Summer 2007

Philosopher Warrior

Niall Shanks and his dogs
Niall Shanks is at home with, from the left, The Lummocks,
Gnasher and Brutus.

Niall Shanks, WSU Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, is no coward when it comes to intellectual warfare. In fact, he’s downright fierce.

Shanks, whose research interests focus on evolutionary biology and its implications for medical theory and practice, forcefully defends science and science education against what he calls “pseudo-scientific attack.”

An example, he says, is the drive of intelligent design proponents to have the theory become a curriculum alternative to teaching the theory of evolution.

That, he says, would be a huge mistake: “The theory of evolution is essentially the glue that cements all the disparate branches of biological inquiry together. It’s what takes specialized disciplines and gives them an overall coherence at the level of theory. If somebody says, ‘Why study evolution?’ the answer is that you can’t know biology without it.”

He felt so strongly about this topic that he authored God, the Devil and Darwin (Oxford University Press, 2004), in which he argues that intelligent design is “old creationist wine in new designer label bottles” and that it stands as a threat to “scientific and democratic values that are our cultural and intellectual inheritance from the Enlightenment.”

He adds, “The intelligent design movement has packaged itself in very clever, misleading clothes. I think that anyone who really cares about science and science education has to be willing to combat vigorously attacks on the integrity of science and science education. We don’t do that very well in this country. Writing something that can reach a broad, educated audience was something I felt was worth doing.”

A native of Chester, England, Shanks earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Leeds, his master’s degree at the University of Liverpool and, in 1987, his PhD at the University of Alberta. His discipline, the philosophy of science, involves a broad range of concerns, including the history and evolution of scientific concepts and how science explains natural phenomena and predicts natural occurrences. “I am interested in conceptual issues in science,” he says, adding that he’s now “particularly interested in theoretical issues raised by modern immunology.”

He explains, “Our current understanding of immunology is deeply rooted in our understanding of the application of Darwinian principles to the operation of the immune system. I’m interested in getting very clear on exactly how those Darwinian principles apply to a phenomenon called adaptive immunity, where you see evolution taking place in the immune system in a matter of weeks.”

A supporter of stem cell research, Shanks calls it a “national disgrace” that the Bush White House isn’t supportive of cutting-edge biomedical research. The economic results of our nation’s stepping away from the forefront of science, he relates, are as potentially devastating as the intellectual ones. “We’ll end up paying to import the technologies back when yields are seen,” he says. “It’s not going to come cheaply when we have to buy it back because we failed to pursue those lines of inquiry.”

He points out that one key place to emphasize the importance of new scientific research is in the science classroom. “Stem cell research, new technologies, development of new drugs, all of this requires an educated workforce,” he says. “You need science education and a scientifically literate workforce for the health of the economy.”

In the meantime, Shanks continues to fight the battle for better understanding of our world through scientific inquiry – one lecture, one book, one research project at a time.


Philosopher Warrior

Niall Shanks is the Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Wichita State University.