Pinker goes on to suggest that we'll probably never really know exactly what part genetics plays in the differences between races and genders - "it's a taboo field of academic research" - but he has been prepared to accept that the claim that men and women's talents - and, by extension, those of different races - overlap but are not identical is quantifiably defensible. "Those who argue this is nothing more than racism or sexism are guilty of statistical illiteracy," he says. "Besides which, just because someone may have a genetic predisposition towards doing a particular thing, it doesn't follow they will automatically do it." Pinker himself is a case in point. While most scientists would accept that humans are genetically programmed to reproduce, Pinker has steadfastly resisted the temptation.
This could well be just a reflection of the relatively low status he gives parents in child development. "The idea that children are passive repositories to be shaped by their parents has been massively overstated," he says. "A child's peer group is a far greater determinant of its development and achievements than parental aspiration." Large parts of government social policy, too, are governed by the principle that parents are central to child development. So what does he suggest government should do instead? "It's a tough one," he admits. "But I think it would be better off looking at how cultural change is effected within society."
His views on parenting don't make him an easy person to interview. The standard practice is to try and draw together various threads from childhood to present a coherent portrait of how a life and ideas have been shaped. Yet all that goes out of the window with Pinker if you want to play by his rules. So what sort of him would be talking to me now if he hadn't had Jewish parents and hadn't been born in Montreal in the 1950s? "You mean if I'd been kidnapped at birth and placed with a working-class family somewhere completely different?" he laughs. "There are a lot of variables, but there's a better than average probability I would have been doing something in much the same scientific and intellectual fields."
Like most kids, Pinker had no real idea of what he wanted to do. "I used to like reading," he offers. "We had a set of encyclopaedias and I must have got through about 90% of them." So he was a bit of a nerd? "Yes. Wait, I mean a bit. I did have friends and I did subscribe to Rolling Stone." He was also a bit of a hippy on the sly - still is, you suspect, as he keeps his hair unfashionably long - and when the time came to go to college, he signed up for the year-old Dawson's College in Montreal. "It promised interdisciplinary courses and alternative styles of learning. I'm glad I went, but I came to realise there was something to be said for more traditional learning.....
Pinker certainly shows no signs of abandoning his successful formula of mixing the counter-intuitive with good science. He had sleepless nights before the publication of The Blank Slate - "I knew I was going to get vilified for it in some quarters" - and he'd do well to get in a good supply of sleeping pills before his next book comes out - on how the world is now a far safer place, with fewer wars, genocides and homicides than at any time in its history. But is there a chance his controversy will become the norm and that he'll end up as a national institution just as his old sparring partner once was? "I like ice hockey," he laughs. "No one is ever going to ask me to write about that as a metaphor for life. It's just a bunch of people beating the shit out of each other chasing the puck." Sounds like as good a metaphor as any to me."