The drab stupidity of Soylent

By Greg Stevens on August 12th, 2013

Enda Crowley: Why I’m giving up food for a month

I once heard a truck driver call in to a talk radio show to explain his theory that global warming is caused by a decay in the Earth’s orbit. The planet is gradually falling into the sun, which is why things are getting hotter, he said. This man was too uneducated about physics, cosmology, and climate science to realise how comically ill-informed he sounded. This, I’m afraid, is what Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart sounds like to me, in articles and interviews in which he advocates and defends his food-replacement product.

The fantasy of the pill, the drink, or the bland gray wafer that will completely satisfy human nutritional needs is not new. It is a cliche that has been around at least since 1950s pulp science fiction, and probably much longer. Which begs the question: with over a half-century of great minds “dreaming the dream” of a one-size-fits-all solution to human nutritional needs, how can it be that nobody has happened upon the solution until Rob Rhinehart came along?

Because it’s a crock. I won’t rehash all the individual charges that have been levelled against Soylent. Many of them have been nonsensical, and Rhinehart has rightly pushed back against them. For example, claiming that Soylent must be bad simply because it doesn’t grow in the ground is mysticism, plain and simple, while claiming that Soylent must be bad just because “we don’t fully understand it yet” is simply fear of progress.

Both of these arguments deserve to be debunked, as Rhinehart has done.

Rhinehart might not realise it, but he is a classic symptom of a generation and, even, a cultural movement within the United States that appears to believe you don’t actually need to know facts: all you need to do is be creative and enthusiastic.

But there are problems with the Soylent concept that he dismisses with a wave of the hand that are much more serious than he seems willing to recognise. For example, human bodies and metabolisms are extremely individualised, based not only on well-known broad demographic categories (sex, age, body fat level, activity level) but also on millions of individual factors ranging from genetic dispositions to the specific types of activity a person engages in during the day.

Metabolic needs are also dynamic, and change over time based on factors ranging from the season to how much sleep a person got the previous night. So there literally is no such thing as “the perfect mix of vitamins, minerals and nutrients” for all human beings. A mix that is optimized for a 20-something inactive underweight male could quite easily kill a 60-year-old woman or a 30-year-old athlete.

Rhinehart has tested this formulation on himself, and says he “feels fine”. He is, however, in many ways the worst possible test case for a nutritional supplement. I mean, the guy is 24 years old.

When I was in college, I had a room-mate who lived on nothing but pizza, mac and cheese and marijuana for a year. Aside from being thin, pale, and subject to periodic, inexplicable bouts of coughing, he “felt fine”, too. Twenty-somethings can do that, because at that age, unless you are a competitive athlete, you can do all kinds of screwed up things to your body and the damage will not become visible until much later. It’s the resilience of youth.

Rhinehart seems to dismiss this criticism as requiring “tweaks” to his formula, suggesting that perhaps he could have different formulations for men and women, or for young people and old people. But this is where Rhinehart’s lack of education in nutrition and physiology shows: this is not a small problem with the concept of a universal food substitute. This is the problem with the entire notion of one.

Nutritional needs are not universal, and they don’t even break down neatly into demographic groups. They are highly personal, and they change over time. Dietary habits that endure for years of a person’s life, not just months, have to be adjusted and personalised every step of the way. Your nutritional needs during summer break aren’t the same as your nutritional needs during finals week at college, and they surely aren’t the same as the nutritional needs of your teenaged cousin or your grandmother.

What’s worse is that all of this is well known by nutritionists, had Rhinehart bothered to ask. It’s been known for decades, in fact, which is why the collective imaginative power of the greatest scientific minds of our time haven’t “discovered” the simple solution that Rhinehart thinks he came up with tinkering around as an amateur one night.

In his article, “Defense of New Food”, Rhinehart spends a great deal of time complaining about “arguments from authority” and “ad hominem” attacks. He says that it shouldn’t matter that he’s an engineer, because he reads Wikipedia and textbooks on his own time, and that should be good enough.

Well. While appeals to authority can be misleading in both science and debate, the converse – “I don’t need no education to have a bright idea” – is equally toxic. It is a symptom of insidious, insipid anti-intellectualism. Rhinehart might not realise it, but he is a classic symptom of a generation and, even, a cultural movement within the United States that appears to believe you don’t actually need to know facts: all you need to do is be creative and enthusiastic.

It is the American dream re-envisioned for the new millennium. You don’t need to bother studying. You don’t need to spend years studying the decades of in-depth serious research that has come before. Read a couple of Wikipedia articles, have a clever idea, and you can win the world.

Unfortunately, such idealism doesn’t survive contact with reality. As much as you whine and dismiss people who argument by making an “appeal to authority”, you should be warned against dismissing the time, sweat and skill that it takes to become an authority on a subject like nutrition or medicine. Because there is a good chance that the people who have advanced degrees might actually know something that you do not.

Moreover, any time you think you have found a solution to a decades-long problem that you have not studied very deeply, and you are amazed that the rest of the world just happens to have missed it, guess what: the most likely explanation is that they “missed” your brilliant answer because it is dangerous, deluded or just plain wrong.