I guess I have always considered the question “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” to be a kind of joke.  But I was reading a reference to it that said that ancient philosophers actually considered it quite seriously. To them it was a way of considering how life, and even the universe, began.

Today that question has also morphed into a more general term of a “chicken-and-egg problem.” That is a problem that seems futile to consider because it is a circular cause and consequence situation. A contemporary example I found online is getting Americans to switch to electric cars. In order to make those cars economical, we need many recharging stations. But it’s not economical to open stations if there aren’t sufficient electric vehicles.So…

But those ancient philosophers caught my attention. I very easily identify with their questions because I feel like we still are asking those questions today.

Aristotle wondered about whether it was first a bird or an egg. His rather unsatisfying answer was that both the bird and egg must have always existed. The question also applied to man. Was there a first man without a father or mother? That was an idea they could not accept.

Plato seems to have believed that before something appeared on earth, it had first its being in spirit. That’s a head-scratcher.

Plutarch actually seems to be the first to record in writing the questions as chicken (hen) or egg and saw this “small problem” as being one way to consider the creation of the world.

There have been many responses to this dilemma and scientists continue to take a shot at it. Related terms are the “vicious circle” and “circular reference.”

One modern answer that is acceptable to some is that there was an egg-laying species that pre-dates the existence of “chickens.” The ancients weren’t living in a world that knew about evolution. Of course, some people today still don’t live in that world. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would tell us that the egg came first. For Darwin, the term “egg” isn’t necessarily just an egg that hatches into a chicken but a more generalized “egg” including the one that “hatches” a human.

This question inevitably moved from philosophy into theology. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the chicken and all the rest of God’s creation of the universe comes first.

In Hindu mythology, there are first birds, but also a “cosmic egg” from which the universe as we know it originated. This cosmic egg is known as Brahmanda (from “Brahma, creator” and “anda”, egg)  and hatches all creatures.

Many religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and some cultures such as the Aztecs and Mayan and some Native Americans believe in a cyclical wheel of time with repeating ages. For them, the eternal repetition means there is no first and therefore no question or dilemma.

If you want to stick to modern science and the modern chicken, then the chicken probably evolved from a related species and is a hybrid descendant and so the egg came before the chicken.

Why that first chicken crossed the road is still open to debate.