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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

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"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.

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