Ask a philosopher: ‘Which came first: The chicken or the egg?’

Which came first: The chicken or the egg?

This is a factual, rather than a philosophical question.
However, it is a legitimate task for philosophy to analyse the
conditions under which it would be correct to say that the chicken came
first, as well as the conditions under which it would be correct to say
that the egg came first.

If the theory of Creationism is true, then God could have
created the first chicken, which hatched the first egg, or He could
have created the first egg, from which the first chicken hatched. Either
task would have been equally easy (or difficult). Unfortunately, the
information which would enable us to answer this question is missing
from the Book of Genesis.

If Darwin’s theory of evolution is true, then we can say
that the ‘trick’ of producing a soup of proteins and fats enclosed in a
hard casing, inside which an embryo is protected and nourished, was
developed by the prehistoric creatures from which chickens evolved. We
know that dinosaurs laid eggs. Dinosaurs are reptiles. The accepted view
is that birds evolved from reptiles. So in that sense it would be true
to say that the egg came before the chicken.

But what about that first chicken? What kind of egg did
it hatch from?

If we had the power to go back in time to follow every
line back of each one of the millions of generations that led up to the
chicken that supplied your breakfast egg this morning, it would be
impossible to identify the first chicken. There is no single
characteristic, so far as I understand it, which separates a real
chicken from a bird which is ever so much like a chicken, but is
not a real chicken. However, supposing there is some unique, new
feature, a crucial genetic mutation which separates chickens from
non-chickens, it logically follows that the first bird to possess that
new feature was hatched from an egg which was laid by a bird which did
not possess that feature.

(Geoffrey Klempner)


the monochrom blog - archive of everything