This long-running debate tells us something important about science and ourselves.
lutarch was born a Greek and became a Roman. He was a priest in Delphi, where he served the temple of Apollo, but he was also a man of the world: a magistrate, an archon, an ambassador and even a celebrity of sorts, known across the Greek-reading world for his philosophical ponderings and biographies of emperors. He had a thick head of hair and an almost eerily symmetrical face – at least, the bust of him at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi, dating back to the second or third century, presents him that way. His marble forehead is dirty with what looks like ancient mud. Here he is serious, even sullen, and deep in thought....MORE
This is the expression I imagine on his face when his friend Alexander the Epicurean, during a meal one day, asked him “that perplexed question, that plague of the inquisitive. Which was first: the bird or the egg?” Today, we are more specific about which bird – it’s a chicken we’re talking about – but that extra bit of detail hasn’t helped to settle the debate once and for all. Sylla, another friend dining with Plutarch and Alexander, suggested that “this little question” had far-reaching ramifications; indeed, it gestured towards the matter of “whether the world had a beginning”.
A few centuries earlier, Aristotle had fudged an answer, concluding that all creatures (including, therefore, chickens) had their first being in spirit, and anyway-what-if-both-chicken-and-egg-have-always-existed-did-you-ever-consider-that? Plutarch presented both arguments – that the egg was first as “it begets and contains everything”; and that the chicken was first because creation, in the very beginning, was “vigorous and perfect, was self-sufficient and entire”.
It’s a simple question and it should have a simple answer. Or so John D Morris at the Institute for Creation Research argued in a 2005 blog post, which channelled (without mentioning him) the 16th-century Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi and his insistence that “the hen did not come from the egg but from nothing”, because the “sacred books” said so. Morris wrote, in a somewhat unnecessarily strident tone:
According to the Creator of chickens, and the author of the Record of their origins, chickens came first. It was on the Fifth Day of Creation Week that He created “every winged fowl after [their] kind” (Genesis 1:21) complete with the DNA to reproduce that kind. Then He “blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply” (v.22) using that DNA. For the chickens this meant lay chicken eggs. Problem solved.
Although it’s hard to argue against anyone citing “the Creator of chickens” as a source, evolutionary biologists have largely backed the notion of the egg’s priority. Luis Villazon, a science writer at the BBC’s Focus magazine, summarised the Darwinian position as follows:...