I'm just here for the natural kinds

Tue 01 Aug 2006 04:10 PM

In his TV show Good Eats and in his books, Alton Brown explains the physics and chemistry behind various recipes: what flour does at a molecular level, how butter makes biscuits fluffy, and so on. In the introduction to his book I'm Just Here For MORE FOOD, he writes: "To my mind, the greatest analytical tool in the world is classification." Philosophers everywhere applaud. Brown continues:

For instance, I used to make a really lousy cheesecake until I realized that cheesecake is not a cake, it is a custard pie. Now I treat cheesecake like a custard pie and everything is fine...

...I have come to the conclusion that the best way (for me) to classify baked goods is by mixing method. Not only does this system make sense, it has made me a better baker. [p. 7]

Despite the caveat "for me", Brown is making a substantive claim about the natural kind structure of baked goods.

One may object that custard and biscuit, although collections of real things, are not candidates to be natural kinds. I can think of two reasons that one might say this:

First, they are artificial and (one might say) not natural. This seems wrongheaded to me. There are various chemical elements that had to be synthesized. Nevertheless, Rutherfordium is as much a natural kind as Lithium. In chemistry, every element is a natural kind-- whether it is synthetic or not.

Second, physics does not distinguish custards from biscuits as such. Of course they differ in viscosity and compressibility, but (one might say) science does not acknowledge custard and biscuit as kinds. This too is wrongheaded. We cannot suppose that, because a kind is not acknowledged by one science, that it is ipso facto unscientific. Physics makes no distinction between cats and dogs, but biology does. Neither physics nor biology distinguish custards and biscuits, but another science might. One may object that home economics is not a science, but this would beg the question. Cooking, as Alton Brown practices it, is an applied science.

This last point is important. I have come to think that calling something a 'natural kind' is at best elliptical. A natural kind is only a 'natural kind' for some science or other. A science is individuated by its domain of enquiry, the questions it asks, and so on. So cat is a natural kind for biology and not for physics. Biscuit is not a natural kind for either biology or physics, but it may be a natural kind for cooking. (If physics has a claim to being more fundamental than other sciences, it is because its natural kinds are also natural kinds for many other sciences.)

So far, I have just argued that biscuit could be a natural kind. Is it? In marginal note, Brown acknowledges that his taxonomy is not standard:

I realize the accepted method of classification-- the one used in more cookbooks-- is nomenclature-based: pancakes, biscuits, rolls, and so on. I don't think this is any more a "system" than sorting books by color. Names just don't mean that much.
I'd put his point this way: The usual taxonomy is haphazard and unscientific. It doesn't get the natural kinds right. In order to decide whether Brown has got the right taxonomy or not, I would have to consider how it sorts specific recipes, consider alternatives, and bake more.

Cristyn and I made griddle scones this morning, which count as biscuit method in Brown's scheme. One data point. More research is required. (Mmm... research...) I simply want to point out that, if Brown's taxonomy is the right one, then it has identified the natural kind structure of baked goods relative to the questions and aims of cooking.

Ask about the transmission and change of baking practice, however, and the histories of various recipes become important. So anthropologists, with their questions and aims, divide baked goods into different natural kinds. Physicists, biologists, nutritionists, economists, and all the rest, each with different questions and aims, would put the griddle cakes that we made this morning into different kinds. None of the shows that biscuit method baked good is not a legitimate natural kind.

Why does it matter whether cooking has natural kinds? To quote Brown: "Classifying things leads to enlightenment, and enlightenment to deeper meaning."