Which Came First - The Chicken or the Egg?
The Age Old Dilemma Finally Resolved
I was recently sent a provocative youtube link by a friend of mine which depicted a ‘charming’ Christian soldier taking advantage of the ubiquitous and non-discriminating nature of the internet (by which I mean it will display a literary masterpiece or work of art as faithfully as it will a biased and plain incorrect opinion) to assert his views on evolution, in particular, with regard to the problem stated in the title of this essay, namely, which came first – the chicken or the egg?
In this essay I will briefly describe the video clip and then illustrate why the reasoning of our Christian ambassador is false before moving on to tackle the question in a more thoughtful fashion, because there is a real enigma here which deserves to be solved.
Despite the fact that the individual who made the you tube video freely identifies himself as a ‘card carrying’ Christian, as it were (although he doesn’t use such an expression), and this fact is central to his cause, I don’t wish to paint all Christians with the same brush so instead of referring to him as “the Christian” throughout the essay, I will just call him “Chris”, with a sincere apology to any ‘Chris’s out there who may have found their way to this essay.
The video essentially portrays a fictitious conversation between Chris and a conspicuously absent rival he helpfully identifies as “Mr Atheist”. Of course, Chris fulfils the role of the Christian but he also graciously takes it upon himself to answer on behalf of “Mr Atheist”. Naturally, when posing as “Mr Atheist” Chris dons a baseball cap sideways and takes on decidedly dim-witted mannerisms because as we all know, every atheist wears their baseball cap sideways and talks like they have an IQ in the low double digits.
The basic gist of the dialogue goes like this:
Chris: “OK, Mr Atheist, you believe in evolution so which comes first – the chicken or the egg?”
Mr. Atheist: “Uhhh, the chicken.”
Chris: “But chickens come from eggs.”
Mr. Atheist: “Uhhh, then I guess the egg came first.”
Chris: “But eggs come from chickens.”
Mr. Atheist: “Oh well what really happened is that the chicken and egg both evolved at the same time from fish.”
Chris: “So which came first the fish or the fish egg?”
Mr. Atheist: “Uhhh, the fish.”
Chris: “But fish come from fish eggs.”
Mr. Atheist: “Oh, I mean the fish eggs came first.”
Chris: “But fish eggs come from fish! So, this means that one of them had to be created.”
There are two problems with the above chain of reasoning. The first, which you probably saw immediately, is that clearly this pretend discussion has one hundred percent failed to prove the hypothesis of creation. Nowhere is creation discussed in any way, shape or form until suddenly appearing in the conclusion without any preamble whatsoever. Not only does Chris not discuss any problems or inconsistencies with creation as a theory, he even fails to discuss any positive reasons for why creation is a viable alternative to evolution. Creation is considered the default option without actually having to meet any standards of proof. It’s as absurd as a scenario where two people are on trial for a murder and the first one is acquitted so the second is immediately put in jail without being given a fair hearing.
Secondly, and maybe a little subtler, if Chris’ creationism conclusion is held to the same standards as those he forces on the atheist, creation also fails to answer the question. When the atheist answers that the chicken (or the egg) came first, Chris replies that cannot be true because chickens (eggs) come from eggs (chickens); but when he himself answers that the chicken (or egg) must have therefore been created, he neglects to subject his answer to the same strict standards; i.e. chickens (or eggs) still should come from eggs (chickens).
No doubt Chris would argue that since creation is a supernatural act, it is not bound by the physical restrictions that evolution is, but of course this opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unlikelihoods and impossibilities that he doesn’t even attempt to address much less explain. And considering creation violates every physical law we know of, there is much that requires explanation. If we are allowed to posit solutions which flagrantly flout all ‘natural’ processes it is just as plausible to say that a fully-formed chicken just materialised out of thin air one day long, long ago (although not that long if you are a young-Earth creationist) without a Creator. Chris would argue that an effect cannot occur without a cause to which we would reply that this ‘spontaneous assembly’ (we would give it an official sounding name to lend our ‘theory’ credibility) was by definition a supernatural act and as such is not bound by natural restrictions such as cause and effect. Obviously specious.
We must also be extremely wary of explanations that rely on the notorious, “God did it” for their explanatory power. One of the well-known problem with such explanations is that they are non-falsifiable, meaning that there is no condition under which they can be shown to be untrue, so that even if they are completely false, no one will ever know because any inconsistencies can be resolved; “That’s how God wanted it”, for example.
Another weakness is that in explaining everything, they actually wind up explaining nothing. Think about it. “God did it” doesn’t even begin to tell us how the first chicken came to be running around amongst all the dinosaurs and humans. Did God wiggle his nose and, poof, a chicken? Did He just think of a chicken and, poof, a chicken appeared, or was it more technical than this and He manipulated energy according to the equation E = mc2 and then, poof, a chicken? “God did it” explains everything but thankfully not everyone was as satisfied as Chris with this explanation or Newton wouldn’t have bothered trying to figure out what makes apples fall to the ground and Copernicus wouldn’t have heretically wondered if the Earth, as God’s special creation, was actually not at the centre of the universe.
Anyhow, despite the fact that there are some obvious problems with Chris’ logic, he has inadvertently stumbled on a truly thought-worthy question. For the rest of this essay I will presumptuously accept the challenge (which you didn’t make) of answering the question (which you didn’t ask) and hopefully by the end of this essay we will have come up with a satisfactory conclusion.
Before diving headfirst into the problem there is a little background we should first cover to pave our way. People like Chris typically try to answer this question the wrong way. They tend to use the riddle as a tool to help look for an answer which will either prove creation or evolution as the force behind the origin of everything. Unsurprisingly, they find evolution unable to provide a sensible answer and so, by the power of elimination, conclude that creation must be the way it all played out. I propose to reverse this strategy. Before even trying to answer the question itself we need to investigate the relative strengths of the creation hypothesis as opposed to evolution. Specifically, we need to know whether we are looking for a creationist solution or one founded on evolution and we need to know this before we attempt to prove either one through the enigma of the chicken and the egg. This is perhaps easier than you might at first imagine and it turns out that attempting to use the riddle of the chicken and the egg to tease out whether evolution or creationism is true, is a fundamentally flawed and backwards way to go about it.
Anyone even partially aware of the mountains of evidence supporting evolution and in stark contrast, the complete and thorough absence of any evidence in favour of creation would have no hesitation in deciding that evolution is undoubtedly the way things must have progressed. Let’s briefly review the reasons why this decision comes as effortlessly as I have suggested:
- For creation to be true there must have been a Creator. There is just as little evidence in favour of a Divine Orchestrator as there is for any creation wrought by His hand. If there is a Divine Being out there who loves us as much as believers say He does, surely we should all be fully aware of this and it should be as obvious as the fact that the sun rises every morning and sets every evening. As I’ve said in other places, if God loves us so much and is real, where is He?
- Fossil evidence reveals that over 99% of all species that have ever existed on the planet have gone extinct. This makes absolutely no sense when considered in light of creation but makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Why would a Creator create so many species just to have their lineage abruptly cut short some span of time later?
- If a Creator designed and created everything, why did He do such a poor job with the details? Consider something as simple as a flatfish. A flatfish, as its name suggests, glides along the bottom of the ocean floor but unlike the skate, which does so naturally with its eyes on the top of its body and its belly underneath, the flatfish is actually born as a normal fish, swimming vertically with its eyes either side of its head. A month after birth, an astonishingly bizarre thing happens; one eye begins to migrate over the skull, which must change shape as it does so, and eventually joins the other on one side of its body. After this, a number of other changes take place including the flatfish flipping onto its side so that its eyes are now facing upwards. The flatfish will swim on its side for the rest of its life. This is a remarkably wasteful and terribly inefficient process which makes absolutely no sense if a beneficent and intelligent Creator designed the flatfish. However it makes perfect sense when we realise that flatfish evolved from regular fish and so didn’t necessarily get a ‘perfect’ body.
Or how about the male testes which begin development in the abdomen and then must migrate down through channels called ‘inguinal canals.’ These canals leave weak spots in the body wall that make men prone to inguinal hernias. No intelligent designer would have designed the situation this way but since we evolved from fish whose testes begin and end development in the abdomen, we are stuck with the best evolution could provide.
In case you’re still not convinced did you know that in women, there’s a gap between the ovary and the Fallopian tube which the fertilised egg must traverse to plant itself in the uterus? If it fails to make this leap, it will implant in the abdomen which is almost always fatal to the baby and, without surgery, to the mother also. Evolution can explain this because fish lay their eggs directly from the ovary to the outside of their bodies; the Fallopian tube is an imperfect connection because it was the product of an evolutionary process.
- If a Creator designed everything why do we see vestiges (leftover features from ancestors) everywhere we look in nature? We must either conclude that a Designer deliberately put them there to make it look like they evolved or they actually did evolve. We see in many species of whale, vestigial pelvis and leg bones which are impossible to explain unless whales evolved from four-legged terrestrial ancestors.
Probably the most famous vestigial organ is the human appendix which is useful in herbivorous animals as a fermenting vessel but in humans serves no purpose except to rupture and kill you. Before the advent of surgery, appendicitis probably killed one person in every hundred of God’s ‘specially chosen’ race.
- All vertebrate embryos start out looking strangely like fish embryos before finally mutating into the form they will carry throughout their lives. Consider human blood vessel development which starts out like that of a fish before turning into something similar to that of embryonic amphibians. It then changes into a circulatory system resembling reptiles before making one final change to become a true mammalian system. Highly suspicious if an intelligent designer designed us.
Perhaps the most striking embryonic feature in support of evolution though is the lanugo. This is a fine coat of downy hair which covers a six month old human foetus and is shed before birth. Interestingly enough whale foetuses also grow lanugo. Naturally, as you should be able to predict, monkey foetuses have lanugo and they retain it after birth where it will eventually become the adult coat.
- Undoubtedly the most striking proof of evolution is in the fossil record. Creationists tend to make a great deal of noise over the absence of transitional fossils but in actual fact, an abundance of transitional fossils have been discovered for virtually every living species on Earth, including humans. Are there gaps? Of course there are, but these gaps are to be expected considering the number of very specific conditions that must be met for a fossil to form in the first place but more importantly they do nothing to undermine evolutionary theory because the fossils we do have so clearly show an evolutionary progression. The much touted fossil “Lucy”, officially classed as Australopithecus afarensis, is about as perfect a transitional form as we could ever ask for. From the neck up, Lucy is apelike with a chimp-sized braincase and a squarer tooth row; in the middle, she is a mixture; and from the waist down, she’s almost a modern human with a pelvis and legs which allowed her to walk upright.
- Another highly conclusive point in the case for evolution is the fact that in all of the discoveries made, in every instance outlined above, not one single find contradicts typical evolutionary theory. All it would take to disprove the whole theory is the discovery of a human fossil contemporaneous with a dinosaur fossil, which creationism, particularly of the young-earth kind, predicts we should find. But we don’t. We have never found a human fossil which predates an orang-utan fossil, never unearthed a rabbit fossil from the Pre-Cambrian, nor do we see embryonic development which progresses from a mammalian fashion to a reptilian one before finally settling on an amphibious one. The evidence for evolution is so strong and so consistent that we are forced into the conclusion that it is either that way because it is true or because God specially planned His creating to deliberately fool us into thinking that it is.
So evolution must be true. What this means, to bring it all back to the specific question at hand concerning the chicken and the egg though, is that we are looking for an evolutionary answer to the dilemma, i.e. to claim that the chicken (or the egg) was created first, fails to reconcile with the overwhelming evidence at our disposal and cannot therefore be a valid solution. Since we know that we need not waste our time pursuing a creationist answer we have essentially just halved our workload.
Solving the Riddle
Knowing that evolution is true gives us a framework within which to place our question. But since evolution tells us that things evolve slowly over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, we come to an immediate problem; when did the bird which evolved into a chicken actually become what we would today classify as a chicken? Evolution, being a continuous process, does not break species up into neat, discrete categories the way we have classified them today and the way the question assumes them to be.
First we must strictly outline exactly those characteristics which define a chicken and those which define a chicken egg, and then examine the situation through an evolutionary eyeglass, because remember, we have already assessed the relative strengths of both creationism and evolution and determined the latter to be the only possible explanation. What we would then see is a creature 10% chicken, 90% junglefowl (laying 10% chicken, 90% junglefowl eggs); then (after a suitable timeframe) one 20% chicken, 80% junglefowl (laying 20% chicken, 80% junglefowl eggs), and so on, until we arrive at a creature we might identify as 100% chicken.
Now in theory, a resolution can be sought by searching back through the evolutionary line of chickens until we find which of the two first matched our description of either a bona fide chicken or a bona fide chicken egg. Presumably one of the essential criteria by which we would define a chicken egg would be that it be laid by a bona fide chicken. This same restriction would not necessarily be applied to a chicken, i.e. a part of our definition of a chicken would not necessarily include that it be hatched from a chicken egg. The fact that chickens come from chicken eggs is not something intrinsic to the definition of a chicken, it is merely something we usually observe and therefore inductively expect. We call the egg, a chicken egg in the sense that it belongs to and comes from a chicken but the reverse is not the case, i.e. we don’t call the chicken a chicken-egg chicken because there is no sense in which we consider the chicken a priori belonging to or coming from a chicken egg.
With this said, we can answer with complete certainty that the chicken must have come first, having evolved from a creature that was perhaps 99% chicken and only 1% junglefowl, and therefore hatched from an egg that was the egg of a creature 99% chicken and 1% junglefowl. This first chicken would in turn lay the world’s first 100% chicken egg.
Now although this is a complete answer, you are probably left feeling a little less than completely satisfied. To pursue this feeling we must now turn our attention to the question…
The Paradox Exposed
The riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg appears to be a paradox because of what seems to be a closed loop made up of two parts:
1. Chicken eggs only come from chickens and
2. Chickens only come from chicken eggs
The reason I say it is only an ‘apparent’ paradox is because as we have already discovered, only one of these conditions is necessary. It is necessarily true, by definition, that chicken eggs only come from chickens but it is only conditionally true that chickens come from chicken eggs and as we have seen, in a world where evolutionary processes hold sway, chickens need not necessarily come from chicken eggs, although they must come from the egg of a creature similar and evolutionarily directly ancestral to it. Certainly it is the case that chickens usually come from chicken eggs and in the experience of anyone living on the planet this is the way it has always been witnessed, but reaching back in evolutionary history, we can see that this need not always have been the case and in fact must not have always been the case, by virtue of the fact that there are chickens in our world and life progressed according to evolutionary theory.
This analysis exposes the flaw in the reasoning of the riddle as it is usually expressed. By appealing to our common sense in the way we usually see chickens emerging into the world, it smuggles in a conditional truth as a necessary truth and is then able to derive a paradox. It is only when one approaches the question from a rigid evolutionary perspective first that this smuggled-in conditional truth becomes apparent.
In addition to this basic but hidden flaw, there are two other main reasons why the question is inadequate and these are discussed below:
1. The question deliberately takes a snapshot of a continuous, ongoing process and forms a question based on this which fails to account for the bigger picture. In attempting to answer the question, one must go beyond what is given (the chicken and the egg) and draw on what evolution tells us took place earlier. When one does this, the asker feels slightly cheated because the paradox has been dissolved by freeing oneself from the confines of the artificial ‘snapshot’ question and appealing to the larger evolutionary picture. This feeling of being cheated is actually illusory and it is an illusion brought on by the rigidity the question itself creates.
2. The riddle was solved by appealing largely to definitions and this gives the solution a somewhat contrived and artificial feel. By strictly defining what a chicken and what a chicken egg was we were able to work out which must have come first through a purely logical, a priori analysis. In the hands of the creationist, the riddle appeals to our commonsense notions of chickens and their eggs but these notions are insufficient to solve the riddle within an evolutionary framework which is what the evidence demands. In a sense, it is artificial and arbitrary to say that at time x in the evolutionary record the first chicken appeared and we would be loathe to describe it like that but this is what the question demands. This is a direct consequence of the ‘snapshot’ nature of the question taking a single frame out of context and asking for a ‘beginning.’ Any ‘beginning’ discovered that accords with what we have already concluded must be an evolutionary process, will seem arbitrary precisely because it is, but that is only because the question is equally arbitrary.
Even if we traced the evolution of a chicken backwards through time with enough accuracy to identify the so-called ‘first’ chicken; the answer would be meaningless because we are arbitrarily defining what the ‘first’ chicken must look like. Change the definition a little and we suddenly change the time when the ‘first’ chicken appeared. It is reminiscent of the old philosopher’s riddle, at what point do a number of grains of sand become a ‘pile’ of sand? Imagine I have five grains, is this a pile? Probably not. How about I add one more grain. Is that a pile? Again probably not. And yet eventually, if I keep adding individual grains I will get a pile of sand. Where do we draw the line between just having a few grains of sand on the table and a true ‘pile’ of sand? Can we identify the single grain which makes the ‘pile’? Of course you can but the answer is so arbitrary and so entirely dependent on how strict you want to make the definition of a ‘pile’, that the answer is totally meaningless. The grains gradually become a ‘pile’ in the same way that a junglefowl gradually became a chicken. If you attempt to analyse a continuous process according to a discrete methodology, your answer will always be arbitrary and meaningless.
You can also get a sense of the inanity of the question by asking it of mammals, which give birth to live young. The exact correlate to the chicken and the egg dilemma in mammals is to ask, “Which came first – the cat or the kitten?” As you can see, it lacks the paradoxical aspect the chicken and the egg has because we all know that a cat is a kitten whereas a chicken seems to be quite distinct from an egg… but the two questions are logically equivalent. The only difference between the two species is that the gestation of one takes place inside an egg within an adult body and the gestation of the other takes place inside an egg external to the adult body. No one asks the question of the cat and the kitten because it doesn’t lend itself to paradox so easily and this is because it doesn’t cut off the idea of an evolutionary answer in the very way it is asked. And this leads on nicely to the point we will finish on in this essay.
One might argue that even if we solve this question, we still haven’t reached the root of the problem. So chickens came from junglefowls (and their eggs), which came from reptiles (and their eggs), which came from amphibians (and their eggs) which came from fish (and their eggs) but we still haven’t reached the heart of the matter, because if we follow the question back far enough we find that ultimately, the root of what the riddle is asking is how can sexual reproduction have come about in creatures which must have themselves needed sexual reproduction to appear in the first place?
On the face of it this seems daunting but if you take a moment and think about what actually happened first and then apply this to the question (the strategy I have been recommending all throughout this essay) then in evolutionary terms all paradoxes fade away and things become much simpler. When we trace our ancestry back to single-celled organisms and observe their steady evolution to multi-celled organisms which, over millions of years became more complicated, found it advantageous (in an evolutionary, selective sense of course, not a teleological one) and found themselves capable of combining their DNA with that from another organism as a means of reproduction, it becomes clearer (although no less amazing) how this process continued to evolve in ways which eventually led to gestation, both inside and external to the female body.
This solution may not have the aesthetic appeal and satisfaction of creationism, which has recourse to the ubiquitous and multi-purpose, “God did it” [i] as an explanation, but if you think about it, the process of evolution is actually quite incredible in its own right and it has one significant advantage over its rival… it is true.
We have seen that the question of the chicken and the egg is often used in a misguided attempt to prove the veracity of creationism, but the riddle is inadequate for this task. A far better approach is to ignore it at first and instead explore other criteria to determine whether creationism or evolution better explains the observable evidence. This yielded an overwhelming consensus in favour of the latter.
Using this finding and analysing the situation according to an evolutionary framework, we found that it was possible to directly answer the question, once we had clearly defined the key terms. It turned out that the chicken must have come first, and this fact was an a priori truth simply because the very definition of a chicken egg precludes it being laid by any animal other than a chicken.
Unfortunately we also found that this answer seems a little arbitrary and contrived. But this feeling is an illusion and is caused directly by the nature of the question which creates confusion by mistaking a conditional truth for a necessary one and fosters arbitrariness through asking a ‘snapshot’ question of a continuous process. Even when we unravelled the chicken and the egg question and followed it to its core, we discovered that this more general formulation was just as answerable according to evolution as the chicken and egg turned out to be.
The chicken and the egg riddle continues to present a paradox but in this essay we have uncovered the illusion behind its paradoxical nature and even managed to provide a solution that should satisfy any thoughtful inquirer.
 In actual fact they are less interested in solving the paradox of the chicken and the egg and more interested in vindicating creation over evolution.
 Of course, this doesn’t prevent a progressive believer with more Deistic leanings from holding that a Creator started the process of evolution and then left it to run its course. Although there are also logistical problems with this view, they are beyond the scope of this essay.
[i] In this footnote I wanted to take a moment to address why creationism has so many adherents, as the dismally low percentage of people who accept evolution as scientific fact in America testifies to, despite the overwhelming evidence in favour of the latter. There is one simple reason people find it so difficult to accept evolution and that is because it seems so hard to believe. It seems too incredible to believe that all life on the planet descended from single-celled organisms; in some remarkable way organisms grew limbs, organs and diversified into the many different species we see around us today. Sure it is an incredible, outlandish, almost unbelievable concept but there are two important things we must remember surrounding evolution:
1. The evidence is 100% incontrovertible. There is so much evidence supporting evolution that it is simply downright foolishness to reject it. Many people bemoan the fact that “Darwinism” has swept through the scientific community so thoroughly and completely. But there is a reason for this. Science follows the trail the evidence dictates. Science as a discipline has no agenda. Sure, individual scientists may push agendas of their own, ignoring conclusions or findings that don’t support their particular hypothesis but the rest of the scientific community acts as an irresistible balancing force, keeping individual scientists honest, so to speak. Opponents often act as if scientists support evolution deliberately to discredit religion. They treat the whole thing as if it is a massive conspiracy to keep religion down and advance a theory that has no basis in fact. Nothing could be further from the truth; the notion is wildly ludicrous. If it isn’t a deliberate conspiracy then the only other option is that all respectable scientists the world over have been duped by Darwin’s theory. Yet religious adherents often speak of evolution as though they know more than the scientists who study it for a living. Suddenly, the religious believer feels him or herself qualified to question a scientific fact without even having done any research into evolution beyond the terribly biased opinions offered by their church or local evangelist. Isn’t it interesting that people happily accept it when scientists tell us that all of the evidence they have acquired points to the existence of black holes billions of times more massive than the sun and that all matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms that are in fact 99% empty space, despite the fact that these concepts are outrageously difficult to grasp and well beyond our direct experience. But if a scientist claims that the geological and biological evidence indicates that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, suddenly everybody becomes an expert relying on something as highly fallible as the Bible and the true expert’s opinions become subject to ridicule.
2. The creation hypothesis is actually infinitely less plausible than evolution. This is a remarkable fact that most people overlook and the reason it is overlooked is that religion is so deeply embedded in society that its outlandish claims tend to slip by people’s normal common sense filters. Think about it for a moment. Evolution is a difficult idea to accept because it advocates radical change in species over millions of years, but despite this it is all 100% natural. We aren’t violating any laws of physics or chemistry or biology. It is theoretically possible even if hard to believe. But the rival theory (and I use the term loosely here) promotes the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being beyond time and space who one day, in violation of every known law of physics created something from nothing. If you can free yourself from the cultural religious conditioning you have probably been subject to, I invite you to reconsider the question without religious ‘blinkers’ on. I am confident you will conclude, as I did, that even though the evolutionary hypothesis is outrageous and incredible, the “God hypothesis” is many, many orders of magnitude less likely to be a correct and true accounting of the emergence of life.