02 January, 2006

Chicken or egg?

I've been asked about the historical sources of the question, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' While this might seem something of a sophistical query, it has in fact engaged some eminent men of the past. William Harvey, for instance, most famous for discovering the circulation of blood in the body in 1616, also published a treatise on reproductive biology (De Generatione Animalium) in 1651. Here is his rather poetic formulation of the chicken-egg question:
The egg is the terminus from which all fowls, male and female, have sprung, and to which all their lives tend—it is the result which nature has proposed to herself in their being. And thus it comes that individuals in procreating their like for the sake of their species, endure for ever. The egg, I say, is a period or portion of this eternity; for it were hard to say whether an egg exists for the sake of the chick that it engenders, or the pullet exists for the sake of the egg which it is to engender. Which of these was the prior, whether with reference to time or nature—the egg or the pullet? (Exercise 26)
His answer is a little bit too involved to quote in full. But essentially he regards the egg as the 'vital spirit' and 'efficient cause' (an Aristotelian term) of all animals, even going so far as to dissect mammals in the hopes of finding eggs too. So the egg came first: he was pretty much right! Going back a bit further, we find the same question discussed in a different context by Macrobius (c. 400 AD) in the Saturnalia; instead of a scientific treatise we are given a humanistic dialogue in the Ciceronian manner.
At this point Evangelus [the villain of the piece], who grudged the Greeks any credit, mockingly interrupted and said: Enough of this exchange of arguments. You two are only trying to show off your wealth of words. No! If your learning amounts to anything, tell me which came first—the egg or the hen? . . .

[Disarius:] If we admit that everything that exists has, at some time or another, had a beginning, it will be right to suppose that nature made the egg first. For at its beginning a thing is always as yet imperfect and shapeless, and it is only by the additions which come with increasing skill and the passage of time that it reaches to perfection. To fashion a bird, then, nature, beginning with something shapeless and rudimentary, made the egg, in which as yet there is no resemblance to the living creature; and it is from the egg that the complete bird, as we see it, as come—the product of a gradual process of development. . . [after some mystical speculations on the shape of the egg:] Now let him come forward who holds that the hen came first, and let him proceed to make his case, as follows. An egg, he will say, is neither the end nor the beginning of the creature to which it belongs. For the beginning is the seed and the end, the fully-formed bird itself, the egg being but the seed in process of development. Since, then, the seed comes from the living creature and the egg from the seed, it follows that the egg cannot have existed before the living creature, any more than the process of digesting food can take place before there is someone to do the eating. To say that the egg was made before the hen is like saying that the womb was made before the woman; and to ask how the hen could have come into existence without the egg is like asking how men were made before the existence of the organs of generation to which they owe their creation. . .
Disarius continues in this vein for a while, and tells Evangelus to make his own mind up. But the latter replies: 'Your inordinate volubility leads you to take seriously what was meant to be a joke.' (Book Six, Chapter 16).

Already in the Birthday Book of Censorinus, a jeu d'esprit written for the author's friend Caerellius in 238 AD, we find the riddle mentioned in relation to the greater problem of whether human beings had always existed or not: 'Are birds or eggs created first, since an egg cannot be created without a bird and a bird cannot be created without an egg?' But the debate can be pressed back still further to Plutarch's Quaestiones Conviviales (Table Talk), Book Two, Question 3 (found in the Loeb Moralia, volume 8, p. 145 ff.). When the question is broached, and broached as a typical sort of jokey symposium-topic, it is first ridiculed by two interlocutors. Then Firmus says:
Well then lend me your atoms for the moment, for if small things must be assumed to be the elements and the beginnings of large, it is likely that the egg existed first before the hen, for among sensible things the egg is indeed simple while the hen is a more intricate and complex organism. And, speaking generally, the initial cause comes first, and the seed is an initial cause; the egg is greater than the seed on the one hand, on the other less than the creature. Indeed, as development admittedly exists between innate merit and perfected virtue, so the intermediate development in nature's passage from the seed to the living creature is the egg.
Firmus is then contradicted by Sosius Senecio, a real friend of Plutarch's, and of the younger Pliny's too, whose position you will find somewhat familiar:
The world in fact pre-exists everything, for it is the most complete of all things, and it stands to reason that the complete is naturally earlier than the incomplete, as the perfect pre-exists the defective and the whole the part. For it is not reasonable to hold that the part exists if that of which it is a part does not. Thus nobody says that the man is a part of the seed or that the hen is part of the egg; rather we say that the egg is a part of the hen and the seed a part of the man, for egg and seed come into being after hen and man respectively and have their birth in them. . . he who raises the question how fowl came into being when the egg did not exist is in no way different from him who asks how men and women came into being before genitals and womb existed.
In the arguments of Firmus and Senecio we see the genesis of Disarius' first and second positions. The problem is one of classical metaphysics: the part is either seen as a stage in the development of the whole, or as something subsequent and inferior to the whole, something 'defective'. (We see the same slightly odd reasoning in a modern theorist: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, about whom more another time, argues in his 1946 The Origin of Speech that just as 'mummy' is a nursery corruption of 'mother', so formal, beautified speech precedes casual or informal speech.) Plato solves this one, sort of, at least in abstract terms, by separating the perfect and imperfect into two realms—thus the imperfect world is created by the demiurge with the idea in mind of the perfect world, just as an architect has his ideal house in mind before constructing the actual house. There is no problem about the temporal priority of the perfect, because the perfect is eternal. Senecio, on the other hand, does not claim that the perfect creature is eternal, just that it came forth from the earth fully-formed, like Athena, and subsequently degenerated, a sort of evolution in reverse.

It is a worldview consonant with the philologists—for whom the perfect text (of Homer, say) was corrupted with each copy—and with the arcanists, for whom the Truth, revealed perfect to some prior philosopher, perhaps Pythagoras, or Trismegistus, or Adam, has since fragmented and must be pieced together by the contemplative intellectual.

So there are a few of the extant sources; I suspect that the debate goes back at least to inextant Aristotle, a thinker particularly interested both in animal reproduction and in the metaphysics of cause and effect. But lest our reader's ears are nodding, we here end our own 'inordinate volubility'.

Update 3/3/07: I couldn't resist adding this passage from More's Utopia: "The farm workers breed an enormous number of chickens by a most marvellous method. Men, not hens, hatch the eggs by keeping them in a warm place at an even temperature. As soon as they come out of the shell, the chicks recognise the men, follow them around, and are devoted to them instead of to their real mothers."


John Cowan said...

Evolutionary theory tells us loud and clear that the egg preceded the chicken; there were fish, amphibians, and reptiles laying eggs ere dinosaur walked or chicken squawked.

As for Rosenstock-Huessy, he's talking rubbish. The evolution of mama-papa words (PDF) is very well understood indeed; they are not corruptions of adult forms, but de novo creations by proud parents overinterpreting their baby's babbling that later get adopted into adult languages, change with the changefulness of mortal tongues, and eventually are replaced by new mama-papa words.

Anonymous said...


It is easy to read too much into these things, as I think I am about to ... part of what is going on here, perhaps, is the acting out of the transition in science from Aristotle's four causes to the single mode of causation we recognize today -- and most importantly, the transition from "final" causes to "efficient" causes. For Aristotle, teleology played a huge role in scientific explanation. What an object or being is meant to be and is meant to do determines what it is. Everything in the universe seeks its own perfection. Actuality precedes potentiality, and the more perfect "precedes" the less perfect.

The debate between Firmus and Senecio reflects this, and while the debate raises the question of which has philosophical priority, the efficient cause or the final cause, the consensus seems to follow Aristotle in claiming that it is the "telos" that ultimately has priority.

By Harvey's time (and for a long time before that, actually) the concept of a final cause, though people still paid lip-service to it, no longer really made sense. Causation refers to efficient causation only -- one thing happens and then another thing happens -- and it is the goal of science to find the rules of efficient causation.

And then Hume happened.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: yes, of course. ERH is fascinating as a case-study, but I wouldn't take anything he says as rationally plausible.

Ziff: Thanks for this. I don't think you're reading in too much at all. I should have elaborated a bit on Aristotle's causes, come to think of it; only there is very little evidence that Plutarch was much acquainted with much of A's work--Plato and his school are the clear sources of both Plutarch's and Macrobius' thought. Added to which the exact interpretation of what A meant by 'final cause', 'entelechy' etc. was always a bit problematic. (I have no familiarity with the ancient commentary tradition on this point, alas.)

But it is clearly true, as you say, that Aristotle's division of the four causes was an attempt (in some ways better than Plato's) to deal with this conceptual problem, and that it is important to keep him in mind when dealing with this material. I suspect there's a good book on the history of causation that would illuminate me.