October 1, 2009

Which Came First the Chicken or the Egg?

From former classmates to Ian McShane's character in "Kings" a declaration of the answer to the age-old question of the chicken and the egg has been presented as proof of the answerer's intelligence. The answer is presented as if it was glaringly obvious since the time of Darwin. The egg came first!

Within a few seconds, a complete explanation is given that animals are changed through chance mutation of DNA during the conception part of the formation of the animal.  Also to their point is that animals aren't changed in any lasting way by the environment except through their being less able to reproduce through a lack of fitness to their surroundings. For that reason, the egg that clearly came before the chicken.

While this may look like a totally convincing answer that contains all the fundamental  understandings of Darwinism, there does remain a problem unforeseen by the person giving this type of answer. This problem can be brought to light through asking a few specific questions about the chicken and egg dilemma.

The telling question is if the egg is the answer then what is giving birth to the egg? The egg must come from some creature that is a non-chicken that gives birth to a chicken, but this is not how the process works. Changes from parent to a child produce gradual changes and it takes many generations to cause any great amount of change, even in the state of a punctuated equilibrium.

Verities of chickens could be made from the egg, but the egg is never able to be distinct enough to be called a new species. This is where the chicken or the egg question breaks down into an understanding of how new species are defined.

The problem should now be easy to see. The question of 'What came first the chicken or the egg?' is a false dichotomy. The answer is that it is a process that creates the differences between the parent and offspring where there is no sudden appearance of a new 'thing' being created. The young who are different have to out-compete the other young where those changes did not occur. This may cause the extinction of the unchanged and if that happened, along with enough other changes then possibly there would be the creation of a new species. This new species is then something that could be defined as a 'chicken'.

The question of 'What came first the chicken or the egg?' fails to understand how biology works and anyone who attempts to answer by saying chicken or egg has committed an error even before they state their reasoning. The creation of a new animal doesn't happen overnight, or in one generation, it happens over time.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic