The Chicken or The Egg

I was recently posed this question, but it was posed rhetorically. It was used to set up an argument for the existence of a creator deity. We’ll tackle the question itself in a moment, but more importantly, I want to address why a question like this would even be used to start an argument for a creator god. Since the advent of recorded history, humans have made arguments for the existence of gods and one of the oldest is commonly called the Argument from Ignorance. Take anything in the natural world for which we don’t have a good answer and insert your chosen god. As the oldest argument, that means it’s also the one we’ve contended with the longest and as a result, have debunked most often. The problem with using ignorance about something as a reason to insert a god as the answer, is that eventually we’ll have an actual answer, and your argument now vanishes.

The chicken and the egg from which it hatched is also a bit like the watchmaker argument, or the Argument from Design. If you were to find a watch on the ground in the woods next to a rock, you could tell by merely looking at the two items that one had a clever designer. Clearly an intelligent force of some kind made the watch. Thusly, one could argue that clearly some intelligent force designed this egg to bring forth a chicken and not an ostrich or some other type of avian creature. Therefore, god. The Argument from Design however, has also been debunked by the ingenious insights of Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin, and expanded upon over the last 150 years or so by an army of scientifically inclined folks who have added layer after layer of information upon the foundation those men provided for the wondrous origins of the varied species of life on Earth.

The bottom line is that if you want to make a claim that you have knowledge of a creator god or gods, you can’t rely on these old arguments to support the claim. If you want to be taken seriously, you’re going to have to disclose how you came about the knowledge of this god you speak of. There’s never been anyone in the history of humanity who has been able to provide proof of the existence of a god or gods, even though we’ve created thousands of them. So if you think you know there’s a god, that would put you in a very unique position. I’m confident that many people would be very interested in gaining this knowledge as well, so if you have it, please share. If you just believe there’s probably a god, well welcome to the club. It’s got billions of members.

Now to the age old question; “what came first: the chicken, or the egg?” The question posed in this way is an overly simplistic question and as such, has a simple answer that isn’t all that interesting and rather obvious once you consider it. Ancestors of the modern creature we call a chicken have been laying eggs for hundreds of millions of years. There were eggs long before there was ever anything even remotely resembling a chicken. So there’s your answer: The egg came first. Now a more interesting question would be, “what came first: the modern chicken or the chicken egg?” That question is actually a lot of fun to talk about because we get to talk about evolution and speciation and we get a very different answer. The first creature to lay a chicken egg was a chicken, so the chicken came before the chicken egg. How can this be?

The easiest way to think of this is to imagine a time when there were no chickens. Let’s go back 50 million years, so we know the non-avian dinosaurs have gone extinct, giving room to reptiles to step into their figurative shoes and populate the planet. You know what else was doing quite well after the asteroid pummeled the Earth 65 million years ago? Avian dinosaurs; the ancestors of modern birds.

  • Interesting side note: Did you know the closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is the chicken?

These avian dinosaurs came in many shapes and sizes, and as life is prone to do, even avians of the same species varied from each other. Some of those variations, whether they be beak length, wingspan, feathers, etc. were beneficial to those variations, and whenever there was a shortage of food, mates, nesting material, etc. the best adapted to the specific environment they found themselves in went on to procreate and pass along their unique variations to their offspring. Those not well suited, well, they didn’t get to pass along their DNA. Let’s fast forward 10 million years, just for fun.

Things sure look different around here. A lot has happened over the last 10 million years and some of those avian dinosaurs we visited 10 million years ago are long gone. Their descendants live on, but they’ve gone through that variation best suited to procreate process so many times, they don’t even resemble their ancestors very much. In fact, some of the same species of avians got separated from their kin, either due to weather events, lack of food, chased away by predators, etc. and found themselves in completely different environments, with different food, different temperatures, and shortages of good mates. But the most well suited survived and passed along their well suited DNA to their baby avians. After a few hundred generations, those avians are so different from the ones their ancestors separated from–who were also undergoing their own process of adapting to their environment–that even if they met at the local watering hole, they wouldn’t be attracted to each other and wouldn’t produce fertile offspring even if they were. They’re different species now.

Fast forward to more recent history and some of these avian dinosaurs look kind of familiar to us. The red junglefowl was domesticated by humans at least 7,400 years ago. We kept them around, mated them with willing partners and ate their eggs. We sometimes ate them too. We used them as sport to fight each other. Somewhere along the line of all this breeding of red junglefowl all around the Indian subcontinent, one of the many variations of our breeding produced a variation we felt was different enough that we called it a chicken and it is a prolific egg producer. Once we decided one of them was called a chicken, well the first egg that popped out of that yardbird was a chicken egg. To show you how messy this business of life is, chickens can still interbreed with red junglefowl, so the tree hasn’t branched very far. There are also hundreds of variations of what we call a chicken in existence today, so this evolutionary process of variation continues unimpeded, even though it’s being helped along by interfering humans.

  • What came first: the chicken or the egg? The egg, and by many eons.
  • What came first: the chicken or the chicken egg? The chicken, because only a chicken can lay a chicken egg.
  • Does this address the question of gods? No.

PS I am a blogger, not an evolutionary biologist. The preceding is a cursory overview of speciation and descent from modification.  For more information on the fabulous world of the origin of species, please consult an expert.

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