Are Teeth Necessary? Chewing on the Food of the Future

There's been a cluster of recent articles about Soylent, the Silicon Valley open-source pap that is supposed to be the perfect fuel for knowledge-workers' ceaseless sedentary labors. "What if you never had to worry about food again?" is Soylent's slogan, and the product promises to resolve all our nagging food anxieties. Not only: what's for dinner? But also: is it good for me? Will it make me fat? Does it wreck the environment or exploit migrant farm workers?  Will it get crumbs on my keyboard, and make me look conspicuously sad and slovenly as I eat yet another meal at my desk? Soylent is a powder (either purchased from the company or DIY) that, when mixed with water and oil, forms a nutritious beige slurry - allegedly capable of providing sustenance for hours of uninterrupted, untroubled, supremely focused labor.

But in all the chatter about the resultant mephitic farts and "the end of food," I haven't heard much said about how Soylent revises the actual mechanics of eating. It is a chew-less food, and this places it in a particular tradition of techno-scientific "foods of the future." The company's name, of course, is an explicit (either ironic or ill-considered) reference to the eponymous edible in the film Soylent Green, a nutritious wafer allegedly derived from algae, but which we all know by now is people. But other, earlier science-fictional precursors to this kind of all-in-one food product are perhaps better models for Soylent's particular material ideology.  

 Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

For instance: Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. First serialized in the 1910s, Ralph gets hazed as one of the worst novels to have ever made it into print, and I suppose most people read it as a historical curiosity rather than with genuine relish. (Gernsback is the Luxembourgian immigrant credited with creating "science fiction" as a pulp magazine genre, which was initially a sideline to promote his radio-and-electrical hobbyist mail-order emporium. He's the guy the "Hugo Awards" are named for.)

 Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph, the scientist-hero of the story, is one of literature's most dogged and unflappable mansplainers. A rudimentary damsel-in-distress plot serves as the occasion for him to take his lady-love, Alice, on a guided tour of future New York. Total weather control? Sleep-learning? Solar-powered generators wirelessly transmitting energy? "Alomagnesium" roller skates (er, "tele-motor-coasters") for smooth gliding over crack-less "steelonium" sidewalks? They've got all the mod cons. Earth circa 2660 is a place where the forces of nature have been entirely subdued, and where all matter (and ether) has been organized to facilitate a particular kind of human design: maximally efficient, maximally automated, where form always follows function, and where waste of all kinds is assiduously eliminated (eg, the lossless conversion of solar to electrical energy; the time we once wasted sleeping now a time for productive learning).

Rob Rhinehart, the creator of Soylent, is but a stripling of twenty-five, yet his fixations seem to spring directly from this Progressive-era obsession with maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. The idea for Soylent occurred to him when he became frustrated by the time, labor, and expense necessary to feed himself adequately during the waning days of a failing start-up. An engineer by training, Rhinehart began to perceive food itself as inefficient, a poorly designed vehicle for the delivery of the chemical compounds that sustain life. As he puts it in Lizzie Widdicombe's fantastic New Yorker profile, "You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself... You need carbohydrates, not bread." Fruits and vegetables? Sure, they've got vitamins and minerals, but as a matter of fact they're "mostly water." And so he did research: streamlining life's necessities to a list of 35 essential vitamins and nutrients, and ordered the raw materials for his simplified, complete food off the Internet. It's got everything you need, nothing you don't.

For Rhinehart, food's inefficiencies begin at the source: agriculture. Farms, he explains, are "very inefficient factories" that require excessively strenuous and dangerous work from an impoverished underclass. Unlike slow-food advocates who prescribe a return to skilled, artisanal practices to restore dignity and meaning to farm work, Rhinehart believes that the solution is to increase mechanization and industrialization: "There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.” 

This is certainly a sentiment that Ralph would get on board with. Food in 2660 is grown in vast, machine-tended, accelerated-growth greenhouses, stimulated to rapid ripeness by artificial lights and electric currents. And when it's not grown, it's manufactured. Taking Alice on a tour of a synthetic food factory, Ralph proclaims: "Men of an inquisitive nature must have asked themselves the question for thousands of years, 'Why grow grass, let the cow eat the grass, digest it, and finally turn it into milk? Why not eliminate the cow entirely?'"  

But while I think Rhinehart would definitely be for eliminating the cow, he still concedes the social and emotional need for traditional meals, prepared with care, eaten in the company of others -- "recreational food," he calls this, arguing that Soylent actually makes these indulgences less fraught, heightens their pleasure and meaning, by taking the problem of mere sustenance off the table. Soylent provides everything you need, nothing you don't, so that when you do choose to chomp on larks and pavlovas, you needn't worry about ruining your diet. Your diet is taken care of.

In Ralph's world, on the other hand, the material consistency of food is as important as its nutritional composition. The future food in Ralph's world is exclusively chew-less. When Ralph escorts Alice to a "Scientificafé," he assures her, "I think you will prefer it to the old-fashioned masticating places." Crucially, the "scientific food" served at these restaurants is available exclusively in liquefied form. Chewing (or, as Ralph invariably puts it, "masticating") is just another inefficiency, one that technoscience has rendered no longer necessary.   

Let's accompany Ralph and Alice on their date at the Scientificafé, shall we? Before entering the dining room, they tarry in the Appetizer, "a large room, hermetically closed," where pages from humor magazines are projected on the walls. When Alice grows peckish, Ralph explains: "The air in here is invigorating, being charged with several harmless gases for the purpose of giving you an appetite before you eat -- hence its name!"

After being gassed into a proper state of hunger, they then proceed to the "main eating salon," white-and-gold luxe in international moderne style. There are no waiters, no attendants, and the room is silent save for a "muffled, far-off, murmuring music." The diners recline in leather armchairs, in front of a complicated silver board at whose side hangs a flexible tube capped by a silver nozzle, resting in disinfectant solution.

You feed through the tube. "Meat, vegetables, and other eatables, were all liquefied and were prepared with utmost skill to make them palatable." The silver board lists the day's offerings, diners push buttons to make their selections, and the food begins to flow. A red button controls the flow-rate, and other buttons and switches allow the diner to adjust the temperature, or add salt, pepper, and spices to the slurry. Between courses, the tube rinses itself out with hot water.

There's no need to labor over your meal with a knife and fork; no need to chew each bite until it can safely be swallowed. Ergo, the book's narrator concludes, "eating had become a pleasure."   

The only problem to the widespread acceptance of scientific food was getting people to overcome their repulsion at sucking their meals through tubes. "Masticating" is old-fashioned, and like all "inherited habits," difficult to shake. At first, Ralph explains, people rejected the new mode of eating, regarding it "with a suspicion similar to a twentieth century European observing a Chinaman using his chop-sticks." It seemed "unaesthetic," and  "devoid of the pleasures of the old way of eating." But once people understood the physiological benefits -- how chew-less food "did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills," how it made people "stronger and more vigorous" -- they abandoned their irrational, sentimental attachment to mastication.  

health!.jpg

For Ralph (and Gernsback), the chief virtue of "scientific foods" is not their refined flavor nor even their nutritional content, but their "digestibility." Many scientifically-minded Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered dyspepsia (indigestion) to be a genuine health crisis -- "the great American plague," to quote Henry Finck, whose 1913 book, Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Good Health and Good Living, makes the epicurean case for chew, chew, chewing food to a proper liquefaction. Chewing each mouthful - up to a hundred times - was seen as an essential component of physical and mental hygiene. In the words of health reformer Horace Fletcher, "nature will castigate those who don't masticate," a gospel that was promoted widely during this period, including at John Harvey Kellogg's famous sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. 

Historian Christina Cogdell has chronicled the obsession with "smooth flow" in the Progressive era, showing how the Progressive virtue of frictionless efficiency manifested in different cultural realms: in concerns about the dangers of constipation, in the fad for streamlined design, and in eugenic policies and politics.

 From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

Constipation was understood to be "a disease of civilization," caused by excessive consumption of excessively rich or highly flavored foods, by impurities and contaminants, and by the habit of hastily "bolting down" food rather than civil, deliberate chewing.  But the consequences of constipation were more significant than any one individual's discomfort and bloating; they undermined the very health of the polity. To Progressive reformers, a stagnant colon was at the root of both moral and physical degeneracy, causing "autointoxication" that enfeebled, enervated, and exhausted the nation's citizens. Food should flow smoothly and at a consistent rate, as though down a factory assembly line, from mouth to anus. Dyspepsia, constipation, indigestion -- all of these things made us, as a society, less productive, less fit, less suited to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of modernity.    

And though we've left Fletcherism and its gospel of mastication more or less in the past, functional foods like Soylent stage a sort of return to this dream of a food perfectly suited for frictionless productivity - a food designed for the steady satiation of needs without the distracting stimulation of appetites. By design, Soylent has no particular flavor - which Rhinehart sees as unnecessary ornament, a compromise of the compound's commitment to functionalism. (The New Yorker quotes him: “I think the best technology is the one that disappears.... Water doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor, and it’s the world’s most popular beverage.”) On a steady diet of Soylent, Lizzie Widdicombe writes:

"As Rhinehart puts it, you 'cruise' through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: 'There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.' Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings." 

Who wouldn't want this? As a lady who sometimes (often) struggles to write, who owns not one but two copies of Getting Things Done, (neither of which I've read beyond the first chapter, naturally), and who, on the regular, postpones lunch for as long as possible, because of the sluggish lull of afternoon lackadaisy that always succeeds eating - this sounds pretty excellent. Like putting on Gernsback's isolator helmet, and concentrating "with ease at the subject at hand." And yet. And yet... Latent in this, I think -- and tracing back to at least some of those Progressive reformers, whose vigorous championship of rational design and smooth flow came from the most unimpeachable motives, produced monuments of exceeding beauty, but concealed some pretty ugly collateral -- is a suspicion of eating itself. A belief that food is somehow toxic, harmful, or impure -- and that our appetites and desires betray us rather than guide us toward well-being. That life's processes should be kept distinct from life's purposes, and to delight in one degrades the other. Who hasn't felt a pang of - something, maybe regret? - when encountering yet again the oft-cited fact, that we spend a third of our lives in bed? Food is a pleasure, but only the most shameless gourmandiser might calculate the amount of time spent eating, thinking about eating, talking about eating, getting ready to eat, resisting and indulging, without somehow feeling at a loss. Well, "enjoy every sandwich."

Technology mediates all aspects of life in Ralph's world, from stimulating the desire to eat (that Appetizer room) to mechanizing the labor of chewing - once done by teeth, now done by liquefying machines. But Gernsback does not go so far as to imagine whether these new technological accommodations will result in bodily alterations, new human physiologies emerging adaptively in response to the technological reshaping of the edible world.

Other science fiction writers - HG Wells, JBS Haldane (in his exercise in speculative eschatology, "The Last Judgment," from 1927) - did take the opportunity to imagine future iterations of human beings as conspicuously toothless. In a 1893 article in The World, Wells argued that technoscience would make chewing obsolete, rendering teeth vestigial and maladaptive. He explained:

"Science gives [mankind] the knife and fork. There is no reason why it should not masticate and insalivate his food. Does it now digest it with all the pepsin compounds? Teeth will disappear....

In some of the most highly developed crustaceans, the whole alimentary canal has solidified into a useless cord, because the animal is nourished by the food in which it swims. The man of the year one million will not be bothered with servants handing him things on plates which he will chew, and swallow, and digest. He will bathe in amber liquid which will be pure food, no waste matter assimilated through the pores of the skin. The mouth will shrink to a rosebud thing; the teeth will disappear; the nose will disappear - it is not nearly as big now as it was in savage days - the ears will go away. They are already folded up from what they were, and only a little tip fast vanishing remains to show that ages ago they were long-pointed things which bent forward and backward to catch the sound of approaching enemies."

Wells imagined the man of the year one million as a toothless cranium, with huge saucer-eyes and teeny tiny limbs: 

 HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

According to Bee Wilson in her recent Consider the Fork, technologies have indeed changed our dentition, though not in the way that Wells presumed. The widespread adoption of the fork, she claims, made overbites endemic. What made teeth optional, she says, was not forks and knives but stew-pots. A stew, simmering for days, softened up all tough bits so that even the toothless could get their share of calories.

Will our species ever be able to leave this toothy period of our evolution behind? There's something tempting about imagining it. Teeth are expensive and uncomfortable to maintain, and thus a sterling status symbol: indicators not only of wealth, but of deserving wealth (because they display the fastidious rigor of our self-care, or our self-denying willingness to submit to pain and discomfort in service of straightness, conformity, regularity, and impeccable whiteness; compare with the derision reserved for grills and tooth-jewels, racialized bling that seems to signify money but not wealth). If the protestant ethic still holds (settle down, Max Weber) straight white teeth could be considered one of the hallmarks of the elect.

So keep smiling, dentists; you've got a million years or so before teeth go out of fashion.