Sunday, 30 June 2013

What came first, the chicken or the egg? The importance of asking the right kind of question.

Questions are all around us. They are inescapable. We know that there are good questions and bad questions. There are questions that pique our interest and ones that we do not really pay much heed to. There are questions that seem so complex that they hurt our head to contemplate and seem impossible to answer. The opposite of this are questions so simple that we wonder why people have bothered to ask them in the first place. In amongst this variety of questions are those that continue to occur repeatedly. One of these questions is the question ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg?’
When asked, the questioner often will sit back and smile as the questioned wraps their mind around the concept. How could you know what is in the egg, who laid the egg, what makes a chicken? Surely this is a question that will prove a conundrum and a talking point for a long time. It is probably this ambiguity about the solution which is why the question has entered into common lexicon and is used when considering such lofty topics as the origin of the universe [1]. Could the genetic classification of species provide a suitable answer? [2]
There are answers from both sides of the chicken or egg fence. These range in merit from philosophical takes on the problem [3] to sophisticated scientific endeavour in looking at the proteins produced in egg development and their evolutionary origin [4]. The philosophical argument given supports the egg viewpoint and the protein history claims to show that the chicken had to have come first.
However I take a different approach the question and propose that all attempts at answering are irrelevant and incorrect because they are answering the wrong question. This is not some attempt to divert the topic down a false avenue or some metaphysical plane of existential thought. In fact let us look at the question more closely.
The question asks ‘what came first a chicken or the egg’. The egg, an egg, whose egg are we talking about? We need to know nothing about the evolution of chickens, or the ideas of classification of species, or even philosophical argument we only need to know 2 pieces of information in order to solve this question. Firstly when did chickens appear on the Earth and secondly were their animals on the planet before chickens that laid eggs?
Remember the question only states what came first the chicken or the egg; it is not specific about which type of egg. It could be an avian egg but there may have been other birds present before chickens came into being!
In fact a quick search for dinosaurs laying eggs on the internet yields articles on the egg laying of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period [5] [6] (over 66 million years ago).  Now if we look to see when chickens appear we find they are domesticated versions of Red Jungle Fowl, an event which occurred around 5 thousand years ago [7].
Even if that estimate is out by a hundred thousand years or a million years or ten million years eggs still came first by a long way.  We know that life began in the sea and that fish lay eggs so there were species much older than dinosaurs that will have laid a form of an egg. So to answer the question which came first the chicken of the egg it was the egg. Simple really, yet that is not the question that people mean to ask. People mean to ask what comes first the chicken or the chicken egg.
Now that is a much better question and that is the point. If we want to get useful answers to the important questions we need to make sure that the question itself is first scrutinised. Our first act must always be to question the question.
For only when we understand exactly what the question is asking are we able to produce an answer worth merit.

Chris Gibson

[1]  Theosophy "Ancient Landmarks: Plato and Aristotle". Theosophy (September 1939).  27(11): 483–491.
[2] James Mallet, A species definition for the modern synthesis, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10, Issue 7, July 1995, Pages 294-299, ISSN 0169-5347, 10.1016/0169-5347(95)90031-4.
[3] The egg came before the chicken. Roy A. Sorensen. Mind, July 1992 101, 403

[4] Simulations of Ovocleidin-17 Binding to Calcite Surfaces and Its Implications for Eggshell Formation Colin L. Freeman, John H. Harding, David Quigley, and P. Mark Rodger The Journal of Physical Chemistry C 2011 115 (16), 8175-8183

[5] A nesting trace with eggs for the Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Troodon formosus Varricchio, DJ (Varricchio, DJ); Jackson, F (Jackson, F); Trueman, CN (Trueman, CN). JOURNAL OF VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY : MAR 15 1999 19,  91-100

[6] A Pair of Shelled Eggs Inside A Female. Tamaki Sato, Yen-nien Cheng, Xiao-chun Wu, Darla K. Zelenitsky, and Yu-fu Hsiao. Dinosaur Science 15 April 2005: 308 (5720), 375. [DOI:10.1126/science.1110578]

[7] A genetic variation map for chicken with 2.8 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms. International Chicken Polymorphism Map Consortium (GK Wong et. al.) 2004.Nature 432, 717-722| doi:10.1038/nature03156 PMID 15592405

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