Evolution and the Media: The Chicken or the Egg?

I just couldn’t not comment on this story!

As you may know, the media has been claiming some scientists have “proved” that the answer to the “age-old riddle” – what came first? the chicken or the egg? – is the chicken. This is, of course, non-sense, as PZ and Jerry Coyne have already shown. I just wanted to make a few comments of my own:

1) The fact that this story was run through approximately 226 sites/papers without criticism makes the media look like a joke. Couldn’t they have at least called some other evolutionary biologists? I looked through some of the articles and The Star actually provides some information about the protein discussed and other attempts to answer the question (which are tongue-in-cheek anyway), but ultimately, the whole ordeal reflects very poorly upon the media. I also question the motives of the scientists involved – why are they saying stuff like this?

2) The story also betrays the lack of a basic understanding of evolution in this country (and perhaps others as well). Relatedly, the story also betrays our essentialist mode of thought. We do not see species like chickens as changing over time – our lifespans are just too short. If we were alive for the millions of years it takes for animals like chickens or cats to change drastically, we would see dynamic and “fluid” species – not the unchanging “kinds” from Noah’s Ark. For example, from The Star:

According to How Stuff Works, “Two non-chickens mated and the DNA in their new zygote contained the mutation(s) that produced the first true chicken. Prior to that first true chicken zygote, there were only non-chickens.”

This is incorrect essentialist thinking. Now that we are many years past the divergence of the chicken lineage from other junglefowl, we can easily point out the chicken and the junglefowl as separate species. (Can they interbreed, I wonder?) At the time of divergence, however, it would have been difficult to distinguish the two as there were no chickens and non-chickens yet; just a chicken-like common ancestor. And it certainly laid eggs! This is shown in my MSPaint Figure 1. All we see now are unchanging chickens.

At the far right, the present, we can easily distinguish between chickens and other junglefowl. At the split though, we wouldn't have seen that difference!

3) Even as a high school student I realized the bunk nature of the question. After all, dinosaurs were laying eggs first. And because the riddle never specifies the egg as a chicken egg, I always pointed out that fish were laying eggs far before chickens existed!

The whole thing is just disappointing. Isn’t it weird that when given an actual story that would have benefited from the “there are two sides to every story” paradigm the media fails to do so? But when it comes to stories regarding intelligent design and climate change the media never fails to do so?
It’s just weird. And kinda sad.

4 thoughts on “Evolution and the Media: The Chicken or the Egg?

  1. (Can they interbreed, I wonder?)

    Can and do. Captive populations of “wild” Red Jungle Fowl are routinely crossed with domestic stock for breeding and genetics studies and a survey of wild Red Jungle Fowl found extensive evidence of introgression of domestic genes (Peterson and Brisbin 1999).

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