Watching a bread dough grow is a wonder. Or at least it is to me, a dedicated baker and consummate geek. I never fail to be startled when I peer into a cloth-covered bowl and find a completely inflated sponge, bubbly and rarin’ to go. Just two hours prior it was a lifeless paste of water and flour. What could be cooler?
Moments like this make one understand how the ancients (and a few not-so-ancients) came to believe that leavening was a miracle. Certainly no one had any concept of the tiny creatures we call microbes until the age of Pasteur. Europeans in the Middle Ages simply called fementation “goddisgoode”. Whenever I think of that I imagine two Medieval dirt farmers staring drunkenly into mugs of beer a the local mead hall. One says to the other: I wonder how this happens? The other shrugs and says: Hey, God is good!
The more “scientific” types of the age looked at fermenting beer or rising dough and chalked it up to the theory of spontaneous generation, the idea that living things could arise from non-living matter. The ancient Greeks employed it to explain how frogs could appear out of mud, beetles out of dung, moths out of wool, that sort of thing. They called it abiogenesis and founded a science upon it, whereby they created all kinds of crazy recipes for lower forms of life. A notable one called for dirty underclothes and several handfuls of hay. Stuffed into a covered crock the mixture was thought to yield mice in 21 days.
Even though recipes like that were discredited for the most part by the time of the Enlightenment, the general notion of abiogenesis held, at least when it came to explaining the growth of worms, insect larvae and microbial behavior. It took Louis Pasteur to finally disprove the theory, which he did with his famous boiled-broth-in-a-vacuum experiments in 1859.
Or should I say almost disprove. One of the great ironies of science is that the theory of evolution ultimately relies on abiogenesis to explain how life began on Earth. Life wasn’t always here, after all. It had to happen somehow, from some combination of non-living compounds. This is one of Creationism’s great “gotcha” moments, and ya gotta love those, since they teach us that science, great as it is, still doesn’t have an answer for everything. It certainly doesn’t capture full majesty of rising bread, at least not for me.