Monday, June 12, 2017

The Food and Taste Industries in Alien Civilizations

The higher levels of organisms on the food chain in any alien planet would be expected to have some sort of sensors to help them discriminate useful food from everything else. As organisms evolve there, these sensors would evolve as well. Food discrimination includes recognizing the source, such as a tree with edible parts, the food item itself from shape, texture, hardness and other attributes, and finally chemical sensors, both for soluble and for volatile compounds, which we label as taste and aroma.

Is it possible that any alien species could gain intelligence and then advance technologically without being something of an omnivore, meaning able to digest directly photosynthetic organisms or components of them, as well as higher organisms in the food chain? Likely not. In general, the wider the variety of foods an organism can utilize, the further it can range, the more robust the species will be against famine, and the less likely it would become extinct due to a loss of a food species. After the very first steps of technology, such as fire or cutting implements, food possibilities would enlarge again. To facilitate this expansion, before and after food technology starts, requires sensors able to discriminate against toxic components of the food chain and non-nutritious ones as well. Thus it might be safe to assume that typical intelligent alien species have a variety of food items, plus would be equipped with food senses with a wide range of capability. As technology advances, this would likely not disappear, but would remain a feature of the alien species. So, barring some very unusual planetary ecology, an alien species can be assumed to develop a food industry. This means the steps of organized hunting, then intermittent agriculture, then continuous static agriculture, and then food processing procedures and labor specialties would be almost mandatory elements of any alien civilization.

The industrial grand transformation does not necessarily lead to any change in the omnivorous nature of the aliens. It is more about satisfying these physical needs in a more efficient manner, by affecting agriculture and husbandry, as well as food storage, transportation, and processing. Biological knowledge is gained, but because of the intrinsic difficulty of biology as compared to chemistry, it would not be of the same depth, and would not allow a deep understanding of the biology of food and taste. Food and taste would be explored in an experimental way, and via these means, quite a lot of knowledge gained, but not on the microbiological level. Thus, the industrial period of any alien civilization would have a food and taste industry grounded in experimental facts, with perhaps some deeper knowledge based on the physical structure of food items. By the way, Malthus would still be present in this period, meaning population would grow to match the available food supply. Until the genetic grand transformation gets going, photosynthesis would be the basis for the food supply, constituting the lowest layer of the food hierarchy, and thus land use would change in response to Malthusian pressures. The food industry would be a substantial component of any alien civilization at this stage of their development.

What might be called the taste industry would also be present. The industrial grand transformation is concerned with satisfying desires that existed since the alien species first became intelligent, and these included finding foods that passed the taste sensors’ thresholds. In other words, alien species all evolve to have taste sensors, and the neurology of that set of sensors is that aliens seek foods which have good taste, according to whatever experiences they have had since their birth or whatever reproductive system they evolve with. The point to be made is that taste satisfaction decouples from nutrition satisfaction to some degree. Food additives which change the taste, food processing techniques which change taste and texture, food labor specialties which concentrate on good tasting food all make their appearance and become widespread. This means there is an impetus within any alien society to understand taste and to learn to master it experimentally. We are saying that there will be alien chefs.

The alien civilization would continue its march forward developing technology, and when it passes through the later stages of the industrial grand transformation, where electronics and automation are prevalent, and then the beginning stages of the genetic grand transformation, where microbiology and neurology give up their secrets, food and taste will finally be understood at a fundamental level. There will be an understanding of nutrition, in particular, what are the requirements of the alien body, typically and specifically for any individual, in terms of various food compounds, both chemically and physically. The physical form of ingested items, for example fiber, may be important to alien health and well-being. The genetic understanding of how organisms grow will likewise allow them to be tailored to meet these newly understood nutritional requirements, in an industrially efficient manner. Agriculture will finally phase out, as anything needed can be created more efficiently in a controlled environment. This will increase costs, but all technology increases costs in return for an improved life. It might be questioned whether aliens will accept this phase-out, but technology is inexorable, and the questioning will eventually subside.

The taste industry will similarly undergo transformations, as understanding is further developed as to how the various aspects of taste and desirable food are formed. It is rather obvious that taste begins to be developed in the earliest period of an alien’s life, and continues to develop, especially if taste sensors change with the age of the alien. Just like with the food industry, efficient ways of creating taste substances will be developed, and would become industrial, just as food itself would.

The key transformation that happens is that the neurology of taste would be understood. This means that aliens would all understand that what they like as taste in a food is completely a natural development, including any instinctual, i.e. genetic, preferences, plus those learned during life, largely as a child. The psychological impact of this may not be initially obvious. It means that individual tastes are inconsequential, and simply the result of a random roll of the experience dice. Instead of aliens seeking out foods that most match their taste preferences, these taste preferences will seem unimportant. One way to express that is to say food together with taste will become a simple commodity, easily available, and not worth too much attention. This means the food and taste industry will implode in these later periods. The civilization will simply stop concerning itself with this aspect of life.

It is becoming clear that technology eventually undermines all aspects of evolutionary life, by providing first abundance and then understanding. It hits employment, which will decline and become an avocation rather than a necessity. It hits dining, as optimized food is simply available whenever and wherever. This would seem to create something of a vacuum in alien civilization at these later periods. Knowing what will fill this vacuum may provide a clue as to the willingness of an alien civilization to embark on some sort of space exploration to other solar systems.

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