In the midst of an otherwise reasonable presentation the professor of an analogy to a subtle point said, “It’s like the problem of what came first the chicken or the egg?” Even though it was a largish group and I was being unnecessarily disruptive, I said in a loud voice, “The egg!” To which the speaker immediately retorted, “Oh … Yes the dinosaurs had eggs.” Whereupon he continued with his reasonable discourse.
It bothers me that 153 years after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species that obviously incorrect analogy is still in common usage. It is a worrisome problem here in the United States because so many people have become so confused by the political rhetoric of intentional confusion and obfuscation permeating many lines of thought that they accept this obvious confusing phrase as being enlightening. These kinds of errors seem to come up more often in the scholarly realms of rhetoric associated with philosophy and legal debates. These are the areas of human thought where rigid definitions of various words and concepts are created and defined where the rigidity simply doesn’t exist in the real world, but they try to impose it anyway. The world of scientific thinking avoids this problem by demanding definitions and proofs of things in such a way that they can be denied by simple experiments performed against the natural world. On the other hand philosophic argumentation attempts to defeat the opponent’s arguments by finding logical flaws in the definitions of the words and in the arrangement of the words, but this is hopeless because the words themselves are amorphous fuzzy things. The arguments must inevitably collapse into silly wrangling over impossible definitions, arrogance and egos.
In considering how I should have offered a challenge to the chicken and egg problem, it seems a more impact-full statement would have been to force the listeners to think more deeply about the problem. What was done by simply correcting the speaker with an obviously more correct answer, was to let the root problem slide on by unnoticed. If instead of saying the obviously scientifically testable answer, “the egg”, I had said the obviously incorrect answer, “the chicken”, then everyone present would have to think a little bit. Those scientific illiterates at the level of second graders in school might stumble for a moment and wonder where the egg came from, but then realize it came from a chicken, and let it go at that. Or perhaps like the old lady in a similar story about turtles holding up the Earth said, “It’s no use asking any more about turtles, because under that turtle is another one and below that it’s turtles all the way down”, when asked what holds up that turtle.
If I had said, “a chicken”, the more sophisticated listeners might realize that other species also had eggs and their ancestors came from eggs. That is what the speaker instantly realized, and so he said, “Oh … Yes, dinosaurs had eggs.” That was sufficient in the context of the discussion, and so the flow of the presentation continued. If I had said, “a chicken” and no one contested that assertion it would prove the audience was filled with illiterates, and discussing subtle points of philosophy was useless. It would be like talking about long division before the students could count reliably or add and subtract even with difficulty.
By answering, “a chicken”, it would create instant conflict between the two groups of scientifically illiterate people, the egg-people and the chicken-people which would soon give rise to the confused-people which would soon become I-don’t-really-care-for-this-problem type of people. Of course the solution to that problem wasn’t obvious before 1855 even though Linnaeus had laid out a perfectly clear evolutionary tree seventy-five years earlier. Evolution was generally accepted by biologists; they just didn’t have a clue how one species evolved from another one. But once evolution was understood it became clear that eggs preceded chickens because there were egg-laying birds which clearly were not chickens but were their ancestors. So those birds with a different species name would have preceded chickens.
So, if someone asks the rhetorical question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”, say the eggs if you want an quick end of the argument, but if you want controversy say the chickens, and after they ask, “What came before that?”, say, “Eggs”, and “What before that?” “A chicken, and before that an egg.” and “Before that?” “Well, something that sort of looked like a chicken, but I don’t think it was exactly a chicken, but it clearly came from an egg.”