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Opinion

Opinion | Jennifer Graham

The devolution of man

Amid viral outrage, aren’t we getting a bit too humorless and fragile?

ISTOCKPHOTO/GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

As the rioting subsided in Libya, I felt that faint flush of superiority that comes from living in an enlightened, progressive country where the population can handle absurd Internet postings. It lasted for all of a day, until humor-impaired creationists started rampaging on Dr Pepper’s
Facebook page
.

The genesis of their indignity was a sketch called “Evolution of Flavor.” A parody of Rudolph Zallinger’s famous illustration “The March of Progress,” it shows an ape (“pre-Pepper”), a Cro-Magnon man (“Pepper discovery”) and modern man (“post-Pepper”), the latter a carbonation-based life form striding upright, fully evolved and full of caffeine. “Now that’s progress,” the caption says.

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Or not.

Seven thousand comments ensued, few about the wonders of Dr Pepper. Creationists, who believe God created the universe in seven literal days, howled that by posting the drawing, Dr Pepper had “endorsed” evolution and mocked their faith. They urged a boycott of not only Dr Pepper but the other offerings of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which include 7-Up, A&W Root Beer, and Snapple.

Ironically, Snapple was once the favored drink of evangelicals and conservatives, since it became popular after advertising on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. But to the humor-impaired, irony is, as the T-shirt says, just the opposite of wrinkly. The anti-Pepper campaign raged for a few days, then fizzled, the creationists’ bubbly outrage flattened by an influx of salty atheists.

This is how the Internet works. One easily rattled individual takes offense, and within an hour, he musters thousands of equally delicate sensibilities to action. There’s no need for a noble, plate-shifting cause to energize the masses, no Creationist Spring. All it takes is a mediocre joke.

But don’t think that it’s just fevered believers who populate the fringe; fevered unbelievers do, too. Luke Winkie, a journalism student in Texas, found this out recently when he wrote sympathetically in Salon magazine about a Creation Museum in California. Militant atheists, an exasperated Winkie later said, “are quickly becoming the most annoying demographic on the Internet.” And, for the record, he’s an atheist, too.

Fortunately, even religious institutions can see the need to keep brittle people at bay. In June, the Catholic Church, freshly worried about its own demographics, released new guidelines for the recruitment of priests. Dioceses must avoid “men who show signs of being profoundly fragile personalities,” the Vatican said — presumably meaning that no one who has posted on Dr Pepper’s Facebook page recently has any shot at being a priest.

Still, how do we identify the “profoundly fragile” when we’re away from the computer? The most revealing clue, beyond an eagerness to behead, is the inability to laugh. “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road,” said Henry Ward Beecher, the colorful 19th century preacher who believed in both God and Darwin.

Some researchers have suggested a link between humor and intelligence, making Dr Pepper’s next move seem dribbled with genius. Without commenting on the furor of the evolution post, the next day, the site touted a million-dollar tuition giveaway. Intentionally or otherwise, the message was: Could you please smarten up, people, and learn to take a joke?

To win the money, entrants need to explain, in 60 seconds, how they will make an impact with it. Most of the comments, it has to be said, lacked wit. But among the single mothers wanting to become nurses and the high-school dropouts desiring GEDs so they can own a pawnshop — hardly anyone aware that Dr Pepper isn’t punctuated, or that “psyched” isn’t spelled “syked” — there lurked a startling clarion of intelligence, a guy named Ryan. “This would help my family a lot,” he wrote. “I’ll even yodel if I win it. That’s right . . . YODEL!”

Zallinger, the Siberian immigrant who drew the “March of Progress” for Time-Life Books in 1965, conveyed 25 million years of evolution in profiles of 15 primates. Were it to be updated, the 16th figure would have his head back, laughing.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for The Globe. Her website is www.jennifergraham.com.

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