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If an alien race had teeth that, like our, don't grow back, would they have toothbrushes and would they be even vaguely recognizable to us?

Their civilization wouldn't seem totally foreign to us but when does something like a toothbrush come up because it is the best or most likely solution to a problem and when are we just so used to our human way of doing things that we have a hard time picturing doing things differently.

Physiology: Humanoid with hands and opposable thumbs, similar lifespans

Technology: On par or ahead of us, most materials are of similar abundance as there are on Earth

Society: They maintain reasonable standards of hygiene, they have dentists (among other physicians). They need their teeth to eat and are susceptible to the same forms of decay as ours (or many other animals).

Diet: They are omnivorous, there's not as big of an abundance of food as there is here so if it's edible, it'll be on a plate somewhere. Lots of root vegetables, some meat and other things that don't really fall into either category.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have two fundamental clarifications I'd like to see: How much sugar is in their diet and if so, has sugar been in their diet long enough for them to evolve a mechanism for dealing with the inevitable tooth decay? $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 7 '17 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ Humans used to not need toothbrushes till sugar appeared. After sugar entered the diet as a regular addition, brushing your teeth was essential. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 7 '17 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Green Hmm, I wasn't aware of that (I mean I knew we didn't always have toothbrushes), but I didn't realise it played such an important role in their development. Are naturally occuring 'sweet' foods sugray enough or are we talking refined? $\endgroup$ – Samwise Jul 7 '17 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ More consideration should be given to extraterrestrial dentistry. There are only two science-fiction novels that take into account alien dental issues. Piers Anthony's Prostho Plus and Brian Stableford's The Paradox of the Sets. Something everybody wants to know. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 7 '17 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ Tooth decay did not begin with refined sugar; we have archaeological evidence of neolithic age pre-humans 250,000 years ago (heidelbergensis) having abscesses that had to be extremely painful, and flint cutting scratches on jawbone from apparent surgery to remove teeth, with years of healing evident. A scratch on the enamel from a hard seed or accidentally biting a bit of rock (something we still do today), or just gum disease from plaque, can open the tooth to bacteria and decay. 3000 years ago Chinese cleaned their teeth with "chew sticks" to prevent cavities. Long before sugar. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 7 '17 at 20:45
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My rational guess is, the aliens would not brush their teeth.

There are several alternatives to "brushing teeth", including wiping them, scraping, hard rinsing (sometimes with a disinfectant or antibiotic), flossing and picking (e.g. using a toothpick).

Also for rinsing, frequent alcohol consumption can improve dental health; and that used to be extremely common amongst everybody (children included) when weak ale was consumed instead of water (water, contaminated by waste and refuse, made people sick: Weak ale, with about 1/4 the alcohol of modern beer, sterilized most of the bacteria, making it safer to drink: And better for the teeth.

Many of the things we do, we do out of cultural inheritance; brushing is likely one of those: We didn't brush for 99% of the last 50,000 years (when we suspect modern rational brains first appeared). (See here for the invention of the toothbrush in China, 1498).

We only began our current extreme hygiene and anti-smell rigor relatively recently; just a few centuries ago the idea that somebody had bad breath or bad body odor was seldom noticed: Everybody stank all the time! People bathed infrequently, and often not at all; they often wore perfumes and excess clothing to cover up their stink.

It is entirely possible for aliens the idea of sticking a tool in their mouth, like a toothbrush, spoon or fork, repellent: We have seen similar reactions in human culture. Although the Chinese did invent the first toothbrush; notice that the Chinese eating implements do not get as deep in the mouth as spoons and forks: chopsticks barely make it past the teeth, they are intended to just bring food to the mouth, not shove it in. The Chinese version of a spoon does not enter the mouth, either: it is more of a small bowl with a handle; it also only brings the food to the mouth, but the tool does not enter the mouth. It is plausible an alien race, even looking like us, could be repelled by the idea of putting anything but food into their mouths.

Toothbrushes only offer a slight mechanical advantage in cleaning the teeth and are not very thorough at all; it is why we are still encouraged to floss, and on top of that, need periodic cleaning to remove plaques. My point here is that brushing is obviously not the pinnacle in tooth cleaning, it is not the ideal approach, or the most efficient, or the most thorough.

I imagine there are dozens of other ways to partially clean teeth, to the same extent or better, to prevent cavities or disease. A disinfectant/antibiotic rinse (like with alcohol, spit out), combined with tooth picks and/or flossing for the stuck bits, seems the most obvious for teeth like we have. With dozens of alternative methods that can be just as successful, it seems unlikely we humans and the aliens would both arrive at the same flawed idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly the kinds of things I was wondering about, whether they'd be using toothbrushes or something totally different to keep their teeth in good condition $\endgroup$ – Samwise Jul 7 '17 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ Long ago (40 years) a friend of mine traveled on American business deep into Communist China; he had an "escort" (male) provided to him by the Chinese government; also his translator. At their first meal stop; his escort asked him: "Can you use chopsticks, or will you require a shovel?" Just to give an idea of how the Chinese used to view our eating implements... $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 7 '17 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ Minor possible addition - another alternative for dental hygiene is having another creature clean your teeth for you - that's the preferred method in the "Farscape" series, but there are real life examples for some animals e.g. Cleaner Shrimp, and Cleaner Wrasse $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Jul 9 '17 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ @G0BLiN Also my preferred solution! My other creature is named Sandy, and every six months she cleans my teeth... $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 9 '17 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Also one could imagine that aliens, even with teeth like ours, have mates that clean each other's teeth or a regular basis. In childhood this is done by their parents, and in their culture one aspect of becoming an adult, besides having sexual relations, is mutual teeth cleaning. Perhaps also learning many other forms of intimate hygiene, like ear cleaning, bathing, scalp or back inspection, pedicures and manicures, anything that may be difficult to do alone. Their culture doesn't just have sex education, but years of education on dozens of aspects of keeping your mate clean and healthy. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 9 '17 at 14:39
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As Green pointed out, we didn't need toothbrushes until sugar was added to our diet. It should come as no surprise that we have evolved to have teeth that are sufficient to withstand the rigors of living as a human being in our natural environment. It is only as we bent our environment to our wills that we began eating in a way that demanded tooth brushing.

However, you point out that the aliens have dentists. While we did have doctors who worked on teeth in the past, the dentist as you and I think of them today operates primarily to prevent decay due to our diet and to manage damage when decay occurs. Their presence in their society suggests that they should also have to brush their teeth.

Probably floss too.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1, but we have doctors who treat broken bones, even now when environment is even less likely to break our legs than the one we evolved to. So i disagree with this point. Dentists fix broken teeth, jaw bone decay etc $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 7 '17 at 7:35
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If they have a diet that induces tooth decay, yes

For humans, we need toothbrushes because our diet includes foods that induce tooth decay. Refined sugars are an especially strong tooth rotter. Dentistry as we know it today exists largely to stave off the effects of our diet.

If these aliens eat something that rots their teeth, they will need something to remove whatever makes their teeth rot.

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Baring some sort of technology or medical science that would make manually cleaning teeth (or equivalent) obsolete, I sure aliens would have a number of specialized tools for cleaning themselves. But as for a toothbrush itself, it really depends on the anatomy of the alien in question. Asking that is like asking if aliens would use toilet paper or not.
The true question is do you want aliens to use toothbrushes in your story?
In the novel "Prostho Plus" by Piers Anthony, a human dentist is abducted in order to give aid to a race of aliens who communicate by chewing on soft sticks with specialized teeth and reading the brail-like markings. After being sold to a couple of Space Whales, he treats the numerous cavities of their massive child, whose diet is mostly sweets, by working inside of the being's mouth.

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