Fanning the Controversy Over 'Intelligent Design'

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GERALD HERBERT / AP

Bush departs for his Texas ranch Tuesday

A light-hearted White House conversation with representatives of Texas newspapers may have opened a new controversy for President George W. Bush. The President laughed when Knight-Ridder’s Ron Hutcheson asked for Mr. Bush’s "personal views" about the theory of "intelligent design", which religious activists advocate should be taught in U.S. schools as an alternative to theories of evolution. After joking that the reporter was "doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past," to his days as governor of Texas, Bush said: "Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught...”

“Both sides ought to be properly taught?” asked Hutcheson.

“Yes,” Bush answered, “so people can understand what the debate is about."

Hutcheson followed up: "So the answer accepts the validity of ‘intelligent design' as an alternative to evolution?" Bush replied, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting — you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Hutcheson tried one more time: “So we've got to give these groups—” But the president cut him off: “Very interesting question, Hutch,” which provoked laughter.

Despite the jocular tone of the exchange, Bush’s comments could have immense fallout. The president has gone farther in questioning the widely-taught theories of evolution and natural selection than any president since Ronald Reagan, who advocated teaching creationism in public schools alongside evolution. “Intelligent design” is not pure creationism. Its proponents tend not to believe, for instance, the Biblical claim that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old. But they do suggest that the complex array of species on Earth could not have evolved on the basis of natural selection, and instead suggest the it reflects the hand of a hidden designer, most likely God — although some have suggested maybe aliens are a possibility.

Either way, they've found a powerful champion in the President of the United States who has gone beyond advocating local control to say that school children "ought to be exposed" to a theory that critics describe as being tantamount to religion.