Chicken or the egg

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A chick hatching from an egg

The chicken or the egg causality dilemma is commonly stated as "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" To ancient philosophers, the question about the first chicken or egg also evoked the questions of how life and the universe in general began.[1]

Philosophical resolutions[edit]

  • Aristotle (384–322 BC) was puzzled by the idea that there could be a first bird or egg and concluded that both the bird and egg must have always existed:

If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother – which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.[2]

The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, "that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit."[3]

  • A dialectical answer (that of Hegel and Marx) is that the egg and chicken exist in a dialectical relationship; the problem, it says, is that we are approaching an organic/dialectical relationship with the mindset of formal logic, i.e., linear cause-and-effect. Using this mindset, we reach a paradox, for we only see it in terms of 'this caused that.' To reach the true nature of this relationship, we have to admit the fact that the egg creates the chicken just as much as the chicken creates the egg. Hegel uses an analogy of a bud:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them, at the same time, moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.

Scientific resolutions[edit]

  • According to Popular Science, the egg came first as it evolved prior to birds.[4]
  • According to evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, Richard Dawkins, the question is moot.[5] In his book The Magic of Reality, Dawkins discusses the origins of humanity, and presumably any other species, in a chapter titled "Who was the First Person". When addressing the question, he writes that "there never was a first person because every person had to have parents, and those parents had to be people too!"[6] In order to explain this, Dawkins employs a thought experiment. In the thought experiment, you start off with a picture of yourself. Then, you stack a photo of your father on top of your photo. Then, he asks the reader to consider continuing this process indefinitely, or until he or she finally encounter the common ancestor of all life on Earth. Now that the reader has this incredible genealogical record of himself or herself, or a chicken, the reader can then begin pulling out pictures from the stack. Dawkins says that, at each generation, the immediately preceding photographs will look only slightly different from the generation before or after, not distinguishable as separate species from their forebears. In other words, no matter where the reader decides to pull a photo from their stack of ancestors, they will definitely be recognizable as the parents of the generation after himself, and a child of his parents' generation. But take photos from thousands of generations apart, and the ancestor will be nearly unrecognizable from their eventual progeny.[5]

In common parlance[edit]

Idiomatically, a chicken-or-egg problem, also called a catch-22, is any which involves some set of mutually dependent circumstances.

For example, it has been argued that the transformation to alternative fuels for vehicles faces a chicken-or-egg problem: "It is not economical for individuals to purchase vehicles using alternative fuels absent sufficient refueling stations, and it is not economical for fuel dealers to open stations absent sufficient alternative fuel vehicles".[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Theosophy (September 1939). "Ancient Landmarks: Plato and Aristotle". Theosophy. 27 (11): 483–491. Archived from the original on February 2013. 
  2. ^ François Fénelon: Abrégé des vies des anciens philosophes, Paris 1726, p. 314 (French). Translation: Lives of the ancient philosophers, London 1825, p. 202 (English)
  3. ^ Blavatsky, H.P. (1877). Isis Unveiled. pp. I, 426–428. [unreliable source?]
  4. ^ Engber, Daniel (2013). "FYI: Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Egg?". Popular Science. Bonnier Corporation. 282 (3): 78. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Dawkins, Richard; McKean, Dave (2012-09-11). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781451675047. 
  6. ^ Dawkins, Richard; McKean, Dave (2012-09-11). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Simon and Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 9781451675047. 
  7. ^ Saving Energy in U.S. Transportation (PDF). U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment. 1994. OTA-ETI-589.