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In Louisiana, the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth this week coincides with new attempts to question the theory of evolution. A state law passed last year gave new protections to teachers who want to raise doubts about the theory. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on the latest flashpoint in the battle over evolution in American schools.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Louisiana once mandated the teaching of both creationism and evolution side-by-side. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that practice in 1987. Now, the state is taking another bite at the apple. A law passed last year protects teachers who engage in what is known as critical thinking about all controversial science: about climate change, cloning and, of course, evolution.
Mr. DANNY PENNINGTON (Assistant Principal, Good Hope Middle School): You want kids to just blindly believe anything and everything they're told without questioning it? Or should they question everything?
ABRAMSON: Danny Pennington does his questioning from the windowless office he occupies as assistant principal at Good Hope Middle School in West Monroe, in northern Louisiana. He says he is following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who dared to question conventional thinking. Pennington is a wiry man, a very intense person who looks you in the eye and calls you by name.
Mr. PENNINGTON: There's nothing scientific about faking stuff, Larry. And you were exposed to the same thing when you were a kid.
ABRAMSON: As an administrator, Pennington doesn't get to teach evolution anymore. But he stands ready to supply teachers with the additional materials that the new law promises they can use, like his PowerPoint presentation.
Mr. PENNINGTON: And we define evolution and what a species is - that's very important. Because two different species cannot successfully interbreed.
ABRAMSON: The first part of the presentation explains evolution in pretty straightforward terms. But things heat up when we move to part two - dealing with what Pennington calls the flaws in the theory of evolution. He gestures dismissively at drawings made by the 19th century German scientist Ernst Haeckel.
Mr. PENNINGTON: And there's the Haeckel's thing, which was overwhelming evidence for evolution, and it was completely faked.
ABRAMSON: These drawings were once used to show that a developing human embryo recapitulates its evolution, developing from a little fish to a mammal and then to a human. Pennington still gets angry when he recalls seeing it in textbooks as a student.
Mr. PENNINGTON: So if your faith was placed in stuff that was faked, what's that telling you?
ABRAMSON: Most scientists see these drawings merely as momentary misinterpretations, not as deliberate fakes. But for Pennington, this is evidence of outright fraud.
Mr. PENNINGTON: I believe it's wrong to lie to kids, Larry. That's what I believe. It ticks me off, Larry, that I was lied to. It ticks me off that I was lying to kids. And you better not lie to my kid.
ABRAMSON: Are you saying that evolution didn't happen at all?
Mr. PENNINGTON: I'm saying that there is evidence against evolution. There are weaknesses with the theory, okay? That's what I'm saying. 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 into more complex things - that's still out there, okay?
ABRAMSON: Pennington's PowerPoint is infamous among supporters of evolution here. They talk about it as though it were some secret text that could foment revolution. Yet, the whole time Pennington and I talked, he never brought up God or creation. He reminded me it's illegal to teach religion in a 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. That may be why Darwin defenders are so worried.
Ms. PATSY PEEBLES (National Association of Biology Teachers Board): We didn't need somebody to tell us to introduce critical thinking into the classroom because we already teach critical thinking.
ABRAMSON: Patsy Peebles of Baton Rouge has taught biology for more than two decades. And she is on the board of the National Association of Biology Teachers.
Ms. PEEBLES: Anything that comes in and teaches that which is not science both takes away time from teaching the legitimate science - and heaven knows, there is so much biology to teach these days that we can't afford to lose time on frivolous things.
ABRAMSON: Peebles says in this part of the country, it's not uncommon to meet kids who feel a conflict between science and faith.
Ms. PEEBLES: I even had one come up to me after the test, and she passed the test, of course, because she learned what she had to learn. And she said, well, I still don't believe in it. And I said, that's fine, I never asked you to believe. I said, what I want you to do is to understand the evidence for evolution, and understand why scientists have shown this to be the way that they think life developed on Earth.
(Soundbite of students)
ABRAMSON: There's no proof that anyone is spreading anti-evolutionary views at schools like West Monroe High School, where Danny Pennington used to teach biology. But if the kids waiting in line at the cafeteria care to question the theory of evolution, they can count on a sympathetic ear from the head of the science department, Blair David.
Mr. BLAIR DAVID (West Monroe High School Science Department Head): In science, we question everything. Science strives to disprove everything.
ABRAMSON: Blair 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.
Mr. DAVID: The religious part is a completely separate thing. Faith is a completely separate issue. I mean, it would be cool if you could connect the two, you know. But at this point, you just can't do that.
ABRAMSON: Blair David says he tells the students to keep their minds open just in case faith and science do come together.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.