Refined or natural?

DJJ's site navigation page


Her Majesty's Government, through the various health agencies, exhorts us to "eat five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables every day".

On a Heinz baked beans tin it now says

       1 FRUIT & VEG
       portion per 1/2 can

This got me thinking about the relationship between refined and natural products, and on the presentation and marketing of these two attributes over the years.

It also prompted me to think about the difference between refined and natural knowledge and on the place the education system has in producing people with knowledge that is of use to the community.

Natural products

On a bottle of Ginkgo Biloba tablets it says

       No added sugar, colours, or flavourings.
       No added salt, no corn, wheat, or dairy
       No preservatives
       Yeast free

So it appears that this product is aimed at the market of people who think that natural is better, intrinsically, than refined. However, if we look at the ingredients, it says (inter alia)

      Bulking agents: dicalcium phosphate, microcrystalline cellulose
      {active ingredients}
      Glazing agent: shellac.

Both the Heinz baked beans and the Ginkgo Biloba have been processed and refined, and yet they are trying to appeal to the modern trend in the marketplace that excessive processing and refinement is intrinsically bad, especially when applied to items destined to be ingested by humans.

The advice of HM Government is clearly slanted towards getting people to eat fresh products, naturally grown and harvested, and not processed. The marketplace seems also to be of this general inclination. But the product manufacturers find "value added" in the processing stages that happen on the way from field to table.

Therefore we find these strange dichotomies in labelling and advertising, where people are claiming naturalness for products that are clearly anything but.

Refinement in technology

We don't, on the other hand, value naturalness in a telephone, or video camera, or motor car.

Refinement in education

Much of education consists of taking raw human motivations and intelligence, and repeatedly and continually honing and refining them so that they are put to a service of use to the individual involved and to wider society. So far, there has not been a movement for the reduction of refinement in the educational process. Is natural intelligence to be preferred over refined ability? Do we lose the art of creativity if there are too many easy-to-emulate role models? If a Physicist has to spend thirty-five years learning what others have done in his discipline, before getting to the point where he can add to it, has he lost his originality of thought?

Complexity and refinement.

The study of "complex systems" involves many disciplines with the common aim of making sense of emergent properties that occur when simpler component parts are allowed to interact. In a sense, the science of complexity is closely allied to the study of successive refinements of raw inputs. In many cases, the route to a given technology, which was taken historically, is blocked to the newer generations, who would not attempt to "do things that way".

This also applies to educational activities. With the advent of paper and ink, no-one needed slates. With the advent of the typewriter, no-one needed to cultivate elegant and legible handwriting. With the advent of the calculator and the spell-checker, arithmetic and language skills have become downgraded. In their place we now need to be able to learn new software packages with ease and speed, and to be comfortable almost immediately with new defined functions for the hardware which is unleashed on us monthly by the manufacturers.

In short, the advantage now lies with the person who is well-adapted to continual change. His or her character is undergoing continual refinement; the very idea of a "fixed and immutable character" has taken a beating. Likewise in abeyance is the idea that historical precedent may be taken as a sound template on which to base future activity.

Intelligent design, or emergent complexity?

Whilst it is certain that some things on the planet are the product of what is popularly called "intelligent design", the majority of complex and refined structures are natural. The scalloping of the river beds in underground waterways in Canada may look as if a modern artist has been let loose in the cave system, but there is no doubt at all that it is the end result of many years of erosion by water flow.

Funnily enough, the thrust of modern engineering is to create artifacts which have less and less intervention by "human intelligent designers", and more intervention by computer programmes and the careful application of emergent processes. It is the job of the modern-day scientist to apply what we know now about Darwinian evolution, to the creation and refinement of man-made artifacts.

One could argue that a computer, or a table, or a city, is the direct product of the emergence of life on the planet Earth, and therefore every bit as much a product of biological natural selection as is, for example, a tree or a sheep.

The future of scientific endeavour.

Taking a look at where the technological and scientific revolution of the last 200 years has brought us, many of the "drivers" of technological development are now much less strong than they used to be. We recall that it was in 1846 that Elias Howe took out the first patent on a successful sewing machine invention - before that, constructing clothing had been a labour-intensive and tedious task. In the early 1900s the Sydney newspapers ran a competition for the suggestion of inventions that would most "benefit mankind" and amongst these was the idea of springs, attached to the boots, that would facilitate personal transport. We now have solved many of the problems which provided economic and motivational incentives to the scientific process: indeed, most people cannot make use of the technology that we have invented.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that young people are turning away from the pursuit of science as a career option, becoming more concerned with entertainment and human interaction, rather than making their name by fulfilling perceived technological needs. Also, as society ages (in the demographic sense) the imperative to invent new and interesting technologically based products is diminishing.

We might therefore hazard the statement that "technology contains within itself, the seeds of its own decline" and, that like all other biological systems, after a period of strong growth will level off and come to some kind of balance or equilibrium, or else enter successive cycles of growth and decay.

Copyright © D.Jefferies 2003.

D.Jefferies email
17th October 2003.