The Chicken or the Egg

American Game, Booted Bantam, Campine, Frizzle, Leghorn, Orloff—the chicken is yoked to one of the most famous philosophical questions: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This conundrum dates back to Aristotle who puzzled, “there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.” Since Aristotle’s time, thinkers such as Hegel and Marx have opted for a less causal, more dialectical answer in order to understand the chicken-egg relationship, and science tells us the egg evolved long before the bird. In “How the Chicken Conquered the World,” Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler write, “In contemporary American usage, the associations of “chicken” are with cowardice, neurotic anxiety (“The sky is falling!”) and ineffectual panic (“running around like a chicken without a head”).” Aside from morally instructive children's stories like Henny Penny (commonly known as Chicken Little), television shows ranging from I Love Lucy to Arrested Development have played upon these usages for comedic purposes. Of course, the chicken plays a more literal and serious role in today’s world. The blood sport of cockfighting, for instance, illustrates the ferocity of the males who are bred, trained, and armed with “metal spurs and small knives strapped to the bird’s leg.” While cockfighting is illegal in the United States, it’s still practiced in various parts of the world, and practitioners boast its long lineage. And let us not forget the chicken feeds us. Baked, barbecued, or fried, in the U.S. alone, close to 8 billion chickens are consumed each year, and approximately 50 billion eggs are produced. We are faced with a new philosophical consideration, one said best by Seinfeld character George Costanza: “You think chickens have individual personalities? If you had five chickens, could you tell them apart just by the way they acted? Or would they all just be walking around ‘bak bak baak bak?’ Because if they have individual personalities, I'm not sure we should be eating them.”