Wednesday, January 11, 2012

¨Alcohol¨ or the spirit of wine. In the words of Thomas Henry Huxley

Woodburytype print of Huxley (1880 or earlier)
Image from

Well, I´ve never thought about it, but I´ve found this paper or short book on line ¨Yeast¨ and was captivated by the explanations, the mystic part of it. Who was Thomas H. Huxley?
¨(4 May 1825 – 29 June 1895) was an English biologist, known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Huxley's famous 1860 debate with Samuel Wilberforce was a key moment in the wider acceptance of evolution, and in his own career.(...)
Huxley coined the term 'agnostic¨ to describe his own views on theology, a term whose use has continued to the present day.

Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the difference between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves there is a God, whereas an atheist disbelieves in God.

Here, an excerpt from ¨Yeast¨ by Thomas Henry Huxley:

¨I spoke of the produce of fermentation as "spirit of wine." Now what a very curious phrase that is, if you come to think of it. The old alchemists talked of the finest essence of anything as if it had the same sort of relation to the thing itself as a man's spirit is supposed to have to his body; and so they spoke of this fine essence of the fermented liquid as being the spirit of the liquid. Thus came about that extraordinary ambiguity of language, in virtue of which you apply precisely the same substantive name to the soul of man and to a glass of gin! And then there is still yet one other most curious piece of nomenclature connected with this matter, and that is the word "alcohol" itself, which is now so familiar to everybody. Alcohol originally meant a very fine powder. The women of the Arabs and other Eastern people are in the habit of tinging their eyelashes with a very fine black powder which is made of antimony, and they call that "kohol;" and the "al" is simply the article put in front of it, so as to say "the kohol." And up to the 17th century in this country the word alcohol was employed to signify any very fine powder; you find it in Robert Boyle's works that he uses "alcohol" for a very fine subtle powder. But then this name of anything very fine and very subtle came to be specially connected with the fine and subtle spirit obtained from the fermentation of sugar; and I believe that the first person who fairly fixed it as the proper name of what we now commonly call spirits of wine, was the great French chemist Lavoisier, so comparatively recent is the use of the word alcohol in this specialised sense.´
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