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Willie Maartens

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The Chicken and Egg Dilemma
By Willie Maartens   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

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In The Wonderful Egg, a book written for children by Dahlov Zorach Ipcar, a mother dinosaur lays an egg that hatches into the very first bird. After growing up into a beautiful specimen complete with wings and feathers, it flies up into a tall tree and sings a happy song. (The little bird’s song may soon become a dirge when it realises that it has no one with whom to mate.)

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg?


I am delighted to report that after extensive navel contemplation, this quintessential human conundrum can be laid to rest. The answer (or answers), is revealed here.


The problem was apparently solved by a British team which included one genetic specialist, a philosopher, and a poultry farmer. Scientists and philosophers at least now finally agreed on an answer to the age-old question, ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Here is what the team had to say:

“Put simply, the reason is down to the fact that genetic material (DNA) 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 have first existed as an embryo inside an egg.” Professor John Brookfield, a specialist in evolutionary genetics at the University of Nottingham, told the UK Press Association the pecking order was clear sometime ago already.


So, the egg was first!

Nonetheless, wait a minute… it is not the full story.

Creationists still do not agree. According to them this age-old question really has a simple answer, namely: “According to the Creator of chickens, and the author of the Record of their origins, chickens came first. It was on the Fifth Day of Creation Week that He created ‘every winged fowl after their kind’ (Genesis 1:21) complete with the DNA to reproduce that kind. Then He blessed them, saying, ‘be fruitful, and multiply’ (v.22) using that DNA. For the chickens this meant lay chicken eggs. Problem solved.”

So, the chicken was first!

Well, I can now add that you believe whatever you like better – what a solution/irony. This is life, everyone believes whatever he or she likes, and we guard our cherished believes like an Oviraptor protecting its clutch of eggs.


When the fossil of an Oviraptor, a small Mongolian theropod, was discovered in 1923, its skull was only four inches away from a clutch of Protoceratops eggs, prompting palaeontologist Henry Osborn (1857-1935) to assign it the name Oviraptor (Greek for ‘egg thief’). For years afterward, Oviraptor lingered in the popular imagination as a wily, hungry, none-too-nice gobbler of other dinosaurs’ young. The trouble is that it was later shown that those ‘Protoceratops’ eggs were really Oviraptor eggs, and the misunderstood reptile was simply guarding its own brood!


Palaeooölogy, also palaeoology or paleoology, is the branch of oology focusing on the study of ancient eggs. Palaeooölogy has developed since 1868, when Wilhelm von Nathusius (1821-1899) described the first microstructures from modern eggshells.


Still, the story is not finished as yet. Let us therefore go back in time and consider the paleontological viewpoint. A rare fossilised dinosaur nest may shed some further light on the question of which came first, ‘the chicken or the egg’.


There is a case of a small carnivorous dinosaur that sat over her nest of eggs along a sandy river beach some 77 million years ago. When water levels rose, Mom seems to have fled, leaving the eggs.


Palaeontologists have studied the fossil nest, which contains at least five partial eggs. The nest is a mound of sand that extends about half a meter across. The nest is believed to have belonged to one of two small, carnivorous dinosaur species, and was apparently also shared with birds.


Now, as far as we know, dinosaurs were forming bird-like nests and laying bird-like eggs long before birds (including chickens).


The contents of this fossilised dinosaur nest may help resolve the age-old chicken-and-egg question, LiveScience reports. That birds evolved from dinosaurs are an accepted fact as far as palaeontologists are concerned, but the new discovery shows that the pointy-ended bird egg developed before the bird itself, palaeontologists say.


Intact nests of the small meat-eating dinosaurs, the direct ancestors of birds, are rare, only one other has been found in North America. The egg-laying pattern scientists discerned from the nest is also much closer to that of a bird than, say, a crocodile’s. “The egg came before the chicken”, one of the researchers said. “Chickens evolved well after the meat-eating dinosaurs that laid these eggs.”


The first real discovery of dinosaur eggshell was in 1859 from southern France, by Abbé Jean Jacques Pouech (1814-1892). The French eggs were thought to belong to giant birds at first, because of their large size. More complete eggs were found in 1869 by one Philippe Matheron (1807-1899). He thought these eggs belonged to a giant crocodile. In 1877, Paul Gervais (1816-1879) published the first detailed study of the eggs, and suggested that they could belong to a dinosaur.


So, chickens are birds and the fossil record seems to indicate that birds first appeared during the Jurassic period, around 145-200 million years ago. Apparently the earliest hard-shelled eggs were laid by reptiles in the Carboniferous around 300-360 million years ago. Therefore, for the moment at least, the egg came before the chicken by approximately 150 millions years.


The egg was first – the dinosaur egg that is.


Now back to the British team which included one genetic specialist, a philosopher, and a poultry farmer. Traditional genetics espoused the view that each new organism got fresh DNA from its parent, but Marcus Pembrey, working on genetic diseases of children in London, began to suspect otherwise when he found one chromosomal defect caused two very different syndromes (Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome) depending on which parent was the source of the defect.


Conventional biology has always believed that our genetic inheritance is set in stone at the moment of our conception. At that instant, we each receive a set of chromosomes from both our mother and father. Within these chromosomes are the genes: strips of coded DNA, the basic unit of inheritance. After conception, it was assumed that our genes are locked away inside every cell of the body, protected and untouched by the way you live.


Therefore, what you do in your life may affect you, but your genes remain untainted, unchanged for future generations. In classic genetics, your parents and grandparents simply pass on their genes. The experiences they accumulate in a lifetime are never inherited – lost forever as the genes pass untouched through generation after generation.


In contrast, epigenetics is the study of epigenetic inheritance, a set of reversible heritable changes in gene function or other cell phenotype that occur without a change in DNA sequence (genotype). These changes may be induced spontaneously, in response to environmental factors, or in response to the presence of a particular allele, even if it is absent from subsequent generations.


Work on mice and the careful correlation of harvest and medical records from an isolated Swedish community shows that epigenetic effects can be passed from generation to generation.


Lamarck (1744-1829) is the pioneer French biologist who is best known for his idea that acquired traits are inheritable, an idea known as Lamarckism, which is disputed by Darwinian Theory.


In the history of biology, Lamarck invented the great chain of being. By insisting that mind is immanent in living creatures and could determine their transformations, he escaped from the negative directional premise that the perfect must always precede the imperfect. He then proposed a theory of ‘transformism’ (evolution) which started from infusoria (an obsolete collective term for minute aquatic creatures like ciliates, euglenoids, protozoa, and unicellular algae that exist in freshwater ponds) and ended with humans.


Lamarck imagined a vast sequence of life forms extending like a series of staircases from the simplest to the most complex, impelled by ‘excitations’ and ‘subtle and ever-moving fluids’, the organs of animals became more complex and took their place on successively higher levels. This was the summary view of the relationship between physical energy and the overall organisation of life set forth in ‘Research on the Organization of Living Bodies’ (1802) and the ‘Zoological Philosophy’ (1809).


In the latter work he stated two ‘laws’ that he held to govern the ascent of life to higher stages: first, that organs are improved with repeated use and weakened by disuse; second, that such environmentally determined acquisitions or losses of organs ‘are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise’.


Thus, in a celebrated example, the forelegs and neck of giraffes have become lengthened through their habit of browsing. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ 50 years later, these views of Lamarck became the centre of interest and controversy. Lamarckism was discredited by most geneticists after the 1930s, except in the Soviet Union, where, as Lysenkoism, it dominated Soviet genetics until the 1960s.


As originally formulated, however, Lamarckism was part of an elaborate surmise about processes for whose operation Lamarck had no direct evidence.


From a lifelong, direct exposure to plants and animals, Lamarck gained an intuitive sense of the dynamic quality of life, the close interdependence of physical and vital processes upon which the modern science of biology rests.


Indeed Lamarck was the first to use the word biology, in 1802, and now he also seemed to have been correct and Charles Darwin wrong!


Consequently, in the light of modern epigenetics, it seems that genetic material does change through epigenetic inheritance during an animal's life, and it makes one wonder what else could be wrong with Darwin’s Theory.


We are back where we began!


Only the original riddle must now be rephrased: Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg? So, are we back in the hands of the British team which included one genetic specialist, a philosopher, and a poultry farmer, or are we in the hands of the Creationists? What a choice! I think now you decide, but don’t let me know – I am befuddled enough.


In conclusion: In the beginning there must have been something that laid the first egg!



Willie Maartens








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Reviewed by Petra Falk 4/9/2009
Thank you for making me smile over my coffee. Sometimes "no answer" is the best answer. What would we ponder over if this riddle was solved, and what would happen to the proverb regarding the chicken and the egg?

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