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Louisiana Law Protects Evolution Skeptics In Class
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Louisiana Law Protects Evolution Skeptics In Class

Education

Louisiana Law Protects Evolution Skeptics In Class

Louisiana Law Protects Evolution Skeptics In Class
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Danny Pennington shows his PowerPoint presentation. i

Danny Pennington, an assistant principal in West Monroe, La., has developed a PowerPoint presentation that questions the theory of evolution. Louisiana educators now have state backing to consult such outside materials. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Danny Pennington shows his PowerPoint presentation.

Danny Pennington, an assistant principal in West Monroe, La., has developed a PowerPoint presentation that questions the theory of evolution. Louisiana educators now have state backing to consult such outside materials.

Larry Abramson/NPR

More On Teaching Evolution

Biology teacher Patsy Peebles poses with the latest issue of 'The American Biology Teacher.' i

Patsy Peebles displays the latest issue of The American Biology Teacher, which deals with Darwin. A longtime biology teacher herself, she's a staunch Darwin defender. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Biology teacher Patsy Peebles poses with the latest issue of 'The American Biology Teacher.'

Patsy Peebles displays the latest issue of The American Biology Teacher, which deals with Darwin. A longtime biology teacher herself, she's a staunch Darwin defender.

Larry Abramson/NPR

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, new attempts to question the theory of evolution have sprung up in Louisiana.

The state once mandated that creationism and evolution be taught side by side, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that practice in 1987. Last year, state legislators passed a law that protects teachers who want to raise doubts — what they call "critical thinking" — about all controversial science, including climate change, cloning and evolution.

Danny Pennington, an assistant principal at Good Hope Middle School in West Monroe, La., is one of those who questions evolution. He says he's following in the footsteps of Darwin, who dared to challenge conventional thinking.

As an administrator, he doesn't get to teach evolution anymore. But Pennington, a wiry and intense man, stands ready to supply teachers with the additional materials that the new law promises they can use — like his PowerPoint presentation.

'It's Wrong To Lie To Kids'

Pennington clicks through an illustrated program that he has been working on for years. At first, Pennington explains evolution in fairly straightforward terms. But he gets more heated when he reaches Part Two, which deals with what he calls "flaws" in the theory. He gestures dismissively at drawings made by 19th-century German scientist Ernst Haeckel.

"And there's the Haeckel's thing, which was overwhelming evidence for evolution," Pennington says. "And it was completely faked."

Haeckel's drawings were once used to show that a developing human embryo recapitulates its evolution, developing from a little fish to a mammal, then to a human.

Pennington still gets angry when he recalls seeing it in textbooks as a student.

"So if your faith was placed in stuff that was faked, what's that telling you?" he asks.

Most scientists see these drawings merely as momentary misinterpretations, not as deliberate fakes. But for Pennington, this is evidence of outright fraud.

Still, when asked whether he believes in evolution or in creationism, Pennington stops and says: "I believe it's wrong to lie to kids. ... That's what I believe. It ticks me off ... that I was lied to. It ticks me off that I was lying to kids, and you better not lie to my kid!"

'Weaknesses With The Theory'

Pennington says he thinks there is evidence against evolution.

"There are weaknesses with the theory, OK?" he says. "Evolution occurs within species, there's no doubt about that, as far as breeding guinea pigs, and that sort of thing. But as far as evolving more complex things? That's still out there, OK?"

In other words, species can improve through selective breeding, he says, but Pennington does not believe that one species — like apes — can turn into another — like man.

Pennington's PowerPoint is infamous among supporters of evolution in Louisiana. They talk about it as though it were some secret text that could foment revolution. Yet Pennington doesn't bring up God or creation. And that's partly because it's illegal to teach religion in the classroom.

He and others appear confident that they can use the idea of "critical thinking" to poke holes in the theory of evolution, without bringing God into the equation.

The Darwin Defenders

That may be why Darwin defenders like Patsy Peebles are so worried.

Peebles, a biology teacher for more than two decades, is on the board of the National Association of Biology Teachers. Like many of the people involved in this issue, Peebles likes to be surrounded by images from the natural world. At her home in Baton Rouge, she has coasters featuring bird drawings and ceramic birds on her piano.

Peebles resents the idea that people like Pennington are depicted as defenders of "critical thinking."

"We didn't need someone to tell us to introduce critical thinking into the classroom because we already teach critical thinking," she says.

Peebles says she doesn't mind a bit when students raise questions about evolution in class. But she's convinced the new law will shift the focus away from how evolution works to discussing whether evolution is valid.

Peebles says that in this part of the country, it's not uncommon to meet kids who feel a conflict between science and faith.

"I even had one [student] come up to me after the test, and she passed the test, of course, because she learned what she had to learn," Peebles says. "And she said, 'I still don't believe in it.' I said, 'That's fine, I never asked you to believe.' I said, 'What I want you to do is understand the evidence for evolution and understand why scientists have shown this to be the way they think life developed on Earth.'"

'We Question Everything'

There's no proof that anyone is spreading anti-evolutionary views at schools such as West Monroe High School, where Pennington used to teach biology.

But if the kids there care to question the theory of evolution, they can count on a sympathetic ear from Blair David, the head of the science department, who insists that "critical thinking" is essential to good science.

"In science, we question everything," David says. "Science strives to disprove everything."

David is cagey about just how far he plans to push his questioning. But he likes to talk, and after a while, the cat pokes its head out of the bag.

"The religious part is a completely separate thing; faith is a completely separate issue," David says. "I mean, it would be cool if you could connect the two. But at this point, you just can't do that."

David says he tells his students to keep their minds open, in case faith and science do come together.

Marisa Penaloza produced this story for broadcast.

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