Slate's Analysis: The Theory of Intelligent Design

Alex Chadwick talks with Slate's Will Saletan about the current public debate over the Earth's beginnings. Saletan believes that the logical underpinnings of the "intelligent design" theory demonstrate that the idea of creationism is evolving.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

As we just mentioned, the Kansas Board of Education is currently debating whether to teach intelligent design theory as an alternative to evolution. This topic is right up Will Saletan's alley. He writes for Slate about the nexus between science and politics and joins us now to offer his analysis of this debate.

Will, you're writing in Slate today, and I quote, "It's the creationists in Kansas who are evolving, and it's the evolutionists who can't see it." What do you mean by that?

WILL SALETAN (Slate): Well, I think that we need to study the history of creationism the way that you'd study the history of humanity, the way that an evolutionist would. You know, you'd go back into the historical record. And what you see is that creationism has evolved. There was sort of an authoritarian phase of creationism. That was the Scopes monkey trial. That was when, you know, they were suppressing even the right to teach evolution. Then evolution sort of gradually got the upper hand to the point where there was a pluralist phase of creationism. They would say, `Please, please, just don't tell the kids that there can't have been the literal biblical account of creation,' but it was still a literal biblical account.

Now I think we are entering a genuinely scientific phase of creationism that explicitly abandons biblical literalism; that says, you know, the Earth is not 6,000 years old, didn't have to have been done in six days, that it actually took a very long time. And they're just trying to preserve a little space in the theory for God.

CHADWICK: Isn't there a tension in all this between belief and method? That is, intelligent design advocates believe there was a universal designer, and scientists, on the other hand, use the scientific method to come up with theories about reality. How are these two approaches meshing here?

SALETAN: Well, you know, this is what I think is the fundamental mistake of people who call themselves liberal and call themselves scientists. Science is not a set of beliefs, OK? Liberalism should not be a set of beliefs. Liberals should believe in a liberal education and questioning assumptions. And scientists should believe in questioning those assumptions through the scientific method.

If you have a group of people, the creationists, who are abandoning literalism, abandoning the authority of a biblical text and saying, `OK, we will subject every proposition to the ultimate scientific test, to hypothesis testing, to falsification,' you have won the game. You have brought them over to what--the real liberal scientific method. And so I think that is what liberals and scientists need to accept about what's going on in Kansas.

CHADWICK: So many scientists have refused to participate in these Kansas hearings. You've been keeping an eye on the process. Has anything surprising happened there?

SALETAN: Yeah. To me, the most amazing thing, Alex, is they had 23 witnesses who testified for the intelligent design, so-called creationist side. And these people were very different from the group that challenged the Kansas standards six years ago in 1999. In 1999, it was the creationists, the old-fashioned, you know, `Earth is 6,000 years old, was created in six days' people who ran the show. The people who testified, the so-called expert witnesses, on the creationist side this time--only two of these people were so-called young Earth supporters. The rest of them seem to accept that the Earth is four and a half billion years old. And once you accept that, you are on the slippery slope to reality.

CHADWICK: To reality. Well, is this where this debate is going in the future?

SALETAN: Yeah, I think it definitely is. You know, the intelligent design people are basically gambling that they can accept evolutionist Earth science, that the Earth is four and a half billion years old, but not accept Darwinism, evolutionist life science. I don't think they can get away with that. They already accept that there is microevolution, that there is natural selection and adaptation. They've accepted conventional fossil dating. And most important, as I said, they've accepted the idea that every hypothesis has to be falsifiable. And if it's falsified, whether or not it's in the Bible, it goes out the window. Once you accept those things, you're on the way to accepting the principle of evolution.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Will Saletan. He writes the Human Nature column for Slate.

Thank you, Will.

SALETAN: Thank you, Alex.

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