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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.