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

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."

Paolo Vescia
Paolo Vescia

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 morefeasible 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.

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