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Mrs Beeton, the Voltaire of caffeine

March 7th, 2012

Sighted at Port Arthur, Tasmania, this quote from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton (emphasis added):

-It is true, says Liebig, that thousands have lived without a knowledge of tea and coffee; and daily experience teaches us that, under certain circumstances, they may be dispensed with without disadvantage to the merely animal functions; but it is an error, certainly, to conclude from this that they may be altogether dispensed with in reference to their effects; and it is a question whether, if we had no tea and no coffee, the popular instinct would not seek for and discover the means of replacing them. Science, which accuses us of so much in these respects, will have, in the first place, to ascertain whether it depends on sensual and sinful inclinations merely, that every people of the globe have appropriated some such means of acting on the nervous life, from the shore of the Pacific, where the Indian retires from life for days in order to enjoy the bliss of intoxication with koko, to the Arctic regions, where Kamtschatdales and Koriakes prepare an intoxicating beverage from a poisonous mushroom. We think it, on the contrary, highly probable, not to say certain, that the instinct of man, feeling certain blanks, certain wants of the intensified life of our times, which cannot be satisfied or filled up by mere quantity, has discovered, in these products of vegetable life the true means of giving to his food the desired and necessary quality.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    March 8th, 2012 at 08:59 | #1

    One thing leads to another and everything connects to everything else. I assume the Liebig mentioned is Justus von Liebig.

    “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, often simply called Liebig’s Law or the Law of the Minimum, is a principle developed in agricultural science by Carl Sprengel (1828) and later popularized by Justus von Liebig.” – Wikipedia.

    The Law of the Minimum is very important when considering issues of Limits to Growth. The necessary input that is in shortest supply limits growth.

    On another issue, Beeton shows a very philosphical turn of mind is this passage. However, did she write it or did she plagiarise or quote it?

    “Mrs Beeton is perhaps described better as its (Beeton’s Guide) compiler and editor than as its author, many of the passages clearly being not her own words.” – Wikipedia.

    The information that Mrs Beeton died of puerperal fever led me a little further.

    “From the 1600s through the mid to late 1800s, the majority of childbed fever cases were caused by the doctors themselves. With no knowledge of germs, doctors did not believe hand washing was needed. Statements like Dr. Charles Meigs’, a leading obstetrician and teacher from Philadelphia: “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”, were the attitude of the time.[1] In the 1800s Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women giving birth at home had a much lower incidence of childbed fever than those giving birth in the doctor’s maternity ward. His investigation discovered that washing hands with an antiseptic solution before a delivery reduced childbed fever fatalities by 90%.[2] Despite the publication of this information, doctors still would not wash. The idea conflicted with both the existing medical concepts and more importantly, with the image that doctors had of themselves. That intransigence consigned large numbers of mothers to painful, lingering deaths.[3] The scorn and ridicule of doctors was so extreme that Semmelweis moved from Vienna and was eventually committed to a mental asylum where he died.

    The similarity between the resistance of that time with the resistance of today’s doctors when faced with concepts like “using checklists” or “evidence-based medicine” is alarming and has caused some speculation that the actual problem originates in the ego focus that prevails in the culture of doctoring.”- Wikipedia.

    From this we might jump to the modern neoclassical economic professions’ inablity to accept evidence-based economics or to pay proper attention to limits to growth science and climate change science. I would say in part;

    That “the actual problem originates in the ego focus that prevails in the culture” of the economics profession.

  2. Ikonoclast
    March 8th, 2012 at 09:52 | #2

    It has become clearer to me that the entire passage is a quote from Liebig. In the book “Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper”, chapter 8 is called “Liebig on Toast: The Chemistry of Food.”

    From the above source we are told, Liebig’s “chemistry of cookery and doctrines of nutritional science overturned culinary beliefs, and simultaneously it assisted in the industrialisation and commercialisation of diet and the institutionalisation of cookery and nutrition in colleges of household science and schools of cookery.”

    There is no doubt that Mrs Beetson was well aware of Liebig’s work in this field. In fact, it was common for fashionable, educated young Victorian ladies to be educated in and aware of Liebig’s work and influence in this field.

    The industrialisation of food production is close to a frightening topic now if one goes into it properly. I might make it a topic for an idee fixee post some time. Whilst I dont endorse “crackpot nutritionism” (which I won’t define here), the science of nutrition and the industrialisation of food is now often used not for the purposes of better nutrition but purely for corporate profit. Dangers exist at nearly every step now in this “over-industrialisation” of food.

    To finish on a philosophical note, we are now at the culminating point. The tendencies of the whole scientific-industrial complex unleashed since the industrial revolution (with its unforeseen and unintended consequences) are about to climax in a whole series of major crises; crises which may call into question the ultimate value of industralisation and (mis-)applied science themselves. This could lead unfortunately to a rise in superstition, magical beliefs, evidence denial and in adherents of received and new religions (all the same thing so far as I am concerned). A new dark age is very possible. The capitalist right’s war on science (the very discipline that super-charged capitalism) is very much a part of this ambivalent attitude to science and technology where it’s “wealth creating” power is lauded and worshipped but both its severe unintended consequences and its now urgent warnings have to be denied.

  3. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 11:42 | #3

    Ikonoclast, I have to take my hat off to your ability to find (vaguely) new ways to say the same thing over and over again, post after post, week in, week out, year in, year out.

    I think everyone who has visited Prof Q’s blog, even if only once or twice over the last few years, would be well aware of your views on the state of the world, given how often you have stated them. I wonder what you hope to achieve by saying the same thing to the same audience, endlessly?

  4. Ernestine Gross
    March 8th, 2012 at 12:33 | #4

    Ikonoclast, as you probably expect, I now will write again saying I don’t agree with you (and others) trying to link all or most that is undesirable or illogical to ‘neoclassical economics’.

    Even experts in the history of economic thought don’t agree on what ideas belong exclusively to neoclassical economics. This is reflected in the web-site
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassical_economics

    Please accept neo-classical economics is not the same thing as capitalism (right or centre or left on some notional political scale). Upholding a confusion to the contrary might contribute toward some post-modernist version of ‘dark age’ emerging, something you seem to be worried about.

    As a starting point, I suggest neo-classical economics belongs to theoretical work in Economics while capitalism belongs to the institutional (legal) part of Economics. How many economists are in positions of making laws?

    Your argument is with the institutional framework of economies and not with neo-classical economics or any other theoretical framework in economics. On the contrary your resource constraint argument is central to theoretical work in economics (ignoring derived models for specific questions).

  5. may
    March 8th, 2012 at 13:23 | #5

    @Tim Macknay

    well it’s probably got something to do with the idea that repetition reinforces.

    “the big lie” is a case in point,the advertising industry also relies on repetition to measuable sales effect as well.

    verifiable facts are not allowed to get in the way of religiously held opinion/ideology?

    or maybe because there is no profit or political gain?

    so a cursory reference to anything that is to the detriment of corporate interests seems to be the method applied by our corporate public “news” broadcasters.

    now i’m not saying icono is invariably correct(no one is).

    Leibigs’ barrel?

    law of the minimum?

    it’s just one of those nasty tools for checking verifiable fact.

  6. may
    March 8th, 2012 at 14:53 | #6

    then there is the negative non-cursory

    (the previous is a small mind involution)

    for example:

    the lack of reporting on

    the blatant habit of conservative political parties in this country of refusing to submit policies to the electorate in good time for consideration.
    the refusal to cost those policies.

    this happens federally as well as in every state.

  7. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 15:12 | #7

    @may

    well it’s probably got something to do with the idea that repetition reinforces.

    I rather doubt the regular readers of this blog gain much from daily reinforcement of Ikonoclast’s views. I suspect it’s more a case of cathartic venting, which is understandable, if a bit tiresome.

    I’m not sure of the rest of your comment was intended as a response to mine – it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to it.

  8. Ikonoclast
    March 8th, 2012 at 15:52 | #8

    @Tim Macknay

    I am guilty as accused. But Tim, do regular readers of this blog or any other gain much from the reinforcement of any particular person’s views? I say this given that probably 99% of all blogging is tiresome, cathartic venting. Once a person has expressed their key views what remains?

    Or to put it another way, once a person has expressed a view on a subject (even a considered, well researched view) and once that person has reached the few ever likely to pay the least bit of attention to him or her then that person should I guess take a vow of silence for the rainder of their natural life. Said vow would presumably not preclude statements like “Pass the salt please,” or “I saw Bill the other day.” Though given the tedious nature of that kind of conversation perhaps we should all remain silent permenantly? A gesture would do for the salt.

  9. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 16:56 | #9

    Well Ikonoclast, it should be possible to say things that are neither anodyne nor repetitive. The head post could have prompted any number of comments that did not involve a return to your usual subjects – for example, a query as to why Prof Q finds the Beeton quote to be reminiscent of Voltaire (it’s not obvious to me), or a remark to the effect that it’s somewhat unexpected that an exemplar of Victorian respectability would endorse the use of psychotropic drugs for reactional purposes.

    Anyway, I’ll cease to berate you about it any further.

    So Prof Q, why the comparison to Voltaire?

  10. Sam
    March 8th, 2012 at 17:39 | #10

    Hey Tim Macknay, I think we should fund more contraception in the developing world! Also, bike helmets!

  11. Chris Warren
    March 8th, 2012 at 17:40 | #11

    @Ernestine Gross

    Unfortunately it is invalid to separate “institutional” forms from “theoretical” forms.

    The marginal theory is a theory for extracting surplus from workers – irrespective of the institutional superstructure.

    Under modern conditions, workers wages are theoretically set at marginal productivity of labour, but capitalist institutions obtain “average productivity of labour”. This creates a contradiction which leads to a GFC.

    Institutions and theories can only be understood as they occur in an environment, where they act in combination.

  12. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 18:06 | #12

    @Sam
    Voltaire was pro-bike helmet? Damned Enlightenment nanny-statists! David Stove would turn in his grave…

  13. Ikonoclast
    March 8th, 2012 at 18:10 | #13

    @Tim Macknay

    If you had read all of my comments you would have found I hold, for example, that the passage which appears to be written by Mrs Beeton was almost certainly written in its entirety by Justus von Liebig. Mrs Beeton was a “compiler and editor”, not a writer. These days we would call her a plagiarist.

    As Voltaire was a philospher, I assume JQ was calling Mrs Beeton a philosopher of caffeine. As Voltaire was sceptical philsopher (with respect to religion), it might be that JQ was assigning to Mrs Beeton a progressive or pragmatic view sceptical of the “standard” moralistic Victorian position with respect to even mild stimulants.

    However, I think it’s a misattribution and my theory is that all the words in that quote are Liebig’s.

    BTW Tim, give me some links to some of your pithy, non-anodyne, non-repetitive posts. I want to experience (in silence of course) the due awe that I ought to pay to your vast intellect and erudition.

  14. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 19:01 | #14

    I did read your comments, Ikonoclast, and noted your discussion of Liebig, including the predictable segue from Liebig into the Limits to Growth. What of it?

    Regarding your last sentence, I have no particular pretensions to be pithy, or to have vast intellect or erudition. And as to repetitiveness, well you’ve admitted you’re more repetitive than most. But if you genuinely have nothing to talk about other than the imminent, inevitable end of civilisation, and cannot imagine any alternative topics other than the likes of “pass the salt” or remaining silent, well that’s a bit sad.

    But nobody’s stopping you from returning to your favourite topic anyway. I’ve already said I’ll harass you no more about it, so knock yourself out.

  15. John Quiggin
    March 8th, 2012 at 19:19 | #15

    Apart from being a prodigious coffee drinker (something I found out in the CT comments thread for this post), Voltaire is famous for saying “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him”.

  16. Tim Macknay
    March 8th, 2012 at 19:31 | #16

    Aha. Thankyou, Prof Q.

  17. Ernestine Gross
    March 8th, 2012 at 20:30 | #17

    @Chris Warren

    My reply is on the sandpit.

  18. Stockingrate
    March 9th, 2012 at 05:56 | #18

    Ikono – keep it up. “I like to say ‘Maintain a firm grasp of the obvious at all times’” Bezos

  19. Jim Birch
    March 9th, 2012 at 12:58 | #19

    I think that Beeton and Voltaire are half right. We would re-invent them, but not by virtue of directed intelligent design but rather through natural evolution as practices that fit the tendencies of the human organism would tend to grow and persist. Humans have a hubris of teleology that arises as we create rational agent narratives for activities driven by the “grunty” levels of the brain.

    Time for a short white coffee.

  20. Tim Macknay
    March 9th, 2012 at 13:30 | #20

    So you’re saying that even when humans consciously invent things, that doesn’t count as intelligent design? I can understand the objection to “intelligent design” being applied to biology, but to claim that even human decision-making is not intelligent design is an overextension of Darwinian thinking worthy of Dawkin’s invention of memes or Lee Smolin’s suggestion that the universe itself evolved by natural selection.

    If I make a macchiato, is that intelligent design or is the coffee evolving from the jar, through the machine and into the cup?

  21. Dan
    March 9th, 2012 at 13:46 | #21

    @Tim Macknay

    That’s not the way I read Jim’s comment at all. I think all he is saying is that caveman (or even lizard) brain hearts god(s).

  22. Tim Macknay
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:04 | #22

    Dan, the part of Jim’s comment I thought was odd was “We would re-invent them, but not by virtue of directed intelligent design but rather through natural evolution as practices that fit the tendencies of the human organism would tend to grow and persist”.

    I agree up to a point with Jim’s comment about the human “teleology bias”. However, the examples I gave of Richard Dawkins’ memes and Lee Smolin’s evolved universe suggest to me that teleology isn’t the only concept that traps us in this way. Any idea that is simple and powerful can be prone to overextension and misapplication.

    I’m also not convinced by the “cave-man brain” explanation for religious belief. If one wishes to go in for psychological explanations for belief in personal gods, I find the “projection of the childhood mother/father protector” type explanations more appealing. But I don’t really think teleological or religious explanations are necessarily primitive or irrational. A teleological explanation for natural phenomena can be perfectly reasonable in the absence of a plausible alternative explanation. It wasn’t until detailed geological and palaeontogolical studies started to make those alternatives available that teleological thinking started to become less intellectually respectable.

  23. Dan
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:06 | #23

    @Tim Macknay

    “I’m also not convinced by the “cave-man brain” explanation for religious belief. If one wishes to go in for psychological explanations for belief in personal gods, I find the “projection of the childhood mother/father protector” type explanations more appealing.”

    Six of one, &c.

  24. Tim Macknay
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:10 | #24

    Six of one, &c.

    True. They’re all idle armchair explanations.

  25. Jim Birch
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:20 | #25

    @Tim Macknay
    Coffee didn’t take off because of a rational evaluation of its effects; just stimulating dopamine neurons was enough. Same for God, sort of.

    Expresso machines are intelligently designed to make coffee and to not blow up.

  26. Troy Prideaux
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:51 | #26

    Never really thought about it, but it is somewhat amusing to consider that it is God who could be the product of intelligent design to ultimately serve a perverse timeless purpose of providing power and influence to that of the designers.

  27. Tim Macknay
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:53 | #27

    OK. With you now.

  28. Fran Barlow
    March 9th, 2012 at 14:58 | #28

    @Tim Macknay

    The problem with all theories of why people continue to believe in god is that with the possible exception of “god really exists and is irrefutably manifest” none of them can be refuted. I always lean to a more elaborate version of Jim Birch’s coffee explanation along with the tidiness with which it fills in epistemic gaps that are difficult to fill otherwise, but in the end I can’t prove it.

    Believing there is no god comes with a substantial overhead in angst. The idea of an afterlife helps us come to terms with our own mortality (and that of others we care about). It can also be a comforting thought that in the end, everyone will get just desert — as an adaptive strategy in a nasty and unjust world, this, plus cognitive dissonance is quite useful.

    I was listening the other day on the BBC to a terrible story of a village in El Salvador during the Reagan period where a horrendous massacre of innocents by US-backed contras had taken place. The details are much too ugly to recount here, and they don’t really add much to the point so I’ll pass lightly over them, but the point was that it now seems clear that nobody will ever be brought to account for these crimes and indeed the full details are likely to remain suppressed until everyone who survived it or was bereaved is quite old. I couldn’t but wonder as I heard this dreadful tale how someone who survives such a thing and knows that there never will be (and in practice never can be) justice can ever enjoy a day’s peace. A version of that question was put to a survivor and she referred to her faith in a just and loving god.

    Atheist though I am, had I been with her I doubt it would have occurred to me at that point to note that she was uttering reactionary hokum, which flew in the face of her lived experience, particularly as I’d have had no more consoling thought for her. One can perhaps see a non-cynical reading of Voltaire and religion in circumstances such as this.

    One must try, if one can, to reconcile the interests of humanity with the interests of individual humans. Humanity has a very long timeline to learn things, but individual humans just have whatever time they have left.

  29. Tim Macknay
    March 9th, 2012 at 15:30 | #29

    Atheist though I am, had I been with her I doubt it would have occurred to me at that point to note that she was uttering reactionary hokum, which flew in the face of her lived experience, particularly as I’d have had no more consoling thought for her.

    Yes, I thought something similar when reading of a devout Catholic who had survived the Rwandan genocide, and attributed her ability to withstand the horror of it to her faith.
    Atheism doesn’t offer much comfort in the face of the evil that human beings can do.
    Strangely though, the reverse seems to be true when it comes to what theologians sometimes call “natural evil”. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated South East Asia in 2004, I recall that there was much handwringing among religious believers as to how a loving god could allow such a thing to occur. Atheists, though as affected by the human cost of the disaster as anyone else, did not have to deal with the extra theological angst.

  30. Dan
    March 9th, 2012 at 17:32 | #30

    ‘No atheists in foxholes’, as the saying goes. However plenty of religious people (including very prominent ones) have crises regarding either the nature of their beliefs or the question of whether they are appropriately applying their worldly time (ie. doing God’s will). I for one am reassured by this, a) because these people don’t claim to have God on speed-dial (which is a sign of lunacy, frankly), and b) because as an atheist who thinks every day about how I am living my life and what I am doing with it, it’s nice to think that people with a different metaphysics are thinking about similar sorts of existential issues.

  31. James Haughton
    March 20th, 2012 at 15:23 | #31

    Awesome column by Guy Rundle in yesterday’s Crikey on caffeine inspired social movements: Red Bulls, Jaeger Bombs and the essence of the present.
    “Well caffeine had already changed the world once — in the 1600s, when it was introduced to the West in significant quantities, especially via the coffee bean. It can’t be a coincidence that the arrival of this stimulant — in a culture whose staple drink was hitherto a weak ale, drunk largely to avoid diseases borne in “fresh” water — coincided with the scientific revolution, and then with the commercial revolution, in Britain. Lloyd’s, sundry banks, the South Sea Bubble, the modern newspaper, modern political clubs/parties … they were all started in the coffee houses of London, and they all bear the mark of the excessive exuberance of too much coffee — faster-than-usual thought, lateral thinking, a determination to get it done, to impose something on the world.

    Also of course, irrationality, hyper-aggressiveness and detachment from real conditions. Caffeine, above a certain level, induces a short-term mania (or “hypomania” to be technically correct about it), and it is in this spirit that high finance, and then capitalism was born, and has continued ever since. The South Sea Bubble and the subprime crisis aren’t the pathological state of finance, they are its normal. The black jolt was arguably more important to its development than any shitty little steam engine. But caffeine is habituated too quickly, individually and culturally.

    Once the coffee bean was introduced (its adoption in the Arab world coincided with their post-Mohammed scientific and cultural golden age as well), society — or sections of it — is set at a new level, a one-, two-, or three-cup level of functioning, for certain sections of society at least. The transmission is social, but also quite possibly intrauterine — for centuries we may well have been hooked on coffee before birth. Drinking cultures then adapt to maintaining a certain level of caffeination — the proverbial “endlessly stewing teapot” of England, the weak diner-style US coffee known as “joe”, or the average Italian day measured out in perfectly spaced espresso shots are all cultural adaptations to maintaining caffeination.

    As a social practice, caffeine was maintained, rather than binged, since, beyond a certain level of consumption, it becomes an anxiolytic. Caffeine “bingeing” became associated with something else — intellectual, and especially creative work. Voltaire drank up to 60 coffees a day (they were weaker, demitasses — it probably adds up to about 15 espressos). Balzac, desperately writing to forestall bankruptcy, would down an 50-odd, and, if necessary, eat the coffee grounds, to get the final hallucinatory burst of caffeine toxicity.”

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