Friday, May 26, 2006

They Finally Figured It Out

It was the egg that came first, not the chicken, according to a study of the poultry pecking order

IT IS the ultimate conundrum of the poultry world, debated by generations of scientists, academics and philosophers.

Which came first: the oval thing with the hard shell, or the dim-witted, toothless bird that clucks as it crosses the road for no obvious reason? Now two of the best brains in the land (and a chicken farmer) claim to have solved the catch 22. The answer, it has been decreed, is the egg.

And here follows the science, expressed as far as possible in terms a reasonably educated hen would understand.

Genetic material does not change during an animal’s life. Therefore, the first bird that evolved into what we would call a chicken, probably in prehistoric times, must first have existed as an embryo inside an egg.

Professor John Brookfield, a specialist in evolutionary genetics at the University of Nottingham, who was put to work on the dilemma, said that the pecking order was perfectly clear: the living organism inside the eggshell would have the same DNA as the chicken that it would become.

“Therefore, the first living thing which we could say unequivocally was a member of the species would be this first egg,” he said. “So I would conclude that the egg came first.”

David Papineau, an academic specialising in the philosophy of science at King’s College London, concurred. In his view, the first chicken came from an egg, which, he claims, proves that there were chicken eggs before there were chickens. Here, the science moves out of reach of the hen-brained. Professor Papineau maintained that people were mistaken if they argued that the first chicken egg was a mutant produced by non-chicken parents.

“I would argue that it is a chicken egg if it has a chicken in it,” he said. “If a kangaroo laid an egg from which an ostrich hatched, that would surely be an ostrich egg, not a kangaroo egg.”

It is perhaps best at this difficultjuncture to gloss over the fact that a kangaroo is a marsupial and does not lay eggs in the way that chickens or ostriches do — or all. Rather, it gives birth to a joey.

Also, a kangaroo bouncing around the Outback would be highly unlikely to come across an ostrich with which to attempt such an unlikely union. These overgrown birds inhabit an altogether different continent.

Charles Bourns, a chicken farmer and chairman of the trade body Great British Chicken, also favours the egg argument. He said: “Eggs were around long before the first chicken arrived. Of course, they may not have been chicken eggs as we see them today, but they were eggs.”

But the biggest question of all remains unanswered: what laid that first egg, if it wasn’t a chicken?

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