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Beauty Pageants and the Misunderstanding of Evolution Meet....Again

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Last week, self proclaimed "geek," Miss California, Alyssa Campanella made beauty pageant history...by default. When the interviewer posed a Theory of Evolution question, she was one of only two delegates to use the scientific definition of the word "theory" in her response.

The honey-drenched, colloquial definition that the majority of her competitors clung to was, yes, diplomatic. Miss California, now Miss USA, however, did not aim to please or to appease the 60% of Americans that a 2009 Gallup Poll concluded do not believe in Evolution. Rather than aiming to please or appease an ignorant majority, The future Miss USA delivered a response that supported an empirical evidence based definition of specified phenomena: the scientific definition of the word, "theory."

Myriad epistemological menu options were neither feigned nor relevant because the scientific definition of "theory" defines a clear set of explanations for a specified phenomena, acquired through empirical evidence. Creationist diatribe has no place in the equation because it is not relevant. Anyone who has ever used antibiotics to fight an infection has reaped the benefits of this "theory" (in the scientific sense).

Miss USA 2011 was not the first occurrence of an interface between American pageantry and pseudo-scientific misappropriation of the Theory of Evolution. At the turn of the last century, a newly formed American Eugenics Society aspired to establish a genetic Utopia.

Galton's Laboratory.

Sir Francis Galton, the founder of Eugenics and Darwin's half-cousin, dismissed the environmental factors that Darwin insisted were critical to natural selection in favor of an agricultural approach, based primarily on conjecture. When Charles Davenport brought Eugenics in the United States, he delineated the Eugenics Creed as follows:

- I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor.

- I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry; that this has been passed on to me through thousands of generations before me; and that I betray the trust if (that germ plasm being good) I so act as to jeopardize it, with its excellent possibilities, or, from motives of personal convenience, to unduly limit offspring.

- I believe that, having made our choice in marriage carefully, we, the married pair, should seek to have 4 to 6 children in order that our carefully selected germ plasm shall be reproduced in adequate degree and that this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that less carefully selected.

- I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits.

- I believe in repressing my instincts when to follow them would injure the next generation.

Decades before its established American presence, Miss United States, a precursor to Miss America, was a swimsuit competition that took place in 1880 at Rehoboth Beach. Thomas Edison was a judge. The organizers insisted contestants be at least 5 feet, 4 inches, weigh no more than 130 pounds and be unmarried in order to compete. The contestants were judged exclusively on their looks.

The first Miss Americas. 1921.

Looks were not an exclusive criterion for the judges of the 1908 inaugural Louisiana State Fair Better Babies Competition in 1908. Inspired by the social efficiency movement and its call for standardized homes, roads, and schools, the competition was not a beauty pageant so much as it was a means of establishing standards of child breeding.

Physicians entered designated tents to evaluate the health of contestants using the standards traditionally used for evaluating livestock, agriculture and flowers. They were given scorecards detailing height, weight and measurements and instructed to deduct points for blemished skin, stubby fingers, baby fat and uncooperative behavior with the aim of providing child breeding health standards to parents.

By the time World War I ended, critics of the Eugenics movement had pretty much debunked the movement's core scientific justifications. It was not difficult to do, given the movement's pedantic determinism and disregard for environmental influences. A growing understanding of the multi-gene effects of inheritance served to nullify most of Eugenicists' supporting data. Yet, their influence continued to impact legislation.

Most states regarded forced sterilizations as a viable way of eliminating sexual, drug and alcohol crimes. Americans who suffered from blindness, schizophrenia, manic-depression, epilepsy and severe alcoholism were also routinely sterilized.

Better Babies competition.

In 1920, the creators of the Baby Health movement launched Fitter Family Contest at the Kansas State Free Fair in 1920. The initiative was backed by the American Eugenics Society's Committee on Popular Education.

Contestants were required to submit an "Abridged Record of Family Traits" and Medical doctors performed psychological as well as physical examinations. Individual family members received letter grade determining their level of eugenic health and trophies were presented to the high scorers. Like the winning Better Baby Contestants, Fitter Family champions were invariably white and of Western and Northern European heritage.

In 1921, an Atlantic City hotel owner collaborated with the municipal Chamber to organize a small-scale beauty contest. Their goal was to extend the tourist season past Labor Day. During the first week of September, seven cities in the Northeast each sent a swimsuit clad "beauty maid" representative. Contestants were judged based on looks and sixteen year-old Margaret Gorman, Miss Washington, D.C., was awarded the Golden Mermaid statue and the title, "Miss America".

Hover over the image, to see more history of the beauty pageants and its origins in the eugenics movement.

Three years later and unencumbered by their debunked scientific legitimacy, the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor had found a new initiative to champion: the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Eugenics Record Office Superintendent, Harry Laughlin was instrumental in pushing through a legislation that ensured 86% of immigration opportunities were given to Northern and Western Europeans.  

Eugenics 'tree'.

Then, in 1927, an epic Supreme Court fail: Buck v. Bell, upheld Virginia's eugenics-inspired forced sterilization program targeting "mental defectives." The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics was founded that same year in Germany and the 1933 German sterilization law cited Virginia (courtesy of the epic Supreme Court fail) as the prototype on which their own sterilization policies were based.

When Lenore Slaughter took over the Miss America pageant in 1935, they were required to detail ancestry on a formal biological data sheet. Contestants with ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War and The Mayflower had the advantage and the rule #7 officiated that contestants must be "in good health" and "of the white race."

While the post-war realization that Nazi Germany's "final solution" had gone from involuntary sterilizations to genocide nullified the Eugenics Creed and terminology, involuntary sterilizations in the United States continued through the 70s.

A couple of days after the crowning of Miss USA 2011, several North Carolina sterilization victims came forth to expose the horror of what had been done to them in the 1970s and request monetary compensation.

Interestingly, most of the 49 Miss USA candidates who condoned treating evolution as an elective "option," lacked the poise and clarity required to succeed in that particular segment of the competition. The relevance of this judging criterion was verified last week and assembled, along with the surrounding conversation, on Storify:

[View the story "Miss USA 2011 - Did She Win Because of Her Position on Evolution? " on Storify]

 

Recommended for further reading:

The Man Who Turned Darwin Into a Determinist

Darwin's Connection to Nazi Eugenics Exposed

Eugenics Archive

Controlling Heredity Exhibit

High School Bioethics Curriculum

One Generation of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Is Enough

NC forced sterilization victims voice grief, pain

About the Author: Susanna Speier is not a scientist. The "ear" for layman-friendly science explanations, that The New York TImes deemed, "excellent," however, gains her ample back door access. The conversations she is most eager to listen to and perhaps engage in include: dark matter, the future of genetic technology, plate tectonics, human space exploration (its future and its past) and ice (as in the shifting as well as the melting polar caps). Sometimes conversations with scientists turn into collaborations. Five of her plays have been produced; over 100 of her articles have been published and one of her screenplays remains in liminal purgatory. She dayjobs as a freelance social media specialist and digital journalist.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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