Ask a science teacher: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Every generation has argued this question. It is an ancient dilemma going back to the times of Aristotle (384–322 bc) and Plutarch (about 46–120 ad). Aristotle took the easy way out, concluding that both the chicken and the egg must have always existed. Aristotle, like Plato, believed that everything on Earth first had its being in spirit.

In science and engineering, the situation is known as circular reference, in which a parameter must be known to calculate the parameter itself. In other words, one must know something to calculate that same something.

Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist who is often called the successor to Albert Einstein, has argued that the egg came before the chicken. Hawking, an ardent thinker in his own right, is an adherent of Christopher Langan. Both Hawking and Langan are said to have IQs approaching 200. Langan has developed a “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.” He tackles the chicken-and-egg problem in “Which Came First?,” one of the philosophical essays in his book, The Art of Knowing.

A literal interpretation of the Bible would put the chicken before the egg. To quote Genesis: “And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the water in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Hinduism and Buddhism hold that there is a wheel of time, meaning that there is no first in eternity. Time is cyclical. There is no creation, so neither the egg nor the chicken came first.

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Here is another argument: Chickens came about from non-chickens through small changes, or mutations, in the DNA. Prior to the first true chicken, there were non-chickens. The DNA changes came about in cells housed in the egg. So the egg came first.

In July 2010, British scientists, using a supercomputer, claimed to have come up with the final and definitive answer. They identified the protein, ovocleidin-17, that is required to speed up the production of eggshell within the chicken. In twenty-four hours, an egg is ready to be laid. An egg cannot be produced without the chicken. So that settles it, once and for all. The chicken came first.

That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it!

From the book, "Ask a Science Teacher: 250 Answers to Questions You’ve Always Had About How Everyday Stuff Really Works"; Copyright © Larry Scheckel, 2013. Available December 17 wherever books are sold.