WASHINGTON - A sharp debate between scientists and religious conservatives escalated yesterday over comments by President Bush that the theory of intelligent design should be taught with evolution in the nation's public schools.
In an interview at the White House on Monday with a group of Texas newspaper reporters, Bush appeared to endorse the push by many conservative Christians to give intelligent design equal treatment with evolution in public schools.
Bush was pressed on whether he accepted the view that intelligent design was an alternative to evolution. "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," he said. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
Yesterday, the president's conservative Christian supporters and the leading institute advancing intelligent design embraced Bush's comments, while scientists and advocates of the separation of church and state disparaged them.
At the White House, Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, sought to play down the president's remarks.
Marburger said in a phone interview that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." He also said that Bush's remarks should be interpreted to mean that the president believes that intelligent design should be discussed as part of the "social context" in science classes.
Intelligent design, advanced by a group of academics and intellectuals and some biblical creationists, disputes the idea that natural selection fully explains the complexity of life. Instead, intelligent design proponents say that life is so intricate that only a powerful guiding force, or intelligent designer, could have created it.
Bush's conservative supporters said that the president's comments support giving the two theories equal treatment in the classroom.
"It's what I've been pushing; it's what a lot of us have been pushing," said Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberties commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Land said that evolution "is too often taught as fact," and that "if you're going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists."
But critics saw Bush's comment that "both sides" should be taught as troubling. "It sounds like you're being fair, but creationism is a sectarian religious viewpoint, and intelligent design is a sectarian religious viewpoint," said Susan Spath, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Science Education. "It's not fair to privilege one religious viewpoint by calling it the other side of evolution."