America’s Rejection Of Evolution Reflected In Miss U.S.A. Pageant

Update: @JoshRoseneau has a very good followup (July) at @SciAm: http://is.gd/AN1HHh

In 1925, Tennessee prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools (The Butler Act). John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was convicted of violating the law, and his trial highlighted the divide between “science” and fundamentalist (literalist) religion. (It was the first live radio broadcast from a trial.)

Flash forward to 2011: only one contestant in the 2011 Miss U.S.A. pageant (out of 51) said that she believed in evolution (“I’m a big science geek”) when asked if evolution should be taught in schools. That was Miss California, Alyssa Campanella, and she was crowned the winner on Sunday (but she didn’t answer the question explicitly). Runner-up, Miss Tennessee, Ashley Elizabeth Durham, on evolution: “that’s not my belief” although she said evolution should be taught in schools.

gallup poll evolutionIt is almost a full century after Scopes and 202 years after Darwin’s birth, yet evolution remains controversial in the U.S. To most Americans, evolution is a merely a theory that should be given equal time with Christian dogma (thank you, President Bush) despite overwhelmingly scientific evidence that “life has existed for billions of years and has changed over time.”

Four contestants stated flatly that they did not believe in evolution (Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee) and three (Alabama, Indiana and Kentucky) do not think evolution should be taught in schools. Most (23) said that evolution should be taught alongside other views, with the most mentioned “other” being creationism. By voicing this preference, contestants seemingly fail to understand the difference between science and philosophy, just like most Americans (and former President Bush). However, their answers reflect mainstream America:

[P]olling finds that a solid majority of Americans over the past 20 years has supported the teaching of both evolution and creationist accounts of the origins of life. A June 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 68% of the public favored teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools. A more recent Pew Research poll conducted in July 2006 found that a 58% majority held that view.

At a time when there is a national push for enhanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in America, the results of this unscientific poll (the Miss U.S.A. contestants) are depressing, but not surprising. Poll after poll show that Americans reject evolution.

Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable or slightly larger numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion, and there has been little change in the percentage of the public who reject the idea of evolution….

In an August 2005 Gallup poll, 58% of the public said that creationism was definitely or probably true as an explanation for the origin and development of life, but about the same number also said the same about evolution. Since creationism and evolution are incompatible as explanations, some portion of the public is clearly confused about the meaning of the terms.

A 1999 Fox News poll of registered voters offered respondents the explicit option to say that both Darwin’s theory of evolution and the biblical account of creation were true: 26% said both were.

Another example: in 2002 in my native Georgia, the Cobb County School Board decided that science textbooks containing information on evolution needed a warning label.

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

A judge overturned that decision, which resulted from complaints from 2,000 parents that “the textbooks presented evolution as fact, without mentioning rival ideas about the beginnings of life, such as the biblical story of creation.”

Sadly, American adults are scientifically illiterate. Evolution is merely the biggest political hot potato. From a 2009 survey conducted for the California Academy of Sciences:

  • 59% of American adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • 53% of American adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • 47% of American adults know approximately how much of the Earth’s surface is covered with water.
  • 21% of American adults could correctly answer all three questions.

The Miss U.S.A. contestant tally:

  • Believe in evolution : 1 : CA
  • Do not believe in evolution : 4 : AL, AK, NC, TN
  • Do not think evolution should be taught : 3 : AL, IN, KY
  • Think evolution should be taught, unequivocal : 8 : CT, DC, FL, IL, MA, NM, OH, VT
  • Think evolution should be taught, equivocal : 9 : DE, IA, LA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WI
  • Think evolution should be taught alongside other view points : 23 : AK, AZ, CO, GA, HI, ME, MD, MI, MN, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NY, NC, ND, OK, OR, PA, RI, WVA, WY
  • Waffle : 6 : AR, ID, KS, MS, VA, WA

Here’s a state-by-state recap (the USA Today article is incorrect in its headline and summary) of the responses to “Should evolution be taught in schools.” Reportedly, the contestants knew the questions they were to be asked, which makes some of the answers a little eyebrow-raising.

  1. Miss Alabama : “No, I do not believe in evolution, and I do not believe it should be taught in schools.”
  2. Miss Alaska : “I think it’s necessary that evolution is taught in schools … it’s part of our history and belief system … personally, I don’t believe in evolution, I believe that each one of us was created for a purpose by God …”
  3. Miss Arizona : “I think it’s good to provide our students with both sides of the story [evolution, creationism] … [it] is the best choice.”
  4. Miss Arkansas : “… I was never taught evolution in school … every school is different … to each his own…”
  5. Miss California : “I was taught evolution in my high school … I do believe in it …”
  6. Miss Colorado : “… it’s important to let students just decide … they should teach evolution and other concepts as well.”
  7. Miss Connecticut : “… evolution should be taught in school.”
  8. Miss Delaware : “… evolution should be taught in school, in particular, high school … if they can chose and opt to take it …I think that’s a great idea.”
  9. Miss District of Columbia : “… evolution should be taught in schools…”
  10. Miss Florida : “Evolution should be taught in school …”
  11. Miss Georgia : “… evolution should be taught … but Biblical stuff should be taught as well … why not teach everything and let people make their own decisions?”
  12. Miss Hawaii : “… evolution should be taught in schools; we have creationism … everybody should have their opinion taught …. parents should be able to be there for the children to guide them …”
  13. Miss Idaho : “… evolution should be mentioned in school … it shouldn’t be pushed on you…”
  14. Miss Illinois : “… evolution should be taught in schools … it is a theory that people should know about.”
  15. Miss Indiana : “I don’t know … I think a lot of people would have an issue if evolution was taught in school; I think we should leave that out of the equation.”
  16. Miss Iowa : “I took evolution in college …  it could be available as an elective, I think.”
  17. Miss Kansas : “… evolution should be at least introduced … but I think it’s up to the student … to apply it to their life or not.”
  18. Miss Kentucky : “… I don’t think evolution should be taught in schools …”
  19. Miss Louisiana : “I think so… oh God, that’s kinda a tough one. Yeah, I think so.”
  20. Miss Maine : “That’s a very difficult question… we should have evolution taught in schools as well as a belief in faith…”
  21. Miss Maryland : “…everything should be taught in school … if you are going to teach one aspect of how you think the world has come to be you should teach all aspects… it’s a great theory …”
  22. Miss Massachusetts : “… evolution should be taught in schools …I think it’s an important aspect … people should learn as much as possible … “
  23. Miss Michigan : “… evolution should be taught in schools … it’s silly not to know both sides…”
  24. Miss Minnesota : “Yes … I think it’s important to understand all perspectives … I learned from my priest that evolution does not go against the Catholic faith …”
  25. Miss Mississippi : “… evolution should be taught as what it is, a theory…”
  26. Miss Missouri : “That is such a tough one… if it were to be taught in schools, that would give kids a chance to decide what they want to believe …”
  27. Miss Montana : “… [evolution should] be presented as an option … both sides should be presented …”
  28. Miss Nebraska : “… in public schools, you have to give all credited theories equal amount of time, so I think creation and evolution should both be able to be taught.”
  29. Miss Nevada : “… evolution definitely should be taught in schools … everything evolves, we evolve as communities … evolution can be taught in many different ways, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about people…”
  30. Miss New Hampshire : “…evolution is one of those things that needs to be incorporated but it shouldn’t be the only point of view taught.”
  31. Miss New Jersey : “I think everything should be taught in schools … they should have the option of learning everything that there is to learn and then kinda choose what they like to believe.”
  32. Miss New Mexico : “… evolution should be taught in schools because evolution is based off of science…”
  33. Miss New York : “… evolution should be taught in schools and religion should be taught in schools … knowledge is power …”
  34. Miss North Carolina : “I think it’s great to get both sides of the story … I believe the Bible’s version …”
  35. Miss North Dakota : “Sure. Why not? … I think it’s good that people hear both sides of, I guess, the story, so to speak.”
  36. Miss Ohio : “… why not?… you don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but I’m not opposed to it.”
  37. Miss Oklahoma : “… should be taught in schools … every version of everything so that they can form their own opinions.”
  38. Miss Oregon : “… every theory of how we came to be here should get a shout-out … evolution definitely should be presented … but it shouldn’t be the only one.”
  39. Miss Pennsylvania : “… evolution should absolutely  be taught in schools … we should explore all philosophies … other theories should be taught as well… so children … can decide on their own what they think is the truth.”
  40. Miss Rhode Island : “… should be taught … kids need to know all different perspectives on how the world came to be.”
  41. Miss South Carolina : “I think … everyone needs to know how we were made and why we were here. If parents are fine with it, I think it’s okay.”
  42. Miss South Dakota : “I think evolution is part of basic science and it should be taught but I also don’t think that teachers or anyone should step on the toes of biblical values either.”
  43. Miss Tennessee : “I do think evolution should be taught in schools, personally that is not my belief…”
  44. Miss Texas : “I wouldn’t see why evolution couldn’t be taught in schools … I think it would be interesting to learn about.”
  45. Miss Utah : “It’s tough because everybody has their different beliefs… I would say yes … but it’s tough, either way, somebody is going to be offended.”
  46. Miss Vermont : “… evolution should be taught in schools because not everybody necessarily has the same religious background and it’s important to have scientific facts about the world. And we do know that evolution does exist … might as well learn about it.”
  47. Miss Virginia : “…little bits and pieces of evolution should be taught … because it is a theory, and after all we all need to know about different theories so that we can figure out what we want to believe is true.”
  48. Miss Washington : “…science is great … facts should be stated … but as far as little theories and what not, I probably want to stay away from those … facts not theories should be taught.”
  49. Miss West Virginia : “… evolution should be taught in schools but I also don’t think that religion should be taken out. If you don’t believe in evolution that’s fine, but you should be informed about it. If you don’t believe in religon that’s fine, but you should be informed about it. I believe that they should incorporate both.”
  50. Miss Wisconsin : “… evolution should be taught in schools only because it’s a great subject to touch base on”
  51. Miss Wyoming : “… evolution is kinda touchy subject … both (?) should be taught in schools”

Note: The two articles that tipped me to this story have incorrect headlines/information. Think Progress says two contestants “believe in evolution” — that’s not supported by the video clips. USA Today (the primary source for Think Progress) is incorrect on several points.

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11 Comments

  1. This is very disappointing. The reason is because the current youth cohort typically shows where the country is headed. For example, youth under 25 are much more tolerant around things like gay marriage and gay rights. Recent Gallup polls also show more of a youth oriented trend away from the traditional church on Sunday conservative religious perspective that dominated the last century. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have translated into understanding the importance of evolution.

    My only concern would be overgeneralizing this sample. I wonder how beauty pageant contestants stack up against other kids of the same age. It would seem pageant contestants are more conservative and traditional.

  2. You’re using the Bimb-Olympics to make a statement on either a) culture or b) religious beliefs or c) education in this country?

    It’s the most vapid, baseless, clueless exercise that we’ve ever had (well, other than Reality TV I suppose), and should NOT be used to construe any more about this country’s belief systems,

  3. Thanks for commenting … however, I am not using the pageant results to make a statement on culture OTHER THAN it reflects what polling data have shown for YEARS … Americans reject evolution and cling to religious myth as an explanation for “creation.”

    CRW – I don’t see how you can overgeneralize from this sample, however, there is a greater percentage who seem to believe that evolution should be taught without being linked to creationism than there is in the general population. And there are fewer who think it should not be taught at all. Both of those are GOOD things.

  4. Well, at least Kathy’s overreaction and over-writing about evolution and the beauty pageant is nothing compared to the leftist gusher of hatred and inanity when Carrie Prejean made a routine remark that many express about gay marriage.

    (Don’t even start a re-run on the hatred and insanity. It’s irrelevant how many in the minority feel about this subject, and how the minority is admitting more of the majority every day and likely will become the majority someday. Prejean’s remark was ordinary and the real story became the leftist lunatic and vicious response to it.)

  5. Why would what one 21 year girl thinks even be a topic of serious discussion?

  6. While not Rhodes Scholars, all pageant contestants are college graduates. If this small trivial sample is our best and brightest, were in big trouble…

  7. I have daughters around the same age as these contestants. One has graduated and is getting ready for grad school, and the other two are starting their sophomore and senior years respectively. All three are science majors and laugh when people say evolution should not be taught in school. All three took the same biology course with a textbook titled, “Evolutionary Biology.”

    The fact that only one of the contestants gave unequivocal support for scientific knowledge that conflicts with religion is disturbing.

    I know the trends are headed in the “right” direction. However, we are so far behind our peer countries, I wonder what it means for our future.

  8. Quite overblown title don’ you think? Rejection by pageant participants is the measure of America. Gee if you asked them about Gravity we might be able to repeal that Law.

    I’ll have to check out Nate Silver at FiveThirty Eight to get his take.

  9. @DLS — this began as a rebuttal of the USA Today story, which was more overblown in the headline/lede AND which is incorrect.

    @GALawyer — because she’s going to have kids and shape how they think?

    @rudi — please please look at the national data. I should rewrite this with a different frame: these young women MIRROR general attitudes of American adults, but they are slightly more “liberal” (a smaller percentage think evolution should be co-taught with creationism than the general population)

    @CRW — I agree that it’s disturbing, but there is ever-so-slight movement towards enlightenment (which I’m defining as understanding the difference in science and religion/myth)

  10. Ah, such stunningly gorgeous, brainwashed young women. Did you see them in their bikinis? If I looked like that in a bathing suit, maybe I wouldn’t need to know whether the Earth was flat or not either. On the other hand, science and a regular schedule of caloric intake are two of my very favorite things, so maybe the incredible bikini bod wouldn’t be worth it…

  11. you theophobes are so paranoid ..

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