The chicken or the egg

From Academic Kids

The question Which came first? - The chicken or the egg? constitutes one of the most well-known logical dilemmas on causality.

A chicken and egg problem is a dilemma or a deadlock situation where one cannot provide either item because one lacks the other. For example, you cannot find a job without work experience, but you cannot get work experience without first having a job.

As with most problems, it is important to try to understand the question and a good place to start is by asking what is meant by 'the egg':


A viewpoint

The egg is assumed to be a chicken egg. This is an obvious assumption given that the question implies that there is a link between the two.

If we assume that the egg is a chicken egg then we have to define what is meant by a chicken egg:

  • A chicken will hatch from a chicken egg

i.e. An animal that was not a chicken laid the chicken egg which contained the first ever chicken. In this case the egg came first.

  • A chicken egg is the egg that a chicken lays

i.e. A chicken (that already existed) laid an egg (a chicken egg). In this case the chicken came first.

  • Both of the above definitions apply

i.e. An animal is considered a chicken only if it hatched from a chicken egg, and an egg is only considered a chicken egg if it was laid by a chicken.

The latter case may cause confusion because it suffers from the chicken and egg problem itself; one can't exist without the other. It can be solved, however, if it is accepted that the first animal with the full genetic makeup of a chicken laid the first chicken egg; the animal that hatched from this egg would be the first chicken, even though its mother was the first chicken from a purely genetic point of view.

Another viewpoint

The egg is not assumed to be a chicken egg. In effect this changes the question to: "Which came first a chicken or an egg".

From a purely scientific point of view this question can be answered quite easily. It is difficult to decide when the egg began as any cell is sometimes called an egg. Let's call the egg the hard shell one, and the chicken the first feather covered animal.

Evolutionary scientists believe the first hard shell egg was the amniotic egg laid around 200 million years ago, and was laid by the animal who was the link between amphibians and reptiles. It was only after this egg that animals could breed away from the sea. Birds would emerge 50 million years after descending from theropod dinosaurs. The first dinosaur with feathers was the Archaeopteryx.

In this case, the first chicken must have been the mutant offspring of a proto-chicken that laid the first chicken's surrounding egg. That is, unless one defines a chicken egg as an egg which has been laid by a chicken.

The crux of the matter lies in the definition of 'chicken' (or, if you like, of 'egg'). We define what does and does not constitute a chicken after the fact. Any definition of the first chicken is purely arbitrary. The question 'which came first?' therefore ignores the reality of speciation. Which is the first chicken - or the first chicken egg - is purely a matter of definition.

Yet another viewpoint

The chicken versus egg controversy is, in fact, the Creation versus Evolution controversy in a nutshell. The counterpoint, therefore, to the above evolutionary viewpoint, is that the first chicken was created by the Creator, and then that first chicken laid the first egg. The assumption of either of these viewpoints is a classic case of begging the question, since to say the egg came first presupposes that a chicken would have to arise as a mutation from the afore-mentioned proto-chicken, whereas to say the chicken came first presupposes that the first chicken was a fully formed animal from the get-go.

And Yet Another viewpoint

One can answer the question inside the framework one is experiencing the question in, making the question NOT abstract, but factual: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? Answer: The chicken came first - in this sentence! This also clears any confusion one might entertain about which animal came before the egg in which culture - just by actually listening to the question. And if one feels like twisting things around a bit, just reverse the order: Which came first - egg or chicken? Answer: The egg came first - in this sentence.

It's hours and hours of good, clean fun!

And Another

It has been suggested that the definition of "chicken egg" should be "an egg that was laid by a chicken". Unfortunately, it's just as logically valid to define "chicken" as "a bird that hatched from a chicken egg". Pair those two definitions and you arrive at the interesting conclusion that there are absolutely no chickens (or chicken eggs) to be found anywhere in the universe. Since it is axiomatic that there are both chickens and eggs, those definitions cannot both be true.

Hence, any useful progress makes it necessary to define both chicken and egg in their own terms without becoming self-referential.

That being the case, everyone should be able to agree that at some point there existed the first ever bird that fit whatever formal definition of 'chicken' applies. The parents of that bird had genes that differed just enough that neither could quite meet the requirements to be formally classified as a chicken. They were 'proto-chickens'.

The answer to the conundrum hinges on whether the egg laid by that mother proto-chicken was in any way distinguishable from a true chicken egg. If that egg was square - or had purple spots - then it wasn't a chicken egg - so we could easily say that the first chicken came before the first chicken egg.

However, if the handful of genetic differences between the first ever chicken and it's proto-chicken parents were in a part of the genome completely unrelated to the fabrication or structure of eggs - then that egg would certainly be entirely indistinguishable from an egg laid by a true chicken - it would meet every reasonable definition of a chicken egg and we'd be forced to say that the chicken egg came before the chicken.

Can we ever know for sure which of those two things was the case in historical fact?

Probably not.

However, in all of the vast number of genes that make up a chicken, relatively few would be likely to control the details of egg production - compared (say) to the ones that determine skull shape, beak curvature, etc. Hence, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the genetic difference between the proto-chicken parent and the true chicken offspring lay in some area unrelated to egg production.

Hence, it is most probable (although not entirely certain) that the chicken egg came before the chicken. Importantly however: Doubt does not arise from some terrible paradox - but simply from lack of historical information.

If one rejects the evolutionary explanation of the first chicken and instead asserts an act of divine creation - then no answer is possible since an omnipotent creator would be equally able to create a chicken or an egg as the starting point for the species and without the existence of specific religious dogma on this point, no answer is forthcoming.

A contextual viewpoint

It could be said that the question simply requires one to know the context. Most people thinking of the question automatically think of the timeline and it is in this manner that both the previous evolutionary theory and religious teachings contexts arise. Other potential contexts are:

  • Having looked through a dictionary from front to back, which came first? - the chicken or the egg?
  • When you walked through the supermarket, which came first? - the chicken or the egg?
  • When dropping the two from the top of the Tower of Pisa to the ground, which came first? - the chicken or the egg?

This is not to affect the way the expression is used to identify a dilemma of another sort but it can lead to a solution for a similar dilemma.

See also:

other game theory related


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