Writer and Producer

The oldest question in the world.

chicken or the egg

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

It’s a question that has intrigued scientists and philosophers since ancient times, and has kept me awake for hours.  Aristotle believed that egg and chicken must have always existed.

Just last year, Dr Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University claimed: ‘We have scientific proof that the chicken came first.’ Something to do with a protein called OV17 which is only found in chickens, and necessary for the formation of eggs.

The problem even reached the most exalted and respected fount of human knowledge, QI. Stephen Fry dismissed the question using the speciation argument. The chicken’s egg is a result of the mating of two other species – probably jungle fowl.

My argument is a priori – it requires no knowledge of evolution, biology, chickens, or omelets. And I’m only sharing it because I haven’t seen it expressed anywhere very clearly.

So I thought I would have a go.

First of all, in that annoying way of philosophical problems, you’ve got to clarify the question. What is a chicken egg? Here are some options:

  1. A chicken-egg is something laid by a chicken.
  2. A chicken-egg is something a chicken hatches out of.
  3. A chicken-egg is BOTH the above.

If you believe 1 then the chicken came first.

If you believe 2 then the egg came first.

If you believe 3 then you must either believe chickens and their eggs have always existed, or they came into existence simultaneously. Perhaps you’re a creationist: chicken and egg came into existence, to quote Douglas Adams, ‘in a puff of logic’.

But is there a right answer? Most dictionaries, including the Oxford English, define ‘egg’ as something that is laid by a female bird, reptile, fish, or invertebrate. This definition should steer us to option 1.  If it is essential for a chicken-egg to be laid by a chicken, then the chicken came first.

But is the Oxford Dictionary right?  English speaking people are taught to believe that it must be, and I’m not going to challenge it lightly, because I consistently came bottom in English at school. (Actually I came bottom in a lot of things). I’m going to speculate that the reason the dictionaries focus on where the egg comes from, rather than what hatches out, is that most of the eggs we come across on a daily basis do not contain chicks. A definition that stipulated that an egg ‘contains an embryo’ would be starkly contrary to our experience.

But let’s do a thought experiment.  You find a warm oval object on the ground. You take it to your zoologoist friend, asking him or her if it is a chicken egg. Would your zoologist say, ‘In order to answer that, I would need to know what laid it. Unless I know that, I cannot tell you if it is a chicken egg.’ Of course not.  They would do some tests, and if it contained a chicken embryo, they would say it was a chicken egg. Even if it didn’t contain a chick, but the yoke had the same DNA as a chicken, then they would call it a chicken egg and they wouldn’t care what bespectacled etymologists or lexicographers said.

So a chicken egg, does not have to be laid by a chicken. It could be laid by something very like a chicken, such as a jungle fowl. It could even be made in a laboratory. The key question is what’s inside. If it’s chickeny stuff, then it’s a chicken’s egg.  The chicken-egginess of a thing depends on what it’s made of, not where it came from.

So the egg came first.