The Egg Came First
February 11, 2013
While there are compelling arguments on both sides of the age-old debate, there's a good reason for preferring one to the other, and it doesn't have much to do with science.
Recently, my family gathered to eat club sandwiches and resolve the grand questions of our times. My half-brothers are much younger than me and my sister, so usually these questions run to things like, How many weird faces can you make in the next thirty seconds? and, Do you think I can hang this spoon on my nose? (Spoiler: yes. The secret is licking it first.)
This time, however, after demonstrating how many of our hats he could wear at once (answer: all of them, although not stylishly), my thirteen-year-old brother, Jacob, informed us that he had, the week before, solved a longstanding problem in a debate for his social studies class: the chicken or the egg. “So which is it?” I asked.“The chicken!” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “it’s a chicken, it’s obvious. Scientists say so.”
“Do other scientists say it’s the egg?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I only talked about the scientists that say it’s the chicken.”
“But didn’t the other team debating you bring up the egg scientists?”
“There was no other team,” he said triumphantly. “No one else wanted to do that topic, so I debated myself.”
Much as I have to admire the metatheatre of playing both sides of a chicken-or-egg argument against oneself, I have to call foul on this one (see what I didn’t do there? I’m on your side, folks). To someone wearing four hats, the chicken is the maximalist, hence most attractive, option. The chicken has more apparent agency, so it’s easier to imagine it setting a process in motion. But you can’t just ignore the egg scientists.
In her new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, Jill Lepore devotes a chapter to historical eggology, describing how early scientists and philosophers posed their questions about the origin of life. In 1651, William Harvey (best known for correctly theorizing the circulation of the blood), came out with a book asserting the egg as the source of all life. “[N]othing inside the book,” Lepore writes, “made Harvey’s point so well as its frontispiece, which pictured Zeus opening an egg, out of which hatched all manner of creatures: a grasshopper, a lizard, a bird, a snake, a deer, a butterfly, a spider, and a baby. ‘Ex ovus omnia,’ read the motto: Everything from an egg.”
That may not be quite how it works (although if I had a vote, I’d be all over nixing live childbirth in favour of hiding an egg in some grass and sticks for a while), but with chickens, at least, Harvey was on solid ground. Chickens come from eggs, and eggs come from chickens. The first person we have on record puzzling over which came first is Aristotle, who remarked, “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.”
In the past few years, there have been a number of news reports about scientists claiming to have solved the problem. The one hailing Team Chicken revolves around a British paper called “Structural Control of Crystal Nuclei by Eggshell Protein,” written by Colin Freeman and John Harding from the University of Sheffield and David Quigley and P. Mark Rodger from the University of Warwick. They used a supercomputer to figure out how eggshells are formed, and it turns out they depend upon a protein found in chicken ovaries called ovocledidin-17. This would mean that an egg can only come into being if formed inside a chicken.
Team Egg’s argument involves less computer modelling and more taxonomy. The question, the Eggers say, hinges on how you define a chicken egg—is it an egg laid by a chicken or an egg from which a chicken emerges? Today’s barnyard Gallus gallus domesticus must have evolved from an earlier thingummy with chicken-like qualities. In 2008, Jonas Eriksson et al. argued that the chicken is a hybrid, the offspring of both the red and the grey junglefowl. At some point (here I’m fudging, because evolution takes longer than this, but you get the idea) something that wasn’t quite a chicken laid an egg, from which something hatched, which tipped over into chickendom. The zygote in which the genetic change happened that created the first chicken was contained inside an egg. So—the egg came first.
I am going to vote for the primacy of the egg, and my reasoning, like my choice, is watertight: I’m not sure I believe in chickens. The egg is all surprise, a sphere of unexercised influence, an occlusion. It’s what you have before you know what you have. I’ve been around for 32 years, and a sort of blind, ungainly rolling is the only forward motion I’ve ever achieved. If there is a feathered state beyond this, I’m not expecting to get there in this lifetime. I’m not sure I want to; the egg is where the mystery is.