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Easter, Chicks and Eggs

April 13, 2017

Tikalon is on a short Easter holiday. Our next article will be published Thursday, April 20, 2017. Fuzzy chicks and eggs are Easter traditions, and this break will allow your contemplation of the classic chicken or egg problem.

Easter chick

Image from a pre-1917 Russian Easter postcard.

(Portion of a Wikimedia Commons image.)

This ancient problem is simply stated as "what came first, the chicken, or the egg," the apparent problem being that you need a chicken to make an egg, and an egg to make a chicken. The Internet abounds with supposed evidence that Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) considered this problem directly and concluded that neither were first, since both are eternal.

However, all this evidence is from secondary sources, and I was not able to uncover a primary source. This question is missing from the logical place to find it, Aristotle's Generation of Animals (De Generatione Animalium, Περι ζωων γενεσεως), which contains considerable information about egg-laying animals.[1-2]

The first discussion of the chicken-egg problem is in Plutarch's Moralia, a collection of short essays on diverse topics.[3-4] Along with a discussion entitled, "Which Was First, the Bird or the Egg," are discussions of whether flute-girls should be allowed at a feast, whether women have a hotter temper than men, and the proper time for sex (night).

In Question III of the Moralia, we read that the egg should be first, since eggs are simpler than birds, and complexity arises from simplicity.
"if we suppose that small things must be the principles of greater, it is likely that the egg was before the bird; for an egg amongst sensible things is very simple, and the bird is more mixed, and contains a greater variety of parts."[4]

In light of our mastery of genetics, scientists can assuredly answer that the egg came first. The domestic chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus is thought to have arisen from a union between the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) and its grey junglefowl counterpart (Gallus sonneratii), both of these being wild birds. So this chicken egg, not made by a chicken, became a chicken.

References:

  1. Aristotle, "On the Generation of Animals," Arthur Platt, Trans., via Wikisource.
  2. Aristotle, "Generation of animals," Greek, with an English translation by Arthur Leslie Peck, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 1943), 708 pp..
  3. Plutarch, "Symposiacs," from "The complete works of Plutarch: essays and miscellanies," Vol.III, Crowell (New York, 1909) via the University of Adelaide Library.
  4. Plutarch, "Moralia," Frank Cole Babbitt, Trans., Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 1957), 410 pp., via Archive.org.

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Linked Keywords: Tikalon; Easter; holiday; chick; egg; contemplation; chicken or egg problem; pre-1917; Russian; Easter; postcard; Wikimedia Commons; chicken; riddle; problem; Internet; evidence; Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC); eternity; eternal; secondary source; primary source; Generation of Animals; oviparity; egg-laying animal; Plutarch; Moralia; essay; flute; girl; feast; women; temperament; hotter temper; men; sexual intercourse; night; complexity; principle; sense; sensible; genetics; scientist; domestication; domestic; Gallus gallus domesticus; crossbreed; union; red junglefowl (Gallus gallus); Grey junglefowl; Gallus sonneratii.

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