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

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.

Paolo Vescia
Paolo Vescia

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.

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