Man Cannot Live on Soylent Alone
Rob Rhinehart has created a beverage that is “nutritionally complete”: in other words, if you want to, the only substance you will ever have to consume—for the rest of your life—is “Soylent,” his chalky-colored liquid concoction. In his Atlantic piece “The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete,” Roc Morin interviewed Rhinehart, and asked him about the genesis and motivation of the Soylent project. The interview revealed some interesting insights into Rhinehart’s understanding of the “natural,” and his rather Hobbesian understanding of the created world. He told Morin:
Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.
His line about the “natural state of man” can’t help but call to mind Thomas Hobbes’ similar definition: that in the state of nature, man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to Rhinehart’s point of view, food is a basic and practical function that we employ to stay alive. The natural hearkens back to a time of frightening aggression in the created order, and technology is supposed to save us from this natural order of things.
But what of those who believe that “natural” is better? That biting into a fresh, ripe tomato is, in fact, the best thing you can do for both your body and soul? Rhinehart argues that our understanding of such things is skewed by cultural and social precedent. In actuality, he argues, plants are not our friends:
I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.
This point of view negates two important viewpoints: first, the perspective of Christians and other religious people who believe in an intelligent and ordered creation. Second, it undermines the perspective of biologists who believe that nature has evolved to work in conjunction as well as in competition. Food commentator Michael Pollan argues that our social traditions regarding food aren’t bad—in fact, they have historically kept us healthy: before the days of nutrition experts and diet websites, “We relied on culture, which is another way of saying: on the accumulated wisdom of the tribe … All of us carry around rules of thumb about eating that have been passed down in our families or plucked from the cultural conversation.” Additionally, Pollan argued in a 2007 article that evolution has created a symbiotic system between plants, animals, and people—and that we should think of food consumption as a “relationship”:
Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant.
In other words, the evolution of plant, animal, and human life has created interlocking compatibility—a system that helps keep our world, and ourselves, healthy. What Rhinehart is actually arguing for, Pollan makes clear, is “nutritionism”:
In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.
But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’s famous injunction to “let food be thy medicine” is ritually invoked to support this notion. I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy.
Even Rhinehart can’t cast aside these food benefits entirely. In his interview, he tells Morin that he’s looking forward to a time when “people make food just because it’s beautiful—like gardening, or painting. I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.”
It’s interesting: Rhinehart can deny any sort of natural dependency that we have on food. But he can’t deny our aesthetic dependency on it: the way our souls starve for its color, texture, and diverse assortment of tastes. He only confirms the fact that our souls hunger and thirst in a way that can’t be quenched with Soylent. Why? Why is it that we can’t “evolve” past our love of food?
Perhaps we could. Perhaps, with time, we could learn to love the milky nourishment of Soylent, and wean ourselves off of solid substances. But honestly, I know very few who would want to undergo this sort of evolution. In our hearts and souls, we love the beauty of the fruits of the earth. And, in this sense—regardless of Rhinehart’s claims—natural food is truly good for us.