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Alien Scientist: Naked Lunchtime

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: September 2004, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

In Luis Bunuel's surreal film Le Fantome de la Liberte, a party of dinner guests sits round a table, each person busily seated on a lavatory, while discussing with unselfconscious civility matters of the toilet. From time to time a guest excuses himself or herself, and exits to a small private room in which a portion of food is procured and furtively eaten, before the person, satisfied and once more self-composed, returns to rejoin society.

In human terms, the film's inversion of normal attitudes to ingestion and expulsion can be interpreted as a satire on cultural taboos, although in biochemical terms the exchange of gases, liquids and solids between organism and environment is quite a neutral, natural phenomenon. Indeed the nature of this exchange of matter is one of the distinguishing characteristics between the alive and unalive: what is considered biological versus what is merely chemical.

The modern human, of course, often appears to transcend biology, inhabiting a world which is to a large extent a human construction - whether of a social or technological nature. That is, a large proportion of our conscious existence is concerned with things that are independent of our organic provenance. Our world of nations, laws, architecture, banknotes, inventions, conventions, computer files and mobile phone conversations is all constructed of inorganic objects and social transactions, flows of code and logic, organisational structures and relationships. For a large proportion of our conscious existence, we could live as if we were sentient robots - interacting with our environment mainly through human-calibrated communications and protocols. Our minds soar free, unconscious of our organic infrastructure. But then, sooner or later, the animal within kicks in, and we have to go eat. While 'lunchtime' may be a human construct, lunch itself - a periodic consumption of food - is definitely a biological need of our species.

So, although lunchtime has traditionally been part of civilised human society, it could be taboo in the society of some other species. Perhaps humans might some day find themselves trying to fit into some cosmopolitan alien civilisation where any biological function is considered taboo. In such kind of polite extraterrestrial society, asking to be excused to attend to one end of the digestive tract would be as vulgar as the other. The human delegation at a galactic convention would be slightly embarrassed about the need to break off from the others every now and then for our periodic fix of ancestral functions.

This means that while a gathering of intergalactic intelligence might be a meeting of minds, it would not necessarily be a chance to sample a smorgasbord of cosmic cuisine. And multi-species mealtimes might be off the agenda for chemical as well as cultural reasons. What we eat is to a large extent conditioned by our biological provenance: most things that taste good evolved with us. Although we drink H2O and sprinkle sodium chloride on our chips, most human food is Earth-centric and (in the most general sense) 'organic'. From a universal perspective, we have a decidedly home-grown diet.

(Indeed it could be a perilously parochial one, if we were faced with survival in a purely inorganic extraterrestrial environment. That said, inter-species incompatibility of diets might at least spare us being cooked and eaten by the natives of any alien worlds we stumbled upon.)

From a universal perspective, our whole food chain is pretty much self-contained. All life is one related unit; all animals, plants, fungi and bacteria are part of the same menu. All creatures and plants live off each other - some even live inside the digestive tracts of others. What is waste for one is a good meal for another. To an outside observer, this might all seem a bit incestuous.

Indeed, there are human taboos about what we should and shouldn't eat. We don't normally eat pets or pests - though what species fit these labels varies from culture to culture - one is too close to home, the other barely recognised as food in the first place. Creatures in between are fair game.

That said, from the point of view of all life on Earth, all animals as well as plants are rather close relatives. Even fruit and vegetables are family. From an alien perspective, a human eating a fruit yoghurt with its mixture of mammalian discharge, dead vegetable matter and living bacteria might seem an unseemly cultural cocktail bordering on cannibalism. This is the uncomfortable kind of 'naked lunch moment' - a surreal prospect for any dinner party - in which you realise you are eating your relatives.

<< Moving from Japan | Master Index | Science News: September 2004 >>

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