods the only thing that cannot evolve? Absent evidence that this is impossible, the proof is incomplete.
8.9.2006 2:26pm
I think the bible literalists are jumping to conclusions (no comment on whether it's unique to the present issue) - what's the scriptural proof that creating a "winged bird according to it's kind" doesn't mean creating an egg? What the heck else does "according to it's kind" mean?
8.9.2006 2:39pm
Joel B.,

Ah, but what about Eve? She was basically cloned from a rib.

And we don't really know what it looked like when God made Adam out of dust. Why couldn't the dust go through all the stages of human body development before arriving at an adult version of Adam?

In short, the Bible is awfully sparse on the details, and it doesn't seem to me like we know exactly how God creates things. So, maybe he went straight to adult birds, or maybe he went through eggs on the way. And, in fact, the same applies to Adam and Eve--we don't know if there were steps in God's process, or if it was just straight to the end point.
8.9.2006 2:39pm
I know virtually nothing of biology, but I thought that in order for a heritable mutation to occur (which successively lead to speciation), mutations must occur in the gametes (eggs/sperm). So you don't have an unmutated proto-chicken egg and unmutated proto-chicken sperm combine, undergo a mutation, and then have a new species. The mutation occurs in the proto-hen's (or rooster's) gametes. It's still a proto-hen/rooster, but with a funky sperm/egg.

If the mutation that leads to the chicken occurred in the male's gamete, wouldn't a chicken be born from a proto-chicken egg? If the mutation occurred in the proto-hen's egg, I guess you could argue that it's a chicken egg, and it came first, but I'd say it's a mutated proto-chicken egg. I think that at least in some cases, the chicken came first, and maybe in all.

Someone who knows evolutionary biological theory please clear this up for me.
8.9.2006 3:52pm
DRWN: pronounced Darwin? This the real joke or just a funny byproduct?

Yes, if the critical non-chicken to chicken mutation was passed on by the father, then you would have the progression of
Proto-Chickens ->
proto-chicken unfertilized egg + actual chicken sperm->
actual chicken fertilized egg ->
actual chicken.

If it was passed on by the mother, then it was the progression of
Proto-Chickens ->
actual chicken unfertilized egg + proto-chicken sperm ->
actual chicken fertilized agg->
actual chicken.

In either case, you have the actual chicken fertilized egg step before the actual chicken, so the (fertilized)egg came first. (And again, the conversation ignores that a single creature does not make a new species.)
8.9.2006 4:21pm
I guess this reveals my position on abortion, but I was operating under the following assumptions:

Fertilized chicken egg = chicken

Unfertilized chicken egg = egg

If you think that it becomes a chicken at birth (I think EV stated this in his argument and I overlooked it), I agree, the egg comes first. It's the same reason I don't like to argue about abortion. I feel like all that ever happens is arguing about valid logical conclusions drawn from different premises (when life (of a given species) begins). I always thought conception was the least arbitrary place to make the delineation.

I'd be interested in hearing if other pro-life people made the same assumption without even realizing it.

So if a single animal were enough to make a new species, and the mutation occurred in the sperm, it seems like we agree on the following order:

Unfertilized proto-chicken egg ----> fertilized egg -----> hatched chicken

I still want to know the answer to Frank Costanza's question: "Who's having sex with the chicken?"
8.9.2006 5:18pm
Also, no, the DRWN = Darwin thing is a conincidence. The real joke just involves testicles.
8.9.2006 5:20pm
Colin (mail):
I guess this reveals my position on abortion...

Your handle is pretty revealing as far as that goes, isn't it?
8.9.2006 8:36pm
guest (mail):
Until now, I was pretty sure that the egg was named after the layer, not the occupant. i.e. The Prechicken was fertilized by another prechicken and laid a prechicken egg, inside of which was the first chicken.
8.9.2006 9:13pm
Jam (mail):
Y'all never heard of "pickled boneless chicken?" You need to stop and get gasoline in an old country gas station.
8.10.2006 11:49am
I'm sure that no one is looking at this thread anymore, but I have some questions?

Let homo sapiens' direct evolutionary descendant = Human+1
Given: The mutation that leads to Human+1 occurs in the male's sex cell.

1) What will come first, the Human+1 Egg or the Human+1?
2) If your answer to this is different than the Chicken or Egg quetion, why?
8.10.2006 6:42pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
New York magazine once researched the question by interviewing the employees at the local supermarket. IIRC, the chicken arrived first most days.
8.11.2006 10:24am
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
"But two non-chickens could produce a chicken egg."

Exactly. this is proof the egg came first.

" which case, the egg is a chicken."

No. Maybe convenient with superficial appeal, but a logical fallacy. Some eggs are not chickens, but rather just yolk.
8.11.2006 5:38pm
douglas (mail):

Douglas, the idea of "progressive complexity" is not part of evolution. Evolution can, and demonstrably does, often work in the direction of increasing simplicity.

Then it's not evolution, it's natural selection. Evolution, by definition, is progressive. 'Evolve' does not equal 'Change'.

"is that it has the idea of sepecies progression, but natural selection only makes a clear case for adaptability"

Actually, genetically they are identical. It seems odd that people don't get this, but adaptability requires genetic changes, and speciation is the direct result of these sorts of genetic changes. You can even think of "interbreedability" being a characteristic that varies in just the same way that beak length or other characteristics vary.

Really? Aren't the variety of dog breeds a form of natural selection based on adaptablility to various functions? There's not significant genetic variation there to count as divergent speciation. I contest that it is not inherantly genetic. Predominately, yes, but necessarily? no.

So, I'm still wondering, where does progression come from? It wouldn't seem at all necessary to the propagation of life, nor am I convinced that it was necessitated by gaps that needed to be filled in the ecosystem. I guess what I'm getting at is that evolution is the strategic theory behind the tactical theory of natural selection- that's the conventional wisdom. I'm contesting it saying the tactic works, but the idea that the driving strategy for it (evolution) doesn't connect to the observed results.
8.12.2006 4:59am