Someone needs a biology lesson

Reader Darlene sent me this Q&A from


Right answer for a completely wrong reason. Somebody’s been reading Richard Goldschmidt, who once stated in a public lecture that he believed the first creature that was recognizable as a bird hatched from an egg laid by a creature recognizable as a reptile.


  1. Dominic
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    This is when you roll your eyes & say ‘give me strength…’!

  2. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    He/she must be a big fan of prototypes.

  3. Posted December 17, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Of course there are the usual cartoons to see on the internet about this eternal question…

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Perhaps this answerer has watched too many bad movies involving mutations. 🙂

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink


  6. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    It’s better than assuming that the mutation from non-chicken to chicken happened uniformly, simultaneously, and independently in both sexes of an entire generation of the non-chicken population.

    But not very good.

  7. Matthew
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Terrifying to think that we are all just ONE MUTATION AWAY from being an entirely different species!

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      And combined with the newly discovered awesome power of the mind, we’re only a thought away from being shapeshifters.

      Can’t wait!:-)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 17, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        It’s a transmospecifying machine, the Deepity- Packed™ mind.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted December 17, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

          Release the power within and get yours today!

          Now only $59.95* at

          *Batteries not included.

      • gravityfly
        Posted December 17, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        No, no, you don’t get it…it’s our consciousness that causes the mutations which change our shape which changes our thoughts which changes our …

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted December 17, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          Ah crap!

          Better go get me some more Chopra-scrolls although I’m a bit low on Magicka.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Like on Buffy when she got her “demon part” and she thought it would be a tail but it turned out she got the ability to mind read.

  8. Posted December 17, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    There was a family game you could buy years ago, which posed that very question. Their answer was that “dinosaurs laid eggs millions of years before chickens evolved, so obviously the egg came first”.

    • Posted December 17, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 18, 2013 at 1:25 am | Permalink

      Ooh, I like. Nobody specified it had to be a _hen_ egg. 😉

  9. Notagod
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why it isn’t a reasonably good short answer?

    But, then I don’t construe the question to imply that a chicken was the first species to form an egg. I take the question to mean; was there an animal that would be classified as a chicken before there was an egg that contained an animal that would be classified as a chicken.

    The technical answer would of course involve a discussion about the arbitrariness of classification when considering only two generations of a linage in evolutionary terms and, in that sense, the question isn’t properly formed. But, only because the species classification system isn’t intended to be used at the scale of an individual’s development. That is, the question is about as properly formed as the species classification system when comparing two adjoining generations of a linage.

    However, taking the question as is, an adult chicken cannot occur without changes that are present in the development within the egg that it came from. That is, a chicken wasn’t created that then laid a chicken egg and an animal that wasn’t a chicken didn’t change into a chicken then lay a chicken egg.

    If the classification system was fine tuned to the level that the question addresses then the answer would be, the egg, and the reason would specify specific changes that would first affect the development within the egg.

  10. squidmaster
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Always a silly question to take literally, since the question is generally meant to be a mind teaser because it sets up a potential infinite regress. But, from an evolutionary perspective, of course, the regress is not infinite. At some point, an ancestors of chickens who were not chickens themselves were laying eggs, so there were certainly ‘eggs’ before there were ‘chickens’. whether there were ‘chicken eggs’ before there were chickens is a more subtle question and evokes the more interesting mind teaser of when in an unbroken lineage an animal ceases to be one thing and becomes another. I’m of the opinion that this is, in some sense, a silly question, as it creates a false dichotomy.

    Getting back to the chickens and their zygotes, one could argue that the ‘chicken’ came first, because there were animals before there were (amniote) eggs and, indeed, animals in the more general sense before there were eggs of any sort.

    Now, whether there were animals before there were zygotes is a trickier question and the answer is probably ‘no’ to this characterization, making ‘eggs’, once again, older than ‘chickens’.

    OTOH, if one grants bacteria and archea chickenhood, it may well be that it’s chickens all the way down.

  11. Posted December 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    The short version: the egg came millions of years before chickens. And if the question is refined to explicitly specify a chicken egg as opposed to just any ol’ egg, the question becomes as meaningless as wondering where on the rainbow does blue stop and green begin. You could, of course, draw some sort of an arbitrary line, perhaps even with good justification for where you draw it. But you’re still left with the two samples on either side of the line, neither of which is meaningfully different from the other save for the fact that that’s where you chose to draw an arbitrary line.



  12. moarscienceplz
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    From Wikipedia:
    “The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a domesticated fowl, a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl.”

    So I think you could argue that there actually was a “first chicken” which would have been the offspring of a crossed pair of Red Junglefowl. Genetically, it still would have been a Junglefowl, but presumably the breeder(s) gave it a new name which we English speakers now call “chicken”. If so, then the question is did the chicken hatch out of a Junglefowl’s egg, or was it a chicken egg since it contained a chicken?

  13. jakc
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink


    “I don’t see why it isn’t a reasonably good short answer?”

    I’d say because it claims things that don’t happen (a single mutation leading to a news species, and speciation in a single event), and leaves the wrong impression about species and evolution

    • Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      To be fair, there are examples of single-gene mutations inducing speciation, especially in certain plants.

      But that doesn’t happen in vertebrates, at least not in any significant way I’m aware of, even theoretically. Rather, a population starts to drift but still interbreeds. Over time, the two sub-populations interbreed less and less. Indeed, interbreeding may still be possible millions of years after one would nominally place the speciation event; it just never actually happens. Lions and tigers are a great example, as are horses and donkeys — not to mention all the ring species.

      Again, it’s like trying to divide blue from green on the spectrum. Can’t be done — but that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in using the words, “blue,” and, “green,” (and “greenish-blue” and “bluish-green” and the rest) in appropriate contexts. In other contexts, you need to just give up and provide a spectral power distribution plot in the case of colors or a genomic analysis in the case of animals.



      • jakc
        Posted December 17, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        Learn something new every day, I guess. I will take your word on plant speciation via a single mutation, but I think that we agree on the larger point. Species is a useful concept but it is not the discrete thing that creationists make it out to be, and that this answer implies. That’s why I find it to be a bad answer.

        • Posted December 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink


          Also, creationists generally display a strong Platonic streak, as if there is an ideal (e.g.) rabbit archetype, and no rabbit baby will ever stray especially far from that ideal. One only need look to d*gs to realize what bullshit that notion is, but evidentiary analysis never was the strong suit of a creationist….


      • Posted December 18, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Cerulean : too green to be blue, too blue to be grey and too grey to be green …


        • Posted December 18, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

          Yeah…obviously, I was just referring to spectrally pure colors. Bring complex spectra into it and all bets are off.

          Give me the right equipment, and I can show you something that looks green but that’s only got violet and yellow wavelengths in it. (I’m thinking I could pull it off with a blacklight, an yellow LED, an integrating sphere, and a method of adjusting the relative intensities of the lights as they enter the sphere.) What name are you going to give that color?


          • Posted December 18, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

            Oh, I want trying to make a point your comparison just reminded me of this rather poetical definition of cerulean Id read from some Latin scholar.

            There was a nice exhibit demonstrating the kind of setup you describe at the Exploratorium in SF (before it moved to the waterfront).


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 18, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

              Did someone say Latin?

            • Posted December 18, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

              The Exploratorium is awesome! Been ages since I’ve been there, but I could easily spend all day there next time I’m in San Francisco.


    • Notagod
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s true and important. Thanks!

      But, the given answer is better at squashing the Lamarckian notion that characteristics acquired during a lifetime are heritable.

  14. Lauri
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    “The most frequently asked question is: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The fact that it is still asked proves either that many people have never been taught the theory of evolution or that they don’t believe it.”

    – J.B.S Haldane

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