Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chicken or the Egg?

It's time to end this debate once and for all. The old canard, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" has long been answered by modern science.

Clearly, the egg.

If we take by egg to mean chicken egg, then we know well that evolution happens through random mutation. Thus while every chicken alive must have been born from a chicken egg, the first chicken egg was layed by the chicken's evolutionary ancestor.

Of course there are always difficulties with properly defining species, but I believe this logic holds.


James said...

You're ignoring the possibility of mutagenic viruses (which IMO seem like a plausible way to introduce change into a species without requiring inbreeding).

HoBs said...

possible. but those viruses would still only be effective on the egg. once the chick is born, a virus can't change every cell in the body to make non chicken into chicken.

thus still, you might have a non-chicken egg that turned into a chicken egg. either way egg first

William said...

First of all, the question is really asking "which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?" Reptiles laid eggs long before chickens were around.

Next, while I agree with your logic that regardless of the evolutionary definition of species, there was a first chicken, I'm not convinced that implies the chicken egg came first. It boils (probably a bad choice of words while discussing eggs) down to who owns the egg? Is it the inhabitant, or the mother who laid it?

Perhaps pro-lifers would argue the inhabitant defines the egg. The underdeveloped alpha-chicken's right to ownership, if you will, should be protected; therefore our alpha-chicken came out of the first chicken egg. Similarly, pro-choice advocates may feel ownership rights to the egg belong to the hen who laid it, therefore the first chicken came out of a not-quite-a-chicken-yet egg.

Food for thought? I sort of want an omelet?

William said...

sorry, you did specify "chicken" egg.

HoBs said...

Hm, ok, I guess your objection is purely semantic. A problem, yet, but certainly not a paradox, just a problem of definitions.

William said...

Sure, but what problem or paradox doesn't revolve around a definition, or some ill-defined notion? Consider the classic paradox of traveling back in time and making it impossible for two of your direct ancestors to procreate - I believe “go back in time and kill your father” is the canonical example, but I still find it a bit crude and, well, overkill – isn’t this simply a matter of time travel being undefined?

Same thing here; if there is a first chicken (considering there is a finite set of chickens throughout history, there must be a first) the question of “which came first, the chicken or the egg” must be dependent on whether a chicken egg is an egg containing a chicken, or an egg laid by a chicken and not some pseudo-hen which the chicken evolved from.

The only other possibility is that it is unanswerable because you can’t find a “first chicken” from this finite set. This is a puzzling predicament; the assumption that every finite set has a contained lower bound has been a friend to mathematicians for hundreds (thousands?) of years. If one believes in evolution (which I think is a fairly sound belief set, certainly worthy of being our axioms for this discussion) do we arrive at some new class of finite open sets - where bounds can’t be identified? This is a yucky road that is avoidable by making a firm decision about what point you recognize something as a chicken. But that’s much harder to define than “who owns the egg?”

For the record, while pro-choice, I’m partial to the notion that the egg’s inhabitant owns it – perhaps that’s my own paradox. I’ll consider my definitions carefully. :)


HoBs said...

Hm, raises an interesting aside. What is a paradox. Perhaps a paradox is as you say, a problem of ill-defined notions, but once those notions become defined, the problem ceases being a paradox. So as we have now settled the definitions necessary to properly specify the chicken or egg problem, it too ceases to be a paradox.

The first paradox that comes to mind is the "most ingenous paradox" that gets its own song in Pirates of Penzance, of how someone born on February 29th doesn't reach his 18th birthday until he's 60 or so. I always thought that shouldn't qualify as a paradox because once defined, there is no dilemma.

Godel Escher Bach was a book about paradoxes. Haven't read it in a while, but there was Zeno's paradox. The problem was that Achilles could never reach the finish line in a race because in order to get there you first have to get half way. But once half way, you have to go half way again. And then half way again. Of course once limits and infinities became defined, that problem goes away as well.