UPDATE: Two minutes ago, on the NBC Evening News, Brian Williams reported this finding, also claiming that it proves the precedence of the chicken.
Crikey, I’ve seen bad science journalism before, but this takes the cake. It’s a piece in today’s MSNBC Science & Technology section, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg: British scientists claim to have solved the scientific, philosophical mystery.” The piece is short, and here’s the bulk of it:
It is an age-old riddle that has perplexed generations: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Now British scientists claim to have finally come up with the definitive answer: The chicken.
The scientific and philosophical mystery was purportedly unraveled by researchers at Sheffield and Warwick universities, according to the Daily Mail newspaper.
The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken.
The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.
“It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first,” said Dr. Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University’s Department of Engineering Materials, according to the Mail.
“The protein had been identified before and it was linked to egg formation, but by examining it closely we have been able to see how it controls the process,” he said.
Now I haven’t read the whole paper (link is below), but even if the piece accurately describes what the scientists found, it says nothing—absolutely nothing—about whether the chicken or the egg came first.
In fact, we’ve known the answer to that question for decades. In the evolutionary sense, which is the only meaningful sense in which you can ask this question, the answer is clear: the egg came first. Birds evolved from dinosaurs. Dinosaurs laid eggs. Therefore eggs were around before there were birds, and during the period when birds were evolving from dinosaurs, every creature in that lineage laid eggs. Therefore eggs preceded chickens in evolutionary time.
Now the observation that supposedly settles the issue in favor of chicken precedence is this:
The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken. The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.
But that says nothing about “which came first.” Yes, a protein found in the ovaries of modern chickens is necessary for the formation of a modern chicken egg (note, not just an egg, but a modern chicken egg). But the chicken’s ovaries, the protein, and the egg that chicken lays almost certainly co-evolved, that is, have undergone genetic change in a coordinated fashion over the same time period. Just because one feature is now required for the formation of the other doesn’t mean that one evolved before the other. Got that, MSNBC? Oh, and you too, Dr. Freeman.
Now you can construe this “finding” in another way: the chicken temporally precedes its egg. That is, you have to have an adult chicken before it can make eggs. But we already knew that, and finding out that adult chicken proteins help make adult eggs doesn’t add anything.
Freeman, C. L., H. H. Harding, Q. Quigley, P. M. Rodger. 2010. Structural control of crystal nuclei by an eggshell protein. Angewandte Chemie 49:5135-5137.