Godawful science reporting: MSNBC says the chicken came before the egg

July 14, 2010 • 2:34 pm

UPDATE:  Two minutes ago, on the NBC Evening News, Brian Williams reported this finding, also claiming that it proves the precedence of the chicken.

Crikey, I’ve seen bad science journalism before, but this takes the cake. It’s a piece in today’s MSNBC Science & Technology section, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg: British scientists claim to have solved the scientific, philosophical mystery.” The piece is short, and here’s the bulk of it:

It is an age-old riddle that has perplexed generations: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Now British scientists claim to have finally come up with the definitive answer: The chicken.

The scientific and philosophical mystery was purportedly unraveled by researchers at Sheffield and Warwick universities, according to the Daily Mail newspaper.

The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken.

The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.

“It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first,” said Dr. Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University’s Department of Engineering Materials, according to the Mail.

“The protein had been identified before and it was linked to egg formation, but by examining it closely we have been able to see how it controls the process,” he said.

Now I haven’t read the whole paper (link is below), but even if the piece accurately describes what the scientists found, it says nothing—absolutely nothing—about whether the chicken or the egg came first.

In fact, we’ve known the answer to that question for decades.  In the evolutionary sense, which is the only meaningful sense in which you can ask this question, the answer is clear:  the egg came first.  Birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs laid eggs.  Therefore eggs were around before there were birds, and during the period when birds were evolving from dinosaurs, every creature in that lineage laid eggs. Therefore eggs preceded chickens in evolutionary time.

Now the observation that supposedly settles the issue in favor of chicken precedence is this:

The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken. The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.

But that says nothing about “which came first.”  Yes, a protein found in the ovaries of modern chickens is necessary for the formation of a modern chicken egg (note, not just an egg, but a modern chicken egg). But the chicken’s ovaries, the protein, and the egg that chicken lays almost certainly co-evolved, that is, have undergone genetic change in a coordinated fashion over the same time period.  Just because one feature is now required for the formation of the other doesn’t mean that one evolved before the other.   Got that, MSNBC? Oh, and you too, Dr. Freeman.

Now you can construe this “finding” in another way: the chicken temporally precedes its egg.  That is, you have to have an adult chicken before it can make eggs.  But we already knew that, and finding out that adult chicken proteins help make adult eggs doesn’t add anything.

Oy gewalt!


Freeman, C. L., H. H. Harding, Q. Quigley, P. M. Rodger.  2010.  Structural control of crystal nuclei by an eggshell protein. Angewandte Chemie 49:5135-5137.

33 thoughts on “Godawful science reporting: MSNBC says the chicken came before the egg

  1. That was on the BBC this morning. I presume it has its origin in the press statement from Sheffield and wherever else the work was done. If so, shame on all concerned.

  2. [Checks calendar] Right, July: all the VIPs have gone to the cottage, hence slow news day; need some fluff to fill the space. Cutesy story about chicken and egg? Run it….

  3. Well, you can answer the question another way, but the answer is still the egg: specifically, chicken eggs laid by proto-chickens. (I have stolen this pithy way of summarizing it from I can’t remember who)

    If you define a modern “chicken” using some feature of the genome, then it had to be the egg. Otherwise, you are asking all (or a majority) of the cells in a proto-chicken to suddenly undergo the same mutation to make the organism now genomically a “chicken”.

    Of course, I suppose you could also argue that chicken sperm came first… hmmm…

    1. Well that assumes an egg is owned or defined by that which hatches from it, not that which laid it. But if the layer is the owner, then a proto-chicken can only lay a proto-chicken egg, from which a chicken hatches, ergo the chicken comes first.

      In other words it’s a semantic problem, as with 99% of other ‘philosophical’ disputes.

  4. Re-reading it, I think the quote from Dr. Freeman was said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The “Now we have scientific proof!” is just hyperbolic enough to sound satirical.

    So two scenarios: Either a bored science editor saw the paper, thought it would make a cute story, and called up Dr. Freeman for an interview; or else (more likely) Dr. Freeman is a skillful self-promoter, who managed to get mainstream news coverage for his highly technical paper about the arcane subject of embryonic proteins in chickens. Masterful, really. I bet he gets his grant renewed next year…

  5. And we wonder why ‘mercans are so freakin’ stupid? What chance of enlightened thinking do they have when all they do is get whatever knowledge they have from TV pundits who couldn’t identify bogus thinking if it poked them in the ass?

    Yes, I understand the limitations of science reporting. Biologists are elitists. It’s so hard to find a biologist these days willing to address these kinds of conclusions and still maintain an anti-(or at least neutral) posture when explaining these types of findings from a purely evolutionary posture.

    Gawd made chickens to lay eggs for our survival. Discussion is over.

  6. They can say what they want, but my zoology professor (smiling, of course) suggested the chicken was recognized first, but the egg preceded it, unrecognized as to its significance until it hatched.

  7. Heh, that stupid article hit the local press a few hours ago as well.

    I prefer to see the “chicken-or-egg” systems as illuminative of evolution specifically. They imply both change (i.e. there were species having simpler eggs before hens) and equally important they imply earlier systems that had “both functions”.

    Or none, considering that the full resolution is not that eggs was an earlier trait, but that asexual populations existed before sexual.

    In the same way “DNA-or-protein” systems show that RNA existed before and handled several functions. And “enzyme-or-metabolism” show a present problem in abiogenesis.

    This is not a “scientific and philosophical mystery” but interlocking complexity showing the way to new theories (evolution, RNA-world) explaining the previous systems.

  8. Sorry, I can’t resist. Quote from the Daily Mail comments, where the story originally appeared:

    Lol another example of us creationists being one step ahead of science. We always knew the chicken came first. God made all the animals in the beginning, just as Jesus said.
    Slowly but surely the scientists are catching up with the Bible.

    – Steve, Kent, 14/7/2010 16:31

    *crying with laughter*

    1. Catching up with the Bible…

      Despite having been a Bible-believing Christian at one point, it’s now next to impossible to relate to this sort of thinking.

  9. They mentioned this, just as a headline, on the news as I drove in this morning – it didn’t have the details. I couldn’t help but laugh and was excited to get to a computer to find out how the media had got yet another scientific study wrong!

  10. Wait! Isn’t this just an application of the principle of “irreducible complexity”? If so, I believe this might be an example that illustrates yet another way this concept is useful when employed in the study of biology. It’s not just good for telling you when “God did it”, it is also useful to answer questions as profound and perplexing as the one answered here. (The DI Creationists must be crowing about this one.)

      1. oh yeah… and while I’m at it, I’ll try to attract some of the Pharyngula magic into this adult discussion.

        The Camel fucking discussion is on a different thread, and so for that I can heartily endorse a big fat FUCK YOU with a rusty tie rod sideways for trying to derail this thread as well as painting entire geographic regions with a broad brush-stroke as if they were homogeneous with regards to their philosophical leanings.

  11. Which came first: the inaccurate reporting of science or the Daily Mail?

    Quoting the Mail on a science story is laughable. The only strange aspect of this whole business is that we haven’t been told whether eggs or chicken cause or cure cancer this week.

  12. The Daily Mail is a byword for garbage reporting of science stories – usually of the ‘cure for deafness’ variety decried particularly by Ben Goldacre: see Bad Science – http://preview.tinyurl.com/ygvjlbo . When my dad in his last year of life said he was considering changing papers to the Mail I said I would divorce him as a parent if he did!

  13. I wouldn’t take it very seriously, nor is Jerry’s characterization of the puzzle quite correct. It’s not eggs in general versus chickens, it’s the chicken egg versus the chicken.

    It’s really an example of what Dawkins calls the discontinuous mind. There were birds, laying eggs, which we would not call chickens. Many generations later, there were descendant birds, also laying eggs, which we would call chickens. In between, there’s a continuum of bird generations, in which no two adjacent samples would be considered of distinct species. Where do you draw the line between pre-chicken and chicken? The real answer is that you don’t. Given perfect sampling, there is no line at all. Only via the extinction of intermediates can there be species at all.

    But Jerry’s overall conclusion is necessarily correct. If you insisted on drawing a line, it would be one demarcated by DNA, and that DNA would be inside an egg, building the world’s first chicken.

  14. Okay … The deal is with this one, general speaking, most people see this question as amusement. It’s not that much different than looking at a M.C. Escher picture to us with simple circular logic. MSMBC does like to have their scientific facts right and if some one would have made the dinosaur point to them they would have seen there is a place to take this thought a little further than the never ending stair case. Send Rachel Maddow a note I’m sure she would take this on with her Moment of Geek segment. It’s interesting to make a real scientific statement, if you can make a good case. Rachel@msnbc.com

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