Someone needs a biology lesson

December 17, 2013 • 4:06 am

Reader Darlene sent me this Q&A from


Right answer for a completely wrong reason. Somebody’s been reading Richard Goldschmidt, who once stated in a public lecture that he believed the first creature that was recognizable as a bird hatched from an egg laid by a creature recognizable as a reptile.

33 thoughts on “Someone needs a biology lesson

  1. It’s better than assuming that the mutation from non-chicken to chicken happened uniformly, simultaneously, and independently in both sexes of an entire generation of the non-chicken population.

    But not very good.

    1. And combined with the newly discovered awesome power of the mind, we’re only a thought away from being shapeshifters.

      Can’t wait!:-)

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      1. No, no, you don’t get it…it’s our consciousness that causes the mutations which change our shape which changes our thoughts which changes our …

    2. Like on Buffy when she got her “demon part” and she thought it would be a tail but it turned out she got the ability to mind read.

  2. There was a family game you could buy years ago, which posed that very question. Their answer was that “dinosaurs laid eggs millions of years before chickens evolved, so obviously the egg came first”.

  3. I don’t see why it isn’t a reasonably good short answer?

    But, then I don’t construe the question to imply that a chicken was the first species to form an egg. I take the question to mean; was there an animal that would be classified as a chicken before there was an egg that contained an animal that would be classified as a chicken.

    The technical answer would of course involve a discussion about the arbitrariness of classification when considering only two generations of a linage in evolutionary terms and, in that sense, the question isn’t properly formed. But, only because the species classification system isn’t intended to be used at the scale of an individual’s development. That is, the question is about as properly formed as the species classification system when comparing two adjoining generations of a linage.

    However, taking the question as is, an adult chicken cannot occur without changes that are present in the development within the egg that it came from. That is, a chicken wasn’t created that then laid a chicken egg and an animal that wasn’t a chicken didn’t change into a chicken then lay a chicken egg.

    If the classification system was fine tuned to the level that the question addresses then the answer would be, the egg, and the reason would specify specific changes that would first affect the development within the egg.

  4. Always a silly question to take literally, since the question is generally meant to be a mind teaser because it sets up a potential infinite regress. But, from an evolutionary perspective, of course, the regress is not infinite. At some point, an ancestors of chickens who were not chickens themselves were laying eggs, so there were certainly ‘eggs’ before there were ‘chickens’. whether there were ‘chicken eggs’ before there were chickens is a more subtle question and evokes the more interesting mind teaser of when in an unbroken lineage an animal ceases to be one thing and becomes another. I’m of the opinion that this is, in some sense, a silly question, as it creates a false dichotomy.

    Getting back to the chickens and their zygotes, one could argue that the ‘chicken’ came first, because there were animals before there were (amniote) eggs and, indeed, animals in the more general sense before there were eggs of any sort.

    Now, whether there were animals before there were zygotes is a trickier question and the answer is probably ‘no’ to this characterization, making ‘eggs’, once again, older than ‘chickens’.

    OTOH, if one grants bacteria and archea chickenhood, it may well be that it’s chickens all the way down.

  5. The short version: the egg came millions of years before chickens. And if the question is refined to explicitly specify a chicken egg as opposed to just any ol’ egg, the question becomes as meaningless as wondering where on the rainbow does blue stop and green begin. You could, of course, draw some sort of an arbitrary line, perhaps even with good justification for where you draw it. But you’re still left with the two samples on either side of the line, neither of which is meaningfully different from the other save for the fact that that’s where you chose to draw an arbitrary line.



  6. From Wikipedia:
    “The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a domesticated fowl, a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl.”

    So I think you could argue that there actually was a “first chicken” which would have been the offspring of a crossed pair of Red Junglefowl. Genetically, it still would have been a Junglefowl, but presumably the breeder(s) gave it a new name which we English speakers now call “chicken”. If so, then the question is did the chicken hatch out of a Junglefowl’s egg, or was it a chicken egg since it contained a chicken?

  7. @Notagod

    “I don’t see why it isn’t a reasonably good short answer?”

    I’d say because it claims things that don’t happen (a single mutation leading to a news species, and speciation in a single event), and leaves the wrong impression about species and evolution

    1. To be fair, there are examples of single-gene mutations inducing speciation, especially in certain plants.

      But that doesn’t happen in vertebrates, at least not in any significant way I’m aware of, even theoretically. Rather, a population starts to drift but still interbreeds. Over time, the two sub-populations interbreed less and less. Indeed, interbreeding may still be possible millions of years after one would nominally place the speciation event; it just never actually happens. Lions and tigers are a great example, as are horses and donkeys — not to mention all the ring species.

      Again, it’s like trying to divide blue from green on the spectrum. Can’t be done — but that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in using the words, “blue,” and, “green,” (and “greenish-blue” and “bluish-green” and the rest) in appropriate contexts. In other contexts, you need to just give up and provide a spectral power distribution plot in the case of colors or a genomic analysis in the case of animals.



      1. Learn something new every day, I guess. I will take your word on plant speciation via a single mutation, but I think that we agree on the larger point. Species is a useful concept but it is not the discrete thing that creationists make it out to be, and that this answer implies. That’s why I find it to be a bad answer.

        1. Yup.

          Also, creationists generally display a strong Platonic streak, as if there is an ideal (e.g.) rabbit archetype, and no rabbit baby will ever stray especially far from that ideal. One only need look to d*gs to realize what bullshit that notion is, but evidentiary analysis never was the strong suit of a creationist….


        1. Yeah…obviously, I was just referring to spectrally pure colors. Bring complex spectra into it and all bets are off.

          Give me the right equipment, and I can show you something that looks green but that’s only got violet and yellow wavelengths in it. (I’m thinking I could pull it off with a blacklight, an yellow LED, an integrating sphere, and a method of adjusting the relative intensities of the lights as they enter the sphere.) What name are you going to give that color?


          1. Oh, I want trying to make a point your comparison just reminded me of this rather poetical definition of cerulean Id read from some Latin scholar.

            There was a nice exhibit demonstrating the kind of setup you describe at the Exploratorium in SF (before it moved to the waterfront).


    2. Yeah, that’s true and important. Thanks!

      But, the given answer is better at squashing the Lamarckian notion that characteristics acquired during a lifetime are heritable.

  8. “The most frequently asked question is: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The fact that it is still asked proves either that many people have never been taught the theory of evolution or that they don’t believe it.”

    – J.B.S Haldane

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