Which came first, the egg or the four-legged chicken?

Chicken with Manioc

Chicken with Manioc – My own take on this classical Brazilian dish.

There was once a time that neither chicken eggs nor chickens existed on Earth. Then, chickens were created by the chinese some 10.000 years ago and since that moment on we have had both. But which came first?

I still remember myself as a child learning from a morning radio show that, according to the Bible, God created grown animals, therefore eggs came afterwards. Sure it is safer to ask a biologist about these matters. The answer will possibly be that because no animal changes its genetic material during its life, the first bird that evolved into a chicken existed initially as an embryo within an egg. Therefore chicken eggs came first.

Although it is a good point, it is the kind of answer that risks to throw the egg out with the bath water.

Between the last ancestor bird that for sure was not a chicken and the first one that for sure was there were many generations. There was no Eve of the chickens, unless we impose an arbitrary definition of what is a chicken. Something like a fowl that shares 99.5% of the genetic material common to the 175 varieties of chicken that exist today.

Before chickens existed, chickens’ ancestors evolved by natural selection, which slowly and unintentionally transformed dinosaurs into birds. Then came the chinese, and artificial selection took its pace: fast and intentional – although most likely unconscious – it transformed those ancestor birds into chickens.

Besides natural and artificial selection, there is a third way of developing new designs: invention. In this case, someone focus on intentionally creating a new design to accomplish a goal.

Take the radio, for instance. It was invented to transmit information in a determined spectral band. There was once a time that radio did not exist. And there was a moment after which it existed. But this transition was not a product of evolution. Marconi’s radio was not a differential increment to Branly’s coherer. There were intermediary devices, sure, but with no reproductive value.

And what does this digression on inventions has to do with chickens and eggs?

We came a long way to a point that laboratories start to be able to create new chicken varieties not by artificial selection, but by genetic engineering, or in other words, by invention. In this way, the speed to create new designs is astonishingly multiplied in comparison to the rhythms of natural and artificial selections.

And it is not only about speed. Never by selection (either natural or artificial) it would be possible for instance to create a chicken with four thighs. With genetic engineering, it is a matter of finding and modifying the right genes. These new chickens – I leave the suggestion – could even come already with garlic flavor, why not?

Up to 100.000 years ago, nature had only one way of developing new designs: the slow and unintentional natural selection. It is quite amazing that this process created beings that have been reshaping the natural designs according to their own convenience for the last 10.000 years. And it is astonishing that these beings are at the edge of a deep rupture with those natural designs.

It is like human beings were the tools that nature developed (without intention) to explore (with intention) chicken’s designs. Maybe in 10 million years, the new biologists, knowing nothing about long-extincted humans, will try to understand why they have four thighs and garlic smell.  The Darwin from this distant future will have a hard time ahead. He will have to postulate an intelligent creator for that design. In that case – and only in that case – he will be right.

MB

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Categories: Life Sciences, Philosophy of Science, Science

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