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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Apr 2, 2023

Twenty-one years ago, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature was published. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Blank Slate firmly established Pinker as one of the major public intellectuals in 21st-century America; it followed earlier works more narrowly focused on his discipline of psycholinguistics, The Language InstinctWords and Rules and How the Mind Works. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss stated in a 2003 review that The Blank Slate “may be the most important book so far published in the 21st century.” Still Pinker’s third most cited publication after The Language Instinct and How the Mind WorksThe Blank Slate shaped a generation of scholars and public intellectuals and influenced 21st-century public discourse to take a more scientifically informed view of both human nature’s biological basis and the inborn psychological traits that undergird the organization of society.

On this episode of Unsupervised Learning, Razib talks to Pinker about where we are today vis-a-vis the book's three major themes:

  • The blank slate or tabula rasa view of the mind as having no innate traits

  • The noble savage view of human nature where society corrupts individuals

  • The ghost in the machine, particularly as repurposed today in service of gender ideology

More than two decades after The Blank Slate debuted, the cultural status of these three touchstones has shifted; the blank slate, noble savage and ghost in the machine are all ascendant concepts. In the blank slate, social and individual outcomes are seen purely as pure products of systemic environmental forces. The idea of the noble savage, that humans are born naturally good, and only the corrupting influence of problematic institutions turns them into selfish and exclusionary people, has made a massive comeback as social justice culture attempts to perfect individuals into paragons of equity and inclusion. And though the ghost in the machine in the form of a supernatural soul is falling out of fashion, it has been replaced with the concept of deep-seated identities like gender being present innately at birth (or even in utero), entirely divorced from our material self. 

Despite extraordinary advances in genome-wide association analysis and the application of cutting-edge computational biological techniques to understand how the brain and behavior work at the scale of DNA, much of American society remains wedded to the blank slate, and indeed widely applied policies have taken the implications of the assumption still further than a generation ago. Pinker points out that arguments for cultural variation driving group differences are now taboo, on top of the earlier wariness around exploring any genetic basis of these differences. Not only has the blank slate come back with force, it is more expansive than ever, rejecting even innate differences between the sexes. Razib addresses the decoupling of sex from gender and the reemergence of a ghost in the machine theory. Though traditional ideas of souls have faded, new concepts relating identity to a non-material sense of self have emerged. Pinker and Razib also discuss the collapse of organized religion, the rise of secularism in American culture and the attendant implications for how we view human nature and the good society. Finally, Razib argues that racial and cultural identitarianism often forward theories clearly rooted in the idea of a noble savage: that non-European peoples were corrupted by contact with Europeans.