Prominent defender of evolution joins Wichita State University staff

Niall Shanks known for debate skills on topic

? At East Tennessee State University, Niall Shanks became a prominent defender of evolution, writing a book opposing intelligent design and debating several of its proponents.

Now the man who wrote the 2004 book “God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory” has moved from the state that put the teaching of evolution on trial 80 years ago to Kansas, which currently is in the midst of its own debate about how evolution should be taught in public schools.

Shanks recently took a job at Wichita State University, filling an endowed professorship that focuses on the history and philosophy of evolution.

Shanks first began debating the merits of evolution in 1996, when Tennessee considered allowing school boards to fire teachers who presented evolution as fact. Shanks debated Duane Gish of the El Cajon, Calif.-based Institute for Creation Research, on the university’s campus.

It wasn’t the first time evolution had been an issue in that state’s public schools. During the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating a law against teaching evolution.

“Most scientists hide in the corner, but he was willing to take on the creationists,” Jeff Gold, chairman of East Tennessee State’s philosophy department, said of Shanks. “He always did so really, really well.”

But Michael J. Behe, a biochemistry professor and proponent of intelligent design, which holds that the some features of the natural world are so ordered and complex that they’re best explained by an intelligent cause, is critical of some of Shanks’ tactics. Behe, author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” has debated Shanks.

“His book does have some ill-advised comments that do portray us as proponents with an agenda, rather than people trying to make sense of the world, as he is,” Behe said.

Another intelligent design proponent Shanks has debated is less critical.

Paul Nelson, a philosopher and fellow of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, recalled that the pair went out for beers after debating on National Public Radio’s “Justice Talking.”

“A little bit of the rhetoric is off-putting since it distracts from the arguments,” Nelson said. “He takes a number of pokes at Christianity in particular. But when I met him, I began to understand his sense of humor. I like how blunt he is. He says what he thinks. I found that admirable.”

While Shanks disagrees with intelligent design advocates, he does take them seriously. Some of its defenders testified before members of the State Board of Education earlier this year, advocating for changes to science standards that would expose students to more criticism of evolution. But mainstream scientists boycotted the hearings as rigged against evolution, which Shanks says was “a huge, stupid mistake.”

“Not debating people is a very dangerous tactic,” he said. “Then they go unchallenged.”