To anyone else it may have seemed like just another poultry question, but to a chicken it was the answer to the penultimate question of his own ontology. And Chicken was the first of his kind to truly know the answer. This is how it happened:
Early one morning a chick hatched. It was his first day and his mind was filled with questions. Looking at the calcified wreckage surrounding him in his grassy nest, he peeped:
“Mother, which came first, me or that shell?”
Mother lifted a wing and clucked with amusement at the kinds of things day-old chicks will ask.
“That’s a First Cause-type question, son!” she replied. “Philosophers have been asking questions like that for thousands of years. Actually the discussion of that question might be the cornerstone of modem Western thought.”
She smiled a toothless maternal smile and chuckled: “Perhaps you’d better wait till you grow feathers to tackle that one.”
But the question seemed clear enough to the young chick and he stumbled, frustrated from the nest, out into the yard to ask his father.
The old rooster sighed philosophically, as fathers often will when children ask difficult questions, and he responded with this story:
An old lady approached a physicist regarding the place of the Earth in the Cosmos.
“You scientists think you’re so tricky!” said the old lady. “Everyone knows that the world is resting on the back of a Giant Turtle!”
“If that’s so,” returned the physicist, “then upon what does the Turtle rest?”
But the Old Lady wasn’t to be turned away that easily. “You can’t fool me,” she replied, “It’s Turtles all the way down!”
Chick turned away. He hadn’t expected such dogged sophistry from his own father. It was one thing not to know, but quite another to suggest that the unknown and the unknowable might be the same. A notion like that bordered on superstition.
So he carried his question from the yard out into the world asking everyone he met, “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” But he was met with either blank stares or quizzical amusement. The chicken was never sure whether other people just didn’t care or whether he was perhaps the butt of some great social joke.
Chick was schooled traditionally and went on to attend Harvard, completing a doctorate in First Cause Questions. But although discussion of his question was rife, his professors considered discussion itself, and not answers, to be the ultimate goal of Philosophic inquiry.
So the curious chicken entered the priesthood. Religious dogma depended on a leap of faith, offering a First Cause, postulated without a first cause! But that didn’t satisfy even a chicken’s brain so he renounced faith, and as the years passed him by Chick grew despondent.
He became infamous around the barnyard for his cynicism, looking upon all forms of rational inquiry, both religious and sectarian, with equal ironic skepticism. To the horror of family and academic peers, he began frequenting fetid, damp nooks, associating with lower life forms-reptiles and sometimes even amphibians, engaging anyone in debate over any issue of even distant relevance to his ontological question.
The specious savagery of his arguments offered precious little shelter from the degradation Chick felt at his obvious personal failure. Hopelessness began to occlude his reason.
But one day fate found Chick behind the barn, discussing primacy of species with a certain lizard, when he chanced to mouth that now-famous rhetorical question which had reduced him so completely. ‘Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?!” he muttered, dismissing the grim reptile and turning away.
“You don’t need a bifurcated cerebral cortex to figure that one out!” chuckled the Lizard. “A college graduate like yourself knows that reptiles like me preceded birds on Earth by several million years!”
Chick turned back nodding absently, but this lesson in Biology 101 hardly seemed apropos.
Lizard stared at the chicken with that awed look that ordinary people have saved for the special stupidity of scholars and priests for thousands of years and he laughed. “A million years before you chickens were laying eggs like this one, we reptiles and amphibians were already hatching them!”