Last week I attended a book launch (picture of author J. P. Floru here), and after the formal proceedings had been concluded, I meandered into a conversation involving the ASI’s Sam Bowman, about something called “Soylent”. Until then, Soylent to me only meant that Charlton Heston movie about food made of people. Sam and his pals were talking about something rather different, but the subject changed to something else and that night I learned very little out what this twenty first century version of Soylent is, beyond the fact that Sam Bowman was excited about it. Later, however, Sam sent me an email about it that got me chasing the story a bit.
Soylent is food, sort of, but not made of people. Basically, what the Soylent guy, whose name is Rob Rhinehart, says he did was … well, let him explain it, in the piece he wrote a month into the experiment that he performed on himself:
I hypothesized that the body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains. So, I resolved to embark on an experiment. What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier or do we need all the other stuff that’s in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet? I just want to be in good health and spend as little time and money on food as possible.
I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days, and it’s changed my life.
So how did this make him feel?
I feel like the six million dollar man.
If Rob Rhinehart, or anybody else who thinks as Rob Rhinehart is now thinking, ever got a job in government that involved him or her telling other people what to consume, then I would join what I hope would be a loud chorus of hatred and derision. But given that Rhinehart is experimenting on (a) himself, and now also on (b) other consenting Californians, I am a tentatively enthusiastic admirer of what he says he is doing, only tentative because my enthusiasm is subject to all the obvious caveats and hesitations about it all later turning out to be fraudulent nonsense.
But assuming all this to be for real, a particular point that Rhinehart makes is that the human body is resilient, in the sense that it can survive without quite a few “essential nutrients”, which would thus seem to be not quite as essential as that word implies. Even if the Soylent that Rhinehart has so far arrived at misses out on some supposedly essential nutrients, it didn’t kill him, despite worries that others expressed:
Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I’m touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I’m no longer just surviving, though. I’m thriving.
It sounds like a really interesting operation, both from the scientific point of view and as a potential money spinner. Nutrition that is as cheap as truly nutritional nutrition is capable of being, and as unheavy and unvoluminous as nutrition can be, has obvious applications, both in reducing the money spent by poor people feeding themselves healthily, and reducing the payloads consumed in the process of feeding such people as astronauts or submariners. Obviously, to start with, it will only be rich Californians giving this stuff a go, but everything has to start somewhere.
This whole story, and in particular that word “Soylent”, still has me and I am sure many others thinking: internet hoax. When I started reading Rhinehart’s stuff, I did a quick check to see if we had yet reached April 1st. But if all this is a hoax, quite a few people seem to have fallen for it, at any rate as far as I have, by writing about it.
But, if it is not an internet hoax, this would appear to be a classic case of suck-it-and-see (in this case literally that) technology-stroke-science, of just the sort I was writing about in this earlier posting here about where science (and art) come from. It really is very striking how very much, in this enterprise, the advance of science and the potential making of a mega-mountain of money would appear – touch wood – to be advancing hand in hand. At the very least, Rob Rhinehart is going to learn about why food, as opposed merely to Soylent, is, after all, necessary for human flourishing. But, if it isn’t, and if Soylent 4.2 (or whatever) will actually suffice … Rhinehart could be on his way to making a hell of a lot more than six million dollars.
Another nice titbit of news about all this is that Rhinehart would appear, judging from his use of the word “regulation” in the second sentence of this, to be some kind of free marketeer, libertarian type, although maybe I am reading too much into one word there.
I think Rhinehart ought to change that name though. His “Soylent” is not made of people, only for them. Nor does it contain any Soya.
Details. Another way of saying all of the above is: if this really is only a hoax, it is an extraordinarily interesting and inventive one, and some other Californian should be persuaded to try this on himself for real.
I await developments.