Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

God of the Flies 

Arts gadfly Jonathon Keats tries to map the one true Lord on the genetic tree of life via fruit flies, prayer, and KGO radio

By Lessley Anderson

Jonathon Keats maneuvers around his small Nob Hill living room, where piles of books compete for space with a collection of antique opium pipes, a human skull, and a fan belt-powered dentist's drill. Red-haired and bespectacled, Keats is lining up four plastic bottles full of swarms of fruit flies and taping tiny speakers to the side of each. The bottles are hooked to combination tape recorder-radios. One group of fruit flies is about to listen to a continuous tape loop of a Jewish prayer, the Shema. The second bottle will hear Gregorian monks chanting the Christian Kyrie. A recording of the Muslim Allahu Akbar will be broadcast to the third. Keats tunes the fourth device to KGO talk radio. Then he hits "play."

For seven days and seven nights, Keats will attempt to mutate succeeding generations of his fruit flies into God by playing them prayers. Well, not God exactly, but something more God-like. Because talk radio plays no known role in a major religion, the control group of the experiment will listen to KGO.

The experiment is Keats' second aimed at the goal of mapping God on the phylogenetic tree of life, the biological classification system once thought to be composed of five kingdoms: plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and single-celled organisms. Modern genetics has reduced the phylogenetic tree to three branches: the eukaryotes, to which plants and animals (including, of course, humans) belong, and two bacteria kingdoms called the eubacteria and the archaea. Keats is trying to determine where among the branches of these kingdoms the singular God found in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism should go. For classification purposes he is referring to his subject as Divinius deus.

If God is an actual organism, albeit one with divine characteristics, then God can and should be classified. Or so Keats theorizes. To accomplish this classification in the absence of the deity's DNA, he is performing genetic experiments on God's potential neighbors on the tree of life, to see if he can cause Godly mutations. If any of the species evolves to become more Godly through his methods, Keats will take this as evidence that the organism is nearer to Divinius deus on the tree of life than those that fail to evolve toward God.

As you may have guessed, the 32-year-old Keats is not a real geneticist. He is a journalist, a novelist, and a conceptual artist with a science fetish. The God taxonomy project is Keats' latest performance art piece, and it's designed to provoke discourse about the all-encompassing claims of both faith and reason.

"Science professes that anything it can't answer with [the scientific method] doesn't exist," says Keats. "And religion, at its most dogmatic, says that everything happened according to a grand design. ... Instead of making an argument, I'm using every possible tool I can about religious claims about the nature of God and scientific claims about how you find stuff out. I'm letting it all play out together to see what happens."

Keats, a non-practicing Jew who says he is "profoundly agnostic," isn't ruling out the possibility that he might breed a close relative of God in his living room, using tape players and the scientific method.

"I don't think it's impossible," says Keats. "I think it would be arrogant to the extreme to say I can, and bad science to say I will."

Keats cuts an Edwardian figure in his three-piece tweed suits and bow ties, French-cuffed shirts monogrammed with his initials, and penny loafers with pennies actually stuck in them. He has a professorial speaking style and an unblinking gaze suggestive of too many hours spent reading books like Critiques of God.

A former editor for San Francisco magazine and an eccentric figure frequently found carousing in local literary circles, Keats is represented by the downtown art gallery Modernism. His recent pieces include last year's Brain Trust, in which he copyrighted his mind and then sold shares in an initial public offering. In 2001, he attempted to pass Aristotle's law of identity, A=A, as a ballot measure in the city of Berkeley. It would have been, he noted at the time, the first law that could not be broken. It did not pass.

"Jonathon's performances, they're totally out there," says Modernism's owner, Martin Muller.

When the question of how God should be classified occurred to him two years ago, Keats approached the Museum of Natural History in New York and the California Academy of Sciences as well as several university biology departments in hopes that one of the institutions would shepherd the project. UC Berkeley was the only organization that nibbled, but ultimately its support did not materialize.

"I was intrigued by the idea," says Dr. Brent Mishler, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. "But especially in this time of budget cuts, we need to be careful not to be seen as silly."

In the spirit of Charles Darwin, whose pioneering genetic experiments were unappreciated in his day, Keats decided to go it alone. He founded the International Association of Divine Taxonomy and named himself chairman. The organization's purpose, wrote Keats, is "collecting scientifically precise species descriptions, and facilitating accurate placement on the phylogenetic tree, of all deities worldwide, inclusive of the god commonly known as Yahweh, Jehovah, and/or Allah." To jump-start this new field of research, Keats embarked on three pilot experiments, the last of which will take place at Modernism this September. A book about Keats' piece will also be published by the gallery.

To start, Keats selected two species he felt might be genetically similar to God. Without any of God's genetic material to compare them to, he decided to test their likeness through a kind of reverse engineering. Using a genetic experimentation process known as in vitro evolution, he put the species in controlled environments designed to encourage rapid mutation. He hoped to see signs of God as the organisms grew and multiplied.

As any good scientist would, Keats first consulted "field notes" written by those who had had direct contact with his subject. Besides brushing up on the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah, Keats read some 40 books written by theologians and historians on the topic of the monotheistic Western God. The field notes had limitations. Moses, for instance, had only seen God from behind when he appeared on Mount Sinai. Yet Keats managed to pinpoint three Godly identifying characteristics noted in nearly all the texts: omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence.

For his first experiment, Keats selected cyanobacteria, a primordial, algaelike organism from the tree of life branch eubacteria. While not omnipresent, it is found everywhere from deserts to polar regions to the ocean. Although Keats wanted to use human stem cells in his second experiment to test the Bible's claim that God created man in his image, he was unable to persuade UCSF's stem cell labs to allow him access to their cultures. Instead he chose fruit flies, which belong to eukaryotes, the same kingdom to which humans belong.

As nearly all the field notes talked about God's affinity for prayer, Keats decided to try to encourage God-like mutation through exposing both species to "ambient worship" from three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Keats would keep a detailed logbook of the experiments. He'd photograph the petri dishes full of bacteria and the flies in their bottles every single day and note any changes. He would be looking for signs of increased omnipresence.

"God makes use of prayer, or demands prayer. ... The ability to metabolize worship, metaphorically speaking, seems to be kind of particular to God's DNA," says Keats. "So we're hoping that one of the many random mutations that happen in the petri dish allows it to take advantage of the ambient worship."

Ironically, considering the anal retentiveness of the entire procedure, Keats' method of evaluating his samples' increased omnipresence was crude. He would simply see if they'd grown a lot.

Earlier this summer, Keats successfully completed his first experiment, with cyanobacteria given him by a scientist acquaintance at the University of San Francisco. He placed smudges of it in four petri dishes under elegant glass bell jars attached to the tape players. After a few days, Keats saw -- lo and behold -- signs of omnipresence. The bacteria in the prayer groups had grown into larger smudges than the bacteria exposed to KGO radio. Each day Keats meticulously photographed the contents of the petri dishes next to a ruler.

For the cyanobacteria to truly be omnipresent, Keats believed, they would need to "permeate the universe." Since the universe expanded outward from the moment of the big bang at the speed of light, Keats figured that if he actually bred God, it would need to also grow in its petri dish at the speed of light.

"So -- big numbers, and we're not getting them yet," said Keats.

The prayer groups, however, had grown more than the control group. In particular, the cyanobacteria that had been listening to the Kyrie spawned a dark stain at the very edge of the petri dish that looked to Keats as if it was trying to "fly away." In his September show at Modernism, he plans to do the cyanobacteria experiment again to verify his results.

Now, Keats was on to the fruit flies. On an afternoon in July, the bottoms of the bottles of fruit flies were swarming with white larvae. It seemed a pretty gross result to be encouraging in your living room, especially if you were someone like Keats, who was wearing a preppy white oxford shirt tucked into white chinos and who was listening to a Mozart piano concerto.

"I can't bear insects or anything creepy-crawly or bacteria or mold," admitted Keats. "But when you're making art, you just kind of learn to live with it."

A geneticist friend from UC Berkeley had been kind enough to give him the bottles of fruit flies, and after bringing them home in a box via BART and Muni, Keats set them up with the tape players. The life cycle of a fruit fly is just one week; the short gestation period is one of the reasons the insects are so useful in genetic research. After playing the flies prayers for seven days, Keats' initial group had already had babies. He dismantled the tape players and waited a full seven days more.

The afternoon the flies' gestation period came to an end, Keats prepared to stick the bottles of flies in his freezer. Once dead, the insects would be easier to count.

As he examined the squirming larvae, he said he'd been thinking about ways one could test for omniscience and omnipotence. For the latter, Keats said, you could douse your sample organisms with a cocktail of noxious chemicals, and see which ones survived.

For omniscience, Keats imagined, one could administer a standardized IQ test. If a being was omniscient, it would know English, reasoned Keats. And it would be able to answer questions in English.

"If I go up to the flies and ask them, and they don't answer, I would know they were not omniscient," he initially concluded. But there were, he acknowledged, shortcomings to this idea.

"Just because it's omniscient doesn't mean it's cooperative," he said. "The question becomes whether a deity wants one to know it's a deity."

It is just this type of philosophical inquiry Keats intends his "experiments" to spark.

"Can we know everything? And what would it be like if we knew everything?" he asked.

For now, though, to keep from confusing his experiments, he was giving his flies the silent treatment.

"We are incommunicado," he confirmed.

The reaction of theologians to Keats' God taxonomy project has ranged from delight to condescension.

"God is not related to any of the living species, except as their creator," says Valerie Hoffman, an associate professor of religion specializing in Islam at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Any animals wouldn't be considered close to God. It would be considered the ultimate blasphemy."

Keats says he understands Hoffman's argument but posits that if God as the creator cannot be found on the tree, it's possible that the first species God created can be. And, Keats goes on, that species can conceivably be identified using Keats' scientific methods, if God created that first species in his likeness. Of course, Keats concedes, it's just as possible that the first species created could be dissimilar to God.

"However, if that's the case, we need to take a very different approach to research," he says. "My approach is we start with research that is more feasible rather than less."

Other theologians have taken issue with Keats' methodology.

"The main characteristic of God, biblically, is not omnipresence, but peace," argues Glen Harold Stassen, chairman of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Stassen suggests Keats should have experimented on peaceful creatures such as porcupines or skunks.

"Why would you suppose that the measurable consequence of the nearer presence of God would a) be determined by prayer, and b) show up as growth?" asks David Truemper, professor and chair of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana. "With Moses and God on the mount, the closeness of God there just about killed him. It didn't cause Moses to thrive, in any case."

Keats believes that much of the debate about his approach would be unnecessary if field scientists (other than Keats, who doesn't "like to go camping") were to collect additional field notes on God. "At least footprints, so to speak, or droppings, so to speak," he says. "I mean, I don't want to be vulgar, but the more we can get a concrete picture of God, the better this research will be."

Scientists familiar with Keats' experiments view them as a satire on science.

"In terms of how we divide up nature, biologists always worry about the imperfection of their categories," says Mark Moffett, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution and at UC Berkeley. "You can find in the Galápagos different species of finches, but in some places where they might not have [been] separated for too long, there is not too much difference between them. The question of what is a species is going on in biology circles right now. And Jonathon is asking the same kinds of questions. He's using God as a way of loosening up the definitions."

Keats, meanwhile, is taking the project literally. At home, the bottles of flies filled the entire interior of his tiny freezer, an old-fashioned model coated in thick ice crystals.

"Making martinis are the only thing the freezer is good for anyway," he shrugged the day he unloaded the flies. He carried the bottles to his living room table and took off one of the spongy corks. He shook the frozen flies out onto a piece of graph paper. Some flies were buried in the spongy top, and he picked them out with his fingers. Then he dug into the jar with what looked like a buttonhook, but was really a tool used for transferring bacteria cultures. As he extracted the last of the flies, leaving the pupae stuck to the sides of the bottle like wet rice, he wore a look of intense concentration. His silver-rimmed spectacles sat on the bridge of his nose, and both of his feet were planted firmly on the floor.

"I'm fascinated to know what will happen," he said. "It's one of those rare opportunities you have to come face to face with God." He paused. "Or at least an approximation based on phylogenetic similarities."

Counting flies took a long time. I grew bored after the first bottle and went home. It took Keats six hours to tally what ended up being 4,059 flies. At the end, he found that just as in the cyanobacteria experiment, the Kyrie group had grown at a faster rate than the others -- in this case, the prayer-stimulated group had bred 12 percent more flies than the control group.

These results suggested, quite unsatisfyingly, that God was as equally like, or unlike, both fruit flies and cyanobacteria, species at opposite ends of the phylogenetic tree. But if Keats was frustrated, he didn't show it.

"At least we're getting some fundamental response on the behalf of various organisms, which suggest they're mutating to become more God-like," Keats said. "All of this only seems to add to the suspense of the experiment. Excitement is what I'm feeling right now."

Keats' attitude throughout the tediously absurd art project had been relentlessly cheery. It didn't seem as if he was looking for God as much as finding some sort of divine satisfaction in the scientific method, even though (or perhaps because) it was being put to scientifically irrelevant use. His peculiar, solitary undertaking called to mind the words of Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, whom I asked to comment on Keats' project. The rabbi noted that "people experience God in very different ways." But, Dorff said, that was not to say that experiences of God are completely idiosyncratic: "Each of the three Western religions talk about God ... as loving."

While Keats counted his flies, he was astonished to see a few beginning to stir; apparently, the freezer hadn't killed them. If he didn't dispose of them quickly, they would soon be all over his apartment, breeding and breeding in the annoying way of the fruit fly. Most people would have been horrified at such a prospect. Surprisingly, the meticulously fastidious Keats wasn't. After all, Keats noted, he doesn't "eat a lot of fruit," and with a mixture of pity and affection, he watched the ones that were able to, fly, and fly, and fly away into his well-ordered apartment.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"