Day 966: Which Came First And What’s On Second?

originally published August 23, 2014

While the central focus of this project has been devoted to the kind of esoteric trivia that will one day allow me to run the category of ‘Obscure Miscellany’ on Jeopardy, sometimes I like to ask the big questions. The paradoxes. The queries that prompt chortles and didactic witticisms in some company and distant frosted-glass stares with maybe a “woah” among stoned people.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To teach us about existential nothingness, of course. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Only the most fleet-footed of Broadway angels know that one, and they’re keeping their collective yap shut. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s a paradox that has been juggled from philosopher to philosopher, flitting through the fingers of the rhetorically-inclined while attracting the occasional wordy summation from the theological or scientific camps (who are divided by a fuzzier line than even they would admit). This is the stuff of mental meandering, the kind of riddle that the mind loves to lock itself in the bathroom with and do wicked, self-abusing things. It’s an A-or-B multiple choice question with a clear and concise C and D hiding in the margins.

My favorite kind of question.

The most obvious (and therefore buzz-killing) answer is “the egg”, using the justification that other animals – reptiles, dinosaurs and their cool-blooded ilk – also came from eggs. Let’s toss this smirking solution into the semantic garburator  right away by clarifying that ‘egg’ for the purposes of this riddle refers only to ‘chicken eggs’. We’re trying to untangle a paradox here; no one is suggesting that the chicken was the first creature to poach its zygotes inside a calcite shell.

Aristotle and Plato pondered the cycle of poultry life, but never offered a conclusion solid enough to take a bite out of. Plutarch, the Greek historian and celebrated entertainer of Plato-esque musings, pulled this paradox to a higher plateau, tracing it to the creation of the world and extrapolating its possible solutions to any and all life forms. Our modern-day intellectual heavyweights have also weighed in, with both Stephen Hawking and Christopher Langan landing on the ‘egg’ side of the fence. Whether they’re using the logic I applied in my last paragraph to mean ‘all eggs’, I have no idea.

More than 2000 years of philosophical noodling and we still don’t have a clue. Let’s see what science has to say about it.

The red junglefowl is one of the creatures perched upon the rung just below the chicken on the evolutionary ladder. Genetic research has actually suggested the modern chicken is a hybrid between this colorful guy and the more earthy-looking grey junglefowl. If this proves to be true, then the chicken egg which housed the first chicken would make a successful claim to be first. Still – it was just an egg. To those who observed it (probably only its feathered parents), it was a junglefowl egg. It could only be identified as a chicken egg once a chicken squirmed out of the shell. So what is the threshold that determines when a dollop of yolk becomes an actual chicken?

Here’s where I take a hard starboard turn before stumbling into the abortion debate.

Researchers at Sheffield University have identified the chicken protein called ovocleiden-17 as the key player in this question. This protein helps to form the rigid shell, and it appears both before and after the shell’s creation. So by this line of thinking, the chicken comes both before and after the egg. Confused yet? Well, we’re just getting rolling.

Evolution has an answer to this riddle tucked inside its breast pocket. Since an animal cannot evolve throughout its lifetime, the conclusion must be that the egg came first, as no creature could be born and transform into a chicken (at least not without the aid of an exceptional hypnotist). DNA, however, can be tweaked before and after birth. So what we’re looking at is some creature remarkably similar to a chicken (likely one of the aforementioned junglefowls) spurting out an egg that contains the chicken mutation.

But that mystery egg also contained a chicken. So if this is the timeline of events upon which we’re agreeing, then the chicken and egg appeared on the planet simultaneously. Whether you believe the goop inside the egg counts as a chicken (since it would become one) will determine whether you think the chicken or egg came first. As will your take on whether or not the egg in question was a ‘chicken egg’ until the chicken popped out. One likely accurate summation of the event – two distinct perspectives. Three if you allow for “both” to be an answer.

Science has dealt us a sloppy stack of grey. Let’s see what those wacky creationists have to say.

The Judeo-Christian take on the matter is laughably simple. They slapped it down right after the opening credits: “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” While I think the Bible may be exaggerating somewhat the majestic and graceful soaring capabilities of the modern hen, the point is quite clear: God made chickens. Then he told the little bastards to be fruitful and multiply.

Hindus are taught that birds were created by God through superhuman beings. So once again we have the chicken leading the parade. But again, if we’re taking the word ‘egg’ into the larger context (which I said I wouldn’t do, but whatever), then Hinduism also talks about Brahmanda, the cosmic egg out of which the entire universe was born. So score another one for the eggmen. Goo goo g’joob.

If we look to Buddhism – a religion not so much known for its clear-cut answers, but more for its philosophical deep breaths, which may explain why no one wants goes to war with devout Buddhists – the answer comes in the perpetual wheel of time. Nietzsche would also give his thumbs-up to this chicken-egg solution: if time is cyclical, eternally repeating, then there is no creation. There have always been chickens and there have always been eggs. A number of other cultures buy into this thinking too: the Aztecs, the Mayans, as well as a number of Dharmic faiths.

It’s a total non-answer, but it brings us right back to where we started. We have unearthed a shiny quartet of responses: the chicken, the egg, both and neither. I tend to land on the sciencey turf in most matters of metaphysical turbulence so I suppose that rules out the religious and spiritual justifications. But it still leaves me with no solution.

There you have it – another great question, answered in this collection of kilographs. Except in this case, the only answer I can truly stand behind is, “Ask someone else; I have no friggin’ idea.”

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