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Jack Smith

The great pecking order of life: Eggheads and amateurs wing it in chicken debate

July 24, 1986|JACK SMITH

While waxing philosophical recently about the mysteries of the paradox, I noted that my favorite riddle was the old one--"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

I said: "I think it's not only gnomic, but it may be the key to all the mysteries of the cosmos."

I have an idea that modern biologists or zoologists have addressed this question and perhaps contrived an answer, or at least a theory. In my superficial reading, however, I have not encountered it.

But amateur answers are abundant.

Ray A. Coates of Chula Vista says it depends on whether you're a creationist or an evolutionist.

"If you're a creationist," he says, "the hen and the rooster came first, because without them there would be no eggs.

"On the other hand, if you are an evolutionist, the egg would naturally come first."

Gene Eoff of Goleta admits that he is "an avowed creationist," and so the answer is in Scripture.

"I don't believe for a minute that man wiggled out of the primordial ooze, that there is a missing link, or that one species ever 'evolved' into another species.

"In short, I have no problem with the chicken or the egg. I believe that God created a full-grown chicken just as he created a full-grown man. The Bible tells me the chicken came first."

That's the good thing about being a creationist. Everything is so simple.

"I just wanted to let you know," writes Alberta Hartshorn of Redondo Beach, "it was the rooster."

That not only puts a creationist slant on it, but also a sexist slant. But of course God was a sexist, anyway, since he created Adam first and made Eve out of his rib.

Larry Mason tries to reason it out:

"First off, the egg is useless without the chicken to incubate and hatch it, and then take care of the chick. Furthermore, two chickens were required, one to ovulate and one to fertilize the egg. Therefore, the chicken had to come first. Obvious, right?

"But wait. That only works if you're a creationist. Evolutionists would say that the first true chicken came from the egg, which contained the mutant genes of the non-chicken (or is it sub-chicken?) parents. It grew up, mated with its true chicken siblings, and the line was established. Therefore, the egg came first if you're an evolutionist, the chicken if you're a creationist. . . ."

Paul J. Carlson, a Burbank investment adviser, offers two proofs:

In Proof 1 he notes that birds, including chickens, evolved from reptiles. "Reptiles lay eggs. There is no reason to believe that the laying of eggs, as a means of reproduction, was interrupted during the evolutionary process. Therefore it would seem to me to be a reasonable assumption that the first chicken came from an egg.

"Proof 2 involves restaurants. Both eggs and chicken are ordered simultaneously. The result is generally predictable, save experimental influences such as ordering in a place with precooked chicken or a good server that forces a tie by slowing down the eggs."

If Carlson is saying that the egg comes before the chicken, he is eating in different restaurants from those I'm used to. Where I eat you can get duck a l'orange before you can get an egg. They have to wait till the eggs are cold to serve them.

Donald E. Ayres finds the answer in Darwinian theory.

"A species is essentially an artifact of time. Depending on our familiarity with the animal involved, we lump them under one species (the dog and the cat) or split them into two or more species.

"Darwin introduced the factor of time into the equation, suggesting in defiance of conventional wisdom that the species found as fossils were intimately related to those found today, rather than entirely separate species.

"It thus follows . . . at some time in the past, there existed a creature, which no competent taxonomist would consider a chicken, which laid an egg. The egg hatched a creature that any competent taxonomist would consider a chicken.

"This is, naturally, a fairy tale; it is rare that you get competent taxonomists to agree about anything. The weight of the evidence is, however, in Darwin's favor. . . ."

Alan Sweezy of Caltech sends a dissertation by P. B. Medawar and J. S. Medawar in "Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology" (Harvard University Press, 1983).

These eminent biologists first note that in big cities most children have no idea that milk comes from cows. But they know that chickens come from eggs.

"This knowledge is so deeply rooted in the public consciousness," they assert, "that chickens and eggs have contributed over and over to the imagery and metaphors of science and of popular speech."

They quote Samuel Butler as the author of the celebrated phrase, "A hen is merely an egg's way of making another egg."

So, like most creatures, all the egg cares about is reproducing itself, and the chicken is its instrument.

As for which came first, the two biologists, like our amateurs, note that the two possible answers neatly define two entirely different biological and political philosophies.

"A person who believes the egg came first is, in the Western Hemisphere, a regular guy . . . and in the Soviet Union a genetic elitist and a running dog of fascism. . . .

"Conversely, someone who believes that the chicken came first . . . would at one time in the Western Hemisphere have been denounced as a secret agent of the Comintern working to overthrow the Constitution of the United States . . . ."

Well, if I'm anything, I'm a regular guy.

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