The chicken or the egg causality dilemma is commonly stated as "which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
Chickens hatch from eggs, but eggs are laid by chickens, making it difficult to say which originally gave rise to the other. To ancient philosophers, the question about the first chicken or egg also evoked the questions of how life and the universe in general began.
Cultural references to the chicken and egg intend to point out the futility of identifying the first case of a circular cause and consequence. It could be considered that in this approach lies the most fundamental nature of the question, for a literal answer is somewhat obvious, as opposed to the logical fallacy of the metaphorical view, which sets a metaphysical ground on the dilemma. So, to understand its metaphorical meaning better, it could be reformulated as follows: "Which came first, X that can't come without Y, or Y that can't come without X?"
History of the problem
Ancient references to the dilemma are found in the writings of classical philosophers
. Their writings indicate that the proposed problem was perplexing to themselves and was commonly discussed by others of their time as well.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was puzzled by the idea that there could be a first bird or egg and concluded that both the bird and egg must have always existed:
- "If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother – which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg." The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit."
Plutarch (46-126 AD) referred to a hen rather than simply a bird. His is Moralia in the books titled "Table Talk" discussed a series of arguments based on questions posed in a symposium. Under the section entitled, "Whether the hen or the egg came first," the discussion is introduced in such a way suggesting that the origin of the dilemma was even older:
- "...the problem about the egg and the hen, which of them came first, was dragged into our talk, a difficult problem which gives investigators much trouble. And Sulla my comrade said that with a small problem, as with a tool, we were rocking loose a great and heavy one, that of the creation of the world..."
Macrobius (395–423 AD), a Roman philosopher, found the problem to be interesting.
- "You jest about what you suppose to be a triviality, in asking whether the hen came first from an egg or the egg from a hen, but the point should be regarded as one of importance, one worthy of discussion, and careful discussion at that."
Stephen Hawking and Christopher Langan argue that the egg came before the chicken.
Responses to the dilemma
The dilemma can be interpreted differently using different definitions of a chicken
or an egg
. In biology, the term egg is biologically ambiguous
and the theory of Punctuated equilibrium
, for example, does not support a clear division between a chicken and the closest ancestors of that chicken. Both of those factors tend to contribute to the circular nature of the question (causing problems similar to either a hasty generalization
or a fallacy of definition
). Below are a few different definitions that could be assumed and their logical outcomes.
- If the egg is not necessarily of any specific type: Then it could be said that the egg came first, because other animals had been laying eggs long before chickens existed, such as the dinosaurs. In biology, egg is used as a general term in this way.
- If only an egg that will hatch into a chicken can be considered a chicken egg: Then a re-consideration of the original question suggests: Some animal other than a chicken laid the first chicken egg which contained the first chicken. In this case the chicken egg came before the chicken. In reality, many scientific theories suggest that this would not have been a simple event. For example, the theory of Punctuated equilibrium theorizes that the actual speciation of an organism from its ancestral species is usually the result of many mutations combined with new geographical surroundings, called Cladogenesis.
- If only an egg laid by a chicken can be considered a chicken egg: Then a re-consideration of the original question suggests: The first chicken (which hatched from a non-chicken egg) laid the first chicken egg. In this case the chicken came before the chicken egg. Again, this would not necessarily be a straightforward event.
- If only an egg that is laid by a chicken and that will hatch into a chicken can be considered a chicken egg: Then the first chicken came from a different type of egg (not a chicken egg) and laid the first chicken egg. In this case eggs (in general) came first, the chicken came after, and the chicken egg came last.
Science and evolution
Species change over time in the process of evolution
. Since DNA
can be modified only before birth, a mutation must have taken place at conception or within an egg such that an animal similar to a chicken, but not a chicken, laid the first chicken egg.
However, a mutation in one individual is not normally considered a new species. A speciation event involves the separation of one population from its parent population, so that interbreeding ceases; this is the process whereby domesticated animals are genetically separated from their wild forebears. The whole separated group can then be recognized as a new species.
The modern chicken was believed to have descended from another closely related species of birds, the red junglefowl, but recently discovered genetic evidence suggests that the modern domestic chicken is a hybrid descendant of both the red junglefowl and the grey junglefowl. Assuming the evidence bears out, a hybrid is a compelling scenario that the egg came before the chicken.
Theistic writings indicate the creation
of birds along with the rest of the universe. Islam believes that God created everything in two pairs, so the chicken came first. The Judeo-Christian
story of creation describes God creating birds, and commanding them to multiply, but makes no direct mention of eggs. According to Genesis 1
- 19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. 20 And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. 21 And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that moveth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind: and God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.
However, a theistic evolution standpoint says that chicken eggs are how God created chickens. By this argument, God created chickens through evolution, and could have created them as eggs. In Hindu writings, creation of birds (and other life forms) by God through superhuman beings is stated in Purāṇas and Dharmaśāstras.
In a manner of avoiding the question or joking, it can be said that "the chicken" came first—in the structure of the question
, simply because the words "the chicken" are said before the words "the egg" when the question is asked. In a question that is phrased differently, the answer would be different. Similarly, Randy Garner jokingly refers to an encyclopedic solution:
These supporters call attention to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (2001). Upon careful examination of the entries and accompanying definitions, one can accurately assert that “chicken” is found on page 232, while “egg” is not found until page 398. Therefore, according to this argument, chicken clearly comes before egg.
A joke that seems to support the argument that the chicken came before the egg follows thus,
A chicken and an egg are in bed together when the chicken rolls over and starts to smoke. The egg then says, "Well that solves that argument then...
There are many real-world examples in which the chicken-or-egg question helps identify the analytical problem:
- Fear of economic downturn causes people to spend less, which reduces demand, causing economic downturn.
- Fear of violence/war can make people more defensive/violent, the resulting tension/violence will cause more fear.
- More jobs cause more consumption, which requires more production, and thus more jobs.
- IPv6 content is not widely provided because of lack of support, but ISPs do not provide IPv6 support because of lack of content.
- Jobs are not readily available to people who have little to no experience in the field, yet workers cannot get experience without getting a job.
- An individual with no credit history (not to be confused with poor credit history) has trouble getting credit, yet creditors are hesitant to give loans to people who have little to no credit history.
- An increase in production to feed a growing population leads only to a further increase in population.