Did Her Evolution Answer Win the Title for Miss USA 2011?

See updates below.

Much has already been written on the sad fact that of the 51 young women who vied to be Miss USA 2011, only two—Miss California (Alyssa Campanella), who ultimately took the crown, and Miss Massachusetts (Alida D’Angona)—unequivocally supported the teaching of evolution in public schools in a question during the preliminaries. Tanya Somaneder at Think Progress has a particularly thorough and damning review of the pageant contestants’ reactions to the question:

All of the contestants were aware of the question ahead of time. Indeed, according to one pageant veteran, the women were “scared to death” of a Prejean-like fiasco and were “concerned that there is a right or wrong answer.” In their apparent struggle, 96 percent of them either “confused the evolution of species with the origin of life (not the same) or said a variation of Miss Michigan’s line that it’s ‘silly’ and ‘ignorant’ not to know ‘both sides’ including, evidently, religious views in public schools.”

Kentucky’s Kia Ben-et Hampton, however, did her state’s Creation Museum proud by firmly rejecting evolution in schools. Believing that “scientists have their different theories,” she said, “I don’t believe it’s a good topic for school subjects. At all.” While Alaska’s Jessica Chuckran, Mississippi’s Keeley Patterson and West Virginia’s Whitney Veach at least thought evolution should be taught as “a theory” alongside religion, Alabama’s Madeline Mitchell simply declared, “I do not believe in evolution, I do not believe it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it.”

In this case, we really should wish they all could be California girls.

By the way, isn’t it more than a little nuts that  the contestants were asked “Should evolution be taught in schools?” Not only is evolution incontrovertibly science (whereas the creationist alternatives aren’t), but the courts established that evolution should be taught long ago. What’s up for debate is whether fake alternative theories and misleading criticisms of evolution should be taught: those are what still need to prove their case, and they’re what properly ought to be on the defensive. Still, I’m glad for this question if only because of the answers it shook out of the contestants.

What I haven’t heard anyone speculate about, though, is whether Ms. Campanella’s victory is just a happy coincidence with her views on evolution or instead maybe the result of it. So I’m going out on a limb and guessing that her evolution answer might just have become a deciding factor.

Don’t get me wrong. If Ms. Campanella hadn’t been a stunner in the swimsuit, evening gown and other stages of the competition, she wouldn’t have been named Miss USA even if she knew as much about evolution as Sarah Hrdy does. (By calling her a “stunner,” I’m not endorsing the standards for female beauty that these pageants endorse—yes, they’re unrealistic and unhealthy, but for better or worse, she nailed them.) But if the scoring among the finalists was close, I can see a reason to think that Campanella’s evolution answer might have made the crucial difference.

That reason is Penn Jillette. Penn, famous skeptic and atheist, was one of the seven judges picking Miss USA last night, along with Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, actress and model Mariel Hemingway, rapper and music producer Lil Jon, Carolyne Manzo of The Real Houswives of New Jersey, and Suzy Weiss-Fischmann of the nail lacquer maker OPI.

I have no idea how those other judges would have responded to any of the answers about evolution (I am actually frightened to hear what a Real Housewife might have to say on the subject). But Penn’s views on the subject are well known: he and Teller did an entire episode of their cable program Bullshit! bashing creationism and intelligent design. I can easily imagine that just on principle, Penn might penalize any of the women who opposed or waffled on the teaching of evolution. And that scoring advantage might have been what helped put Ms. Campanella over the top.

Naturally, I could be wrong about this. Maybe the scoring was never that close; maybe Penn threw principle to the wind as casually as he and Teller would stab each other during a performance; maybe those judges never even saw the answers from the preliminary questions. Maybe someone can ask Penn, assuming he isn’t bound to keep details of the judging confidential?

Update: Commenter DJB (below) says that the evolution question didn’t play a role in the final scoring, which would stick a pin in my Penn Jillette theory. Can anyone else confirm that? Watch for answers in comments.

Further update: Charles Seife, Richard Wiseman and Simon Singh have raised a very important point—that, contrary to the initial reports, Miss California and Miss Massachusetts were not the only contestants to say the evolution should be taught in schools. Misses Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Minnesota also replied in the affirmative, as you can see for yourself by watching all the videos here. In fact, Miss California doesn’t even give the best response. Some of the arguments they offer (if they offered any) aren’t terrific, if only because they seemed to embrace a “students should be exposed to all viewpoints” philosophy that is implicitly open to teaching creationism, too. But it’s at least reassuring to know that more than two out of 51 contestants thought evolution should be taught. Miss California seems to have been the only one who made it to the semi-finals.

Update the last: And now, finally, it seems we have a definitive answer—that Penn Jillette did vote for Miss California but not on the strength of her evolution answer (if anything, he seems to have disagreed with her answer, probably because it was insufficiently firm in its affirmation of evolution and its recognition that religion should not be taught in public schools). Via Twitter:

pennjillette: Somehow I am getting blame (credit) for making the pro-evolution Miss CA into Miss USA. I didn’t have the knowledge or power, but who cares?

SusannaSpeier: Did you vote 4 Miss CA. If so, did her answer sway yr vote? From what I understand poise & vocal modulation are the criteria.

pennjillette: I followed all the rules.  I did vote for her, I disagreed with her answer, but thought she had poise and clarity.

So let us consider this matter closed. The answer to the question in my post’s title is “no.”

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11 Responses to Did Her Evolution Answer Win the Title for Miss USA 2011?

  1. DJB says:

    Those questions asked in the online videos had nothing to do with the final scoring. The judges based their choice on what happened on stage.

  2. Pub says:

    These angry intolerant Atheists need to get a brain. I’ve been Atheist for decades and haven’t made it out to be nothing more than a fight against Christians. Morons.

    • John Rennie says:

      I have no idea of what you’re saying, or to which “intolerant Atheists” you might be referring, or whom you’re calling “Morons.” But thanks for writing.

  3. SB says:

    Well Miss Massachusetts is a biologist so glad she supported evolution.

    Were they both Catholic as well? Their names sound Italian. If so, they weren’t speaking against their church’s theology, as I expect many of the other women would have been.

  4. djarm67 says:

    Here is the complete video with each response.



  5. Andrew R. says:

    I’m glad for Penn’s sake that you have made sure to update this with clarifying information. But there is one final detail you missed: In his tweet about disagreeing with her answer, he was referring to her answer regarding legalizing marijuana, in which she said it should be illegal for recreational use but legal for medicinal use. He really did have no idea what any of them had said about evolution until after his vote.

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks for further clarifying on that point, too. In my original post, I had considered mentioning her answer about legalizing marijuana, with which I knew Penn would disagree. I didn’t bring it up because it felt like too much of a digression. I’m glad that you spelled it out further, though.

  6. Pingback: Coach the beauty pageant contestants in critical thinking, please « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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