Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Yeast and Its Discontents

When yeast consume sugar molecules, they break them up in a step-by-step process. At every step, the sugar molecule comes apart a little bit more and lets out a little more energy. Every step of the way, complex proteins surround the sugar molecule and make sure that its energy goes to a good use: affixing phosphate ions onto adenosine diphosphate molecules to create the ever important life-fueling elixir that is ATP. At first, the yeast can break the sugar molecules apart using its own machinery and a little bit of ATP to start the process. Eventually, the yeast needs oxygen from the environment to break the pieces down any further. When there is no oxygen, the little bits of sugar molecules are left behind. At this stage, the sugar has been broken down into ethanol, which is the kind of alcohol that you and I definitely do not put copious amounts of into our bodies to make them temporarily lose proper function at SU balls. If oxygen is available, the ethanol keeps being broken down into carbon dioxide (CO2). 

Scientists often speak of “byproducts,” of chemical “side reactions” and biological “waste,” and yet the concept is ill defined. What constitutes a byproduct? To the biologist who is studying the yeast molecule, CO2 and ethanol are byproducts of a reaction meant to create sweet, sweet ATP and a lack of oxygen is a hindrance to the natural processes of the yeast. To the brewer, however, yeast is a friendly tool which turns sugar into alcohol, as long as you keep it away from too much of that dangerous and pesky oxygen. To the baker some oxygen is necessary, but only so that the yeast can produce the CO2 needed for their bread to rise and achieve the perfect texture.

Built into the concept of a “byproduct” is the concept of intent. Science is littered with the detritus of intent. To scientists, intent is a poison, or perhaps an infection, whose seepage into their work they are constantly trying to prevent, yet greatly failing at. To us, however, intent will later become a useful tool as we further investigate byproducts. To envision byproducts within a cell, we have to cast intent onto it. This intent serves as a sort of directionality from which we can orient our distinction of byproduct versus intended product. To identify the byproduct of some specific chemical reaction, we have to identify a “final trajectory” of whatever chemical process it is part of. We have to situate the reaction within its previous and subsequent reactions to understand what the total movement is. When we study yeast breaking a sugar molecule into pieces, producing ethanol and ATP, we need to understand where that ethanol is going to go to determine whether it’s going to be a product or a byproduct. If the cell ejects it from its cell membrane and we don’t see that ejection otherwise benefit the cell, then we call ethanol waste and it’s a byproduct. If instead, the cell goes on and processes the alcohol to produce more ATP, then it’s an intended product of the reaction.

We can only decide between byproduct and intended product in this case because we read an intentionality into the cell’s behavior. But — and this is the central problem of intent in science — that intent is entirely manufactured by us as onlookers. The biologist sees the yeast cell’s intentionality as towards survival and eventually reproduction. By asking whether a molecule is going to be used again to further the cell’s intention, by looking at the direction the alcohol goes after it’s produced, we can designate it as a byproduct or not. The baker and the brewer see this problem differently. They don’t look for the yeast’s intention, but for their own. While the biologist asks, “What is the yeast doing?” and implies in their search “for its survival and reproduction,” the baker and the brewer ask “What could this yeast be doing for me?” This not only changes their understanding of yeast, it in turn changes how they treat yeast. The brewer will seal it off from oxygen so it produces more alcohol, and the baker will let it breathe so it can produce more CO2. They will maintain the yeast’s temperature, how much nutrients it gets, whether it has to compete with foreign bacteria, to get what they want out of the yeast. By changing how we understand the byproducts of a process, we change how we interact with it.

If it isn’t clear by now, I didn’t actually come to tell you about yeast. Byproducts don’t just exist within biology, they exist everywhere. Tracking human intentions and goals has been an obsession since antiquity. Aristotle’s concept of “the Good” intended to capture what it is that we humans strive for. Aristotle argued that every person who works has an intention that they work for. The toolsmith makes tools so that the carpenter can make a desk. The carpenter makes a desk so that the actuary can use it to write and keep accounts, and so on and so forth. If you were to follow the intentions of all people, if you were to see where they all conclude, according to Aristotle, the sum total of their purposes is the Good. The Good is our collective social intention. It informs our society’s conscience.

Let us suppose that our societal intention is to raise the standard of living for all the peoples of the world. From this perspective, our society is full of unwanted and counterproductive byproducts. Racism, poverty, patriarchy, and so on are nasty vestiges and inefficiencies which — if our societal intent is the amelioration of the human condition — must be eradicated. As it unfolds in our modern day, the wellbeing and comfort of a wealthy, white, and male few begets suffering for countless individuals. This system is inefficient at achieving its intent, and makes little effort to reduce its byproducts. If we were to try and change this system while seeing our societal intention as raising the standard of living, we might not want to lower the standard of living for the people already succeeding in it. We might try to slowly reform the world around us, bit by bit making it better while at the same time preserving what we have so far because, hey, it’s working for some people, right?

If instead, we assume that all of this suffering is in fact the intent of our society, the world begins to appear specially and expertly evolved for its project of injustice. The excess of few, the concentration of wealth, serves to concentrate the material tools for instability and revolution into the one group who benefits from the social intent for injustice. The illogic of workerism and the American dream, the simulations of the Good Life lived out by actors and plastered across magazines, the repeated reinvention of slavery, the institutionalization and systematization of prejudice and neglect: all of these are no longer persistent accidents, but the natural evolution of a society trending towards stability. Of a society with an intent towards suffering.

To choose what intent we identify within our society and economy, we must understand how assuming that intent affects our understanding and our treatment of that society. We must ask what kind of changes that understanding serves. When we give our economy the benefit of the doubt, we encourage projects of reform which leave intact the current “successes” of neoliberalism: the wealthy beneficiaries of its global violence. When we confer upon our economy an intent of oppression, we can no longer accept its genocidal outcomes. We encourage a revolutionary project towards abolition of structures of violence and overturning of our social direction. Establishing the intents of our society — or trying to exterminate intents from our analysis of it — is not some neutral and inconsequential orientation of our subjectivity, but forms the basis and direction for a project of social understanding.

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