Non-Chicken Laid First Chicken Egg

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What came first, the chicken or the egg? Easy, you say, eggs were laid by other animals aeons before the first chicken saw the light of day.

But what came first, the first chicken egg or the first chicken? This boils down to whether a chicken egg is one laid by a chicken or one out of which a chicken can hatch. Only the latter definition allows the question to remain open to discussion.

Biologically, a member of the chicken species could be defined by a list of alleles that must be present in its DNA if we’re to call it a chicken. And somewhere, sometime, the first bird that fulfilled that definition hatched. It hatched out of an egg laid by a non-chicken. As an adult, the first chicken (being lonely) probably mated with a bird that did not quite fulfil our definition of chickenhood, and so the first chicken probably laid non-chicken eggs. Out of these eggs hatched birds that almost, but not quite, fulfilled our definition of chickenhood. In subsequent generations, chicken eggs became more and more common. Later, after the geologically instantaneous speciation period, birds fulfilling the chicken species-definition became common and so chicken eggs were reliably produced generation after generation.

As they are still today: I boiled one Wednesday morning and served it to my daughter with soy sauce and a bowl of pao fan rice re-run gruel.

Comments

  1. #1 thadd
    November 13, 2008

    Well, technically the chicken in the question is the domestic chicken, so it was probably human inspired breading/selection.
    I would say the chicken came first, since it was the human recognition of the chicken that made it a chicken as oppose to something else. Species barriers are relatively arbitrary on the evolution/domestication tree when we are looking at speciation.

  2. #2 Dan Grunloh
    November 13, 2008

    Chickens are definitely human inspired but now we know they came from two different species of jungle fowl.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080229102059.htm

    I think Dr. Martin is correct. The first time ever that a domestic chicken allele existed in nature had to be in the fertilzation of an egg. That is where the mixing and changes occur. The first chicken hatched out of the egg which resulted from those changes. The first chicken did not evolve or change it’s genes after it was born so it could lay the first chicken egg.

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    November 13, 2008

    Martin, for a moment I thought you have drunk the Kool-Aid of antievolutionists. They just love to dwell on the exact moment of becoming a new species. They use it as a reductio ad absurdum argument against evolution.

    But the whole issue is derived from a misunderstanding. Species is a feature of a population. Therefore you can’t detect a new species by analyzing an individual they are always slightly different. You need a population and many generations of it before the new species becomes detectable. How many – depends on your exact definition of a species.

    Besides, the whole concept of species is unnecessary for evolution. It is only a human abstraction for a cluster of more or less similar individuals. Your SciBlings John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts and Razib at Gene Expression have written volumes about this.

  4. #4 Tor
    November 13, 2008

    “But what came first, the first chicken egg or the first chicken? This boils down to whether a chicken egg is one laid by a chicken or one out of which a chicken can hatch. Only the latter definition allows the question to remain open to discussion.”

    I don’t see how either definition allows the question to remain open to discussion. Surely the adoption of either one of these definitions of “chicken egg” would settle the matter conclusively.

    If you define “chicken egg” as “egg laid by chicken”, then the chicken came first — because you can’t have an egg laid by a chicken unless you have a chicken to lay it.

    If you define “chicken egg” as “egg out of which a chicken can hatch”, then the chicken egg came first — because you can’t have a chicken without first having an egg out of which it can hatch. Duh.

  5. #5 John Lloyd Scharf
    November 13, 2008

    I think the chicken or egg connundrum is not near as interesting as the origin of life itself. It had to be something that thrived on inorganic matter. Is there such a species today that lives on matter that is totally inorganic?

  6. #6 Mikael Hiort af Ornäs
    November 13, 2008

    I agree with herra selostaja Hippeläinen (comment #3). A species doesn’t suddenly appear from an egg, like from a magician’s hat. You can compare it with the EPR (measurement) paradox in particle physics. An atom is only present where you measure it if it’s measured, but since every particle may have distant quanta, the exact location of the particle is relative to the place of measuring and the method that is used. Similarly, a species can only be defined as a spectrum (genetic, anatomic, systematic, morphological etc.), within which the collected individuals are considered members of the same species. There are organism groups where any of the available species definitions are of no avail. In those cases you either have to group them in species complexes or go one or more steps up the systematic ladder.

    Thus, since the evolutionary processes always are there meddling with whatever standard you use, the chicken can’t be pinpointed to a specific time point, but at best to a temporal interval. And since the chicken normally used in this thought experiment is a domesticated fowl of the genus Gallus, one can argue that the chicken came from an ancestor that lay eggs, and therefore the egg was first. But because even that definition is relative to the measurement method, and the method isn’t defined, there is no answer to the original question.

    I actually use this thought experiment to complicate the species concept with my Masters students.

  7. #7 PsyberDave
    November 13, 2008

    John asked “Is there such a species today that lives on matter that is totally inorganic?”

    I am not sure this completely answers your question, but I’d say the autotrophs derive sustinance from inorganic matter. Plants, for instance take in photons and inorganic minerals to produce their food. I guess they also thrive with organic matter too, but light doesn’t get much more inorganic and it is a mainstay of their diet, so to speak.

    Then there are the thermophiles and chemoautotrophs…

    But I’m not a biologist. I am sure someone else here can elaborate and even correct me.

  8. #8 thadd
    November 13, 2008

    “I think Dr. Martin is correct. The first time ever that a domestic chicken allele existed in nature had to be in the fertilzation of an egg. That is where the mixing and changes occur. The first chicken hatched out of the egg which resulted from those changes. The first chicken did not evolve or change it’s genes after it was born so it could lay the first chicken egg.”

    Um, actually it would have technically mixed inside of another bird with the meeting of sperm and egg. It didn’t mix in the calcium covered egg, more at the moment of its inception (conception duh).

    I also agree with the person above. If by chicken you mean a member of the species, you technically need a viable reproductive population (at least a male and female as very minimum). So, I would say the chicken came first, since the viable population occurred when a male and female chicken both reached reproductive age in an area where they could physically reproduce and would be allowed to by humans.

  9. #9 Martin R
    November 13, 2008

    I don’t see how either definition allows the question to remain open to discussion. Surely the adoption of either one of these definitions of “chicken egg” would settle the matter conclusively.

    Oops. What was I thinking?

    a species can only be defined as a spectrum (genetic, anatomic, systematic, morphological etc.), within which the collected individuals are considered members of the same species.

    That doesn’t really change my argument. Somewhere, sometime, the first bird whose genome landed inside the boundaries of that spectrum was hatched.

  10. #10 Mikael Hiort af Ornäs
    November 13, 2008

    Martin: That doesn’t really change my argument. Somewhere, sometime, the first bird whose genome landed inside the boundaries of that spectrum was hatched.

    I pointed out the flaws further down in my comment.

    You still need to define the species definition you use and the method with which you measure it, and point out the boundaries. If we were to narrow it down to just one individual, and not the first population with a common genomic (or other) spectrum within those boundaries, the answer is as complicated as it is technically wrong: The first individual that matches any criteria came from an egg. But then you have to decide how to define an individual. It’s only a matter of semantics whether you count that egg (the parents in this example are outside the spectrum), the non-hatched but viable and fully developed chicken, or the hatched chicken as the origin. I’d say that the safest bet would be the not yet hatched, but fully developed chicken. But, is a non-hatched chicken still an egg, or is it a chicken?

  11. #11 Henrik
    November 13, 2008

    Really, I think you’re being too technical about this.

    The idea of ‘a chicken’ must have been formed before the chicken/egg-question, which can only appear when someone starts wondering about the origin of said chicken.
    To investigate the origin of a phenomenon one must first have a definition of the phenomenon. Thus, the chicken must first be there (in the human mind) for someone to enquire about its origin.
    (The same cannot be argued for the egg, since we have established (above) that we are specifically discussing chicken eggs here, and they too need the concept of ‘chicken’ to be thought up before they can have an existence of their own in the human mind).

  12. #12 eleanora
    November 14, 2008

    What came first, the chicken or the egg?

    That one is too easy, Martin. The rooster came first! :)

  13. #13 Martin R
    November 14, 2008

    Mikael, I needn’t define anything. I’m just saying that as soon as we have any definition of “chicken”, then an individual bird a long time ago was the first chicken. And its mama was not.

    Eleanora, you bawdy strumpet! (-;

  14. #14 Joel
    November 14, 2008

    That so many of you would dwell so long on what is now merely an idiom at best is ridiculous.
    The point of the “chicken or the egg” idiom is to show when something does not have a clearly defined origin, or to show a cyclic behavior in causality. It could actually be applied to this discussion: which came first, the discussion over whether or not the chicken or the egg came first, or the chicken or the egg idiom? At this point in our “know-everything” societal mentality, it’s not very clear whether the idiom inspired the debate, or whether the debate inspired the idiom.
    For the OP, it ought to speak to your intelligence that you’ve come up with this definitive, scientifically based answer to this question. What it really does is show that while you may be smart enough to figure out the answer, you seem to be missing the most obvious point of the idiom: it’s not a question meant to be answered. If, when people choose to use this idiom, they could clearly define causality in whatever cyclical behavior they are observing, they wouldn’t need to use the idiom in the first place. This is a question to which my college roommates and I used to try and answer after we’ve gotten drunk. My suggestion would be to put the intelligence you displayed at work in a more meaningful or purposeful area of science.

  15. #15 Martin R
    November 14, 2008

    Thanks for setting us straight. I always find it calming to have a mature person lay out the issues for me.

  16. #16 ArchAsa
    November 14, 2008

    Indeed. We should turn to more fruitful fulminations in your next posting. May I suggest “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

    But before that – My 2 cents:
    If by egg we mean “chicken egg”, then the chicken came first. The first chicken as defined by biology existed as DNA, specific DNA containing some specified changes in genes that would separate it to a small but significan degree from its parent-species. This specific DNA, or the source of it, occured at the moment of fertilization – before a protective egg-shelll was formed.

    Case closed ;-)

    Joel – if you want something to occupy your time with there are a number of philosophical bloggers out there that could really benefit from your common sense attitude… :D

  17. #17 Martin R
    November 14, 2008

    What is the sound of one chicken clapping?

  18. #18 Joel
    November 14, 2008

    doesn’t sound like a lot of you have the basic concepts of evolution straight. The final mutation (i.e. evolution) that occurred to give us the first “chicken” started from the goo inside the egg– therefore Martin R is correct in his assertion. That the egg containing the first chicken would not be considered a chicken egg seems remiss– the egg contains a biological chicken! A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
    But let’s move onto a hotter topic– at what point do you define the chicken as being the “chicken?” I’m not too familiar with chicken’s reproductive life cycles but wouldn’t the mutation to make the goo turn into a biological chicken have happened before the forming of the egg shell? I don’t want to turn this into an abortion debate, but let’s define the moment at which (chicken) life begins. If you define chicken by it’s DNA, then even by Martin’s own admission the chicken DNA would have to have formed before the egg, which gives creedence to the claim that the chicken was first.

  19. #19 Mikael Hiort af Ornäs
    November 14, 2008

    Sorry, it’s probably my aspergers. I get stuck in technicalities sometimes :)

    It’s good that you point it out for me, otherwise I can go on forever. I don’t mind at all :)

  20. #20 Brian Utterback
    November 16, 2008

    Okay, back to the original argument as outlined by Dr. Martin. We have all the alleles that we require in our “first” chicken species individual. Then this chicken mates with one of the other non-chickens in the population and produces offspring that are non-chickens but have all the correct alleles amongst them, introducing them into the population. At a later point, the decedents eventually start producing more individuals with all the requirements.

    The only problem with this argument is that first chicken. By definition, the viable offspring of that individual are all of the same species.

  21. #21 Martin R
    November 16, 2008

    The “viable offspring” definition of a species breaks down at a speciation event. Otherwise there would be only one species of life in Earth.

  22. #22 Jim thomerson
    November 23, 2008

    If you are a cladist, theoretically the species includes all the individuals down the branch to the node that is the hypothetical unique common ancestor of the chicken as well as the hypothetical unique common ancestor of its sister species. One doesn’t want to think too deply about that! On the other hand, in real live speciation, the speciation event may well be a reticulated mess as several have have commented.

    Fortunately I study a group of fishes, which, so far as I know, have no fossil record. Therefore I am seeing just an instantaineous snapshot of the evolution of the group. I don’t think one can see speciation in a snapshot. One of the species has a linear clinal distribution with the end populations being morphologically as different as related species. DNA analysis confirms the distribution as a cline but the end populations not all that different. If I could watch this situation for an adequate period of time, the cline might be broken and the two end populations might diverge enough to be recognizable as separate species. But maybe not. No way to confidently predict what will happen. We can only list a numer of future possibilities, only one of which is speciation.

  23. #23 Seth Mayers
    February 11, 2011

    So the first chicken egg came from a non-chicken? yeah right, that makes no logical sense. And how would it breed being the only one or are you also supposing that somehow another non-chicken laid a male chicken egg? what comical fantasy

  24. #24 Tom
    June 9, 2011

    To my mind of limited capacity it sounds pretty obvious that a chicken is the result of the mating of two non-chickens. And if the mating selection was done by an intelligent creature (human) there should be suffecient of a population to be able to breed more chickens among themself. I guess I am part of the “egg-first” fraction of evulationary non-scientists.

  25. #25 Collin
    September 19, 2011

    @14. Firstly, I think this article was intented to be tongue-in-cheek. Secondly, it’s a good mental exercise to establish clear answers to apparent paradoxes, even if those answers are technically irrational. Otherwise, the paradoxes can turn into koans, and you can fall into a so-called “enlightened” state (or what I would consider an abysmal darkness) in which rational thinking is impossible.

  26. #26 Schenck
    September 20, 2011

    “Somewhere, sometime, the first bird whose genome landed inside the boundaries of that spectrum was hatched.”
    Doesn’t this imply that the offspring of that first chicken could actually not be a chicken? An offspring could easily be missing one allele or another and thus not have the combo of alleles that ‘define (or is it diagnose)” chickeninness.

    Further, some people are claiming that we can’t ID a species without knowing about the population, but that seems to be wrong in the case of paleontology, a single specimen can show us that a new species existed, even sometimes a single bone (and this probably also applies to instances of species identification species-richness determinations via environmental DNA sampling).
    So we don’t need to refer to the entire population here.

    However, as to the original argument, the answer is acceptable only if you accept that you can have one population of inter-fertile individuals made up of multiple species, even perhaps multiple genera.

    Anyway, Karl Popper answered this question nearly a hundred years ago (+/- 20 years), it was the egg.

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