The egg! No, the chicken! Um, the egg? Which one came first is an age-old philosophical question that has vexed the world's greatest minds for centuries, because it twists back around on itself in a seemingly infinite loop.
To start pondering this question, you start with two premises (basic statements that are believed to be true):
- All chickens are hatched from chicken eggs.
- All chicken eggs are laid by chickens.
Now, think about the very first chicken: Where did it come from? According to the first premise, it was hatched from a chicken egg. Where did that egg come from? According to the second premise, that egg came from a chicken. But that means there was a chicken before that first chicken, which is illogical. So which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle provides one possible answer. Aristotle introduced the ideas of potentiality and actuality. As pertains to the question at hand, the purpose of the egg is to become a chicken; the egg is therefore a potential chicken. The hatched chicken is, well, the actual (or actualized) chicken. Through a complex argument involving the perishability of anything potential and the eternal idea of the actual chicken, Aristotle deduced that actuality always comes before potentiality.
So, according to Aristotle, the (actual) chicken came before the (potential) egg. Of course, his philosophical ideas predate modern science, which may give, if not an answer, at least a few more facts to consider.
The chicken versus egg question has come to be used as a metaphor for self-perpetuating cycles and the futility of trying to decide how the cycle began instead of dealing with the cycle in the present.
Consider the age-old feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Each family blames the other for beginning the feud, and neither family is willing to face the indignity of forgiving the other and ending the feud. Instead, they argue about who is right and who is wrong. The feud continues simply because it has continued for so long.
Regardless of how the feud began, only the shared tragedy of the suicides of Romeo and Juliet is enough to make both families see the effects of the continued feud and recognize that their own retaliatory actions were responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. In the end, they finally recognized that, by continuing the feud, they were both wrong.