March 19, 2019

Cake or biscuit? Why Jaffa Cakes excite philosophers

pithaIt’s a delicious structure consisting of a small sponge with a chocolate cap covering a veneer of orange jelly. It is arguably Britain’s greatest invention after the steam engine and the light bulb. But is a Jaffa Cake actually a biscuit, asks David Edmonds.
This question reheats a confectionery conundrum first raised in 1991. A tax is charged on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on cakes. The manufacturer, McVities, had always categorised them as cakes and to boost their revenue the tax authorities wanted them recategorised as biscuits.
A legal case was fought in front of a brilliant adjudicator, Mr D C Potter. For McVities, this produced a sweet result. The Jaffa Cake has both cake-like qualities and biscuit-like qualities, but Mr Potter’s verdict was that, on balance, a Jaffa Cake is a cake.
He examined a dozen possible criteria. There was, for example, the name. They are called Jaffa Cakes, not Jaffa Biscuits. This, Mr Potter concluded, was a trifling consideration, though he noted that Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit than cake in several ways. They are packaged like biscuits, and they are marketed like biscuits: they are usually found in the biscuit aisle in shops.
On the other hand, they have fundamental cake-esque qualities. Thus, they have ingredients of a traditional sponge cake: eggs, flour and sugar. And when Jaffa Cakes go stale they become hard, unlike biscuits, which become soft.
Does size matter? Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit-sized than cake-sized. Linked to this, cakes are often eaten with a fork, while biscuits tend to be held in the hand. To test the significance of size, I asked the winner of The Great British Bake Off 2013, Frances Quinn, to bake the most ginormous Jaffa Cake the world has ever seen – the size of a flying saucer, at 124cm in diameter, weighing in at 50kg, and containing 120 eggs and 30 litres of jelly.
Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, does not believe that this XXXXXXXXXXXL Jaffa Cake is any more cake-like than its normal-sized Jaffa Cake sibling. “These days you see all sorts of tiny cakes for sale, some of them much smaller than Jaffa Cakes,” he says. “And there’s nothing incoherent about a giant biscuit.”
There is no record of the 20th Century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ever tasting a Jaffa Cake, though there is evidence that he was partial towards a bun. But his ideas are relevant to the Jaffa Cake puzzle.
We are tempted to think that every concept must have a strict definition to be useable. But Wittgenstein pointed out that there are many “family-resemblance” concepts, as he called them. Family members can look alike without sharing a single characteristic. Some might have distinctive cheek bones, others a prominent nose, etc. Equally, some concepts can operate with overlapping similarities. Take the concept of “game”. Some games involve a ball, some don’t. Some involve teams, some don’t. Some are competitive, some are not. There is no characteristic that all games have in common.
And there is no strict definition of “cake” or “biscuit” that compels us to place the Jaffa Cake under either category.
“Do you know what an Umiak is?” Tim Crane asks? “No? Well, it’s a flat-bottomed Inuit canoe. So have I told you something about the word, or have I told you something about the world? Well, I think you’ve learned something about both.” And if it’s true to say, “a Jaffa Cake is a cake” (or “a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit”) then that also tells us something about the world, i.e. about the properties of a Jaffa Cake, as well as about the meaning of the word “cake”.
But could Jaffa Cakes be neither cakes nor biscuits – and instead something in between?
It may be interesting to compare Jaffa Cakes with people here, even though they differ in several ways – most Jaffa Cakes have no opinion about how they should be identified, for example, and most humans are not topped by a thin but scrumptious layer of chocolate.
Until recently, people have not been free to choose their gender, and have been restricted to being described as either male or female.
More and more discoveries in science are undermining this binary mapping. It used to be thought that men were defined by their having a Y chromosome. Now we know that whether an embryo develops as a male depends upon a single gene: the SRY gene. It’s possible for a person with XY chromosomes to have the appearance of a woman if they are lacking this gene. Similarly, a person with XX chromosomes can have the appearance of a male if they carry this gene.
There are many genes at play when it comes to the male versus female development. Genetics, hormones, chromosomes can all combine to complicate a complicated picture. As a result, says Dr Helen O’Neill, a geneticist at University College London, “I think we should revise our definitions of male and female, there are many gradations in between”. In fact, for some purposes, she thinks we should get rid of the male-female distinction, for example on passports. After all, she says, we are all homo sapiens.

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