Steven Pinker: ‘We don’t throw virgins into volcanoes any more’

Oliver Burkeman at CNN:

ScreenHunter_545 Mar. 08 17.09At first glance Pinker's implacable optimism, though in keeping with his sunny demeanour and stereotypically Canadian friendliness, presents a puzzle. His stellar career — which includes two Pulitzer Prize nominations for his books How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature (2002) — has been defined, above all, by support for the fraught notion of human nature: the contention that genetic predispositions account in hugely significant ways for how we think, feel and act, why we behave towards others as we do, and why we excel in certain areas rather than others.

This has frequently drawn Pinker into controversy — as in 2005, when he offered a defense of Larry Summers, then Harvard's President, who had suggested that the under-representation of women in science and maths careers might be down to innate sex differences.

“The possibility that men and women might differ for reasons other than socialization, expectations, hidden biases and barriers is very close to an absolute taboo,” Pinker tells me. He faults books such as Lean In, by Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, for not entertaining the notion that men and women might not have “identical life desires.” But he also insists that taking the possibility of such differences seriously need not lend any justification to policies or prejudices that exclude women from positions of expertise or power.

More here.