Hey, I Published First!

CNN reported in May:

It's a question that has baffled scientists, academics and pub bores through the ages: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Professor John Brookfield, a specialist in evolutionary genetics at the University of Nottingham, told the UK Press Association the pecking order was clear....

The living organism inside the eggshell would have had the same DNA as the chicken it would develop into, he said.

"Therefore, the first living thing which we could say unequivocally was a member of the species would be this first egg," he added. "So, I would conclude that the egg came first."

The same conclusion was reached by his fellow "eggsperts" Professor David Papineau, of King's College London, and poultry farmer Charles Bourns.

Well, that learned journal The Volokh Conspiracy actually published the same results a good two years earlier:

Which came first -- the chicken or the egg? People ask that as if it's the quintessentially unanswerable question. But of course the answer is clear: The egg.

Why? Well, here's the literal solution: There were eggs -- for instance, dinosaur eggs -- long before there were chickens. QED.

Enough of these lawyer tricks, Volokh, you say. Of course the question means "Which came first -- the chicken or the chicken egg?" (where "chicken egg" means an egg containing pretty much the same genes that an adult chicken would have).

Well, then we have the biological solution: A chicken egg will always produce a chicken, since species changes happen at the time of conception, not at the time of birth. If the genes in the fertilized egg made it a chicken egg, then it will produce a chicken. But two non-chickens could produce a chicken egg. That's the way species change operates -- the mixing of genes from two individuals, likely coupled with mutation and other genetic changes, produces an individual with a new genetic pattern that can be said to belong to a new species.

Of course, this is something of an oversimplification: Species change probably can't be delineated this precisely ("previous generation, nonchickens; this generation, chickens"). But the question itself assumes that we can somehow distinguish chickens from nonchickens, and that some change will be treated as being enough to make the resulting organism into the first chicken. Biology tells us that this change, whatever it is, will only happen at the time the egg is produced, not at the time the chicken is produced (i.e., the egg is hatched).

But doesn't that assume the truth of the theory evolution, some might ask? If that bothers you, I propose a religious solution: In my experience, most creationists are also pro-life -- in which case, the egg is a chicken.

Beat you to it, Dr. English Professor Sir.

Thanks to David Smallberg for alerting me to the Johnny-come-latelies.