[Paleopsych] Wired News: Engineering God in a Petri Dish
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Wed Sep 29 14:51:25 UTC 2004
Wired News: Engineering God in a Petri Dish
By Kari Lynn Dean
02:00 AM Sep. 28, 2004 PT
SAN FRANCISCO -- On a steep, narrow street above Chinatown works
Jonathon Keats, a tweed-suited, bow-tied 32-year-old who, with
assistance from a phalanx of scientists, is genetically engineering
God in his apartment.
Advisers to Keats' organization, the International Association for
Divine Taxonomy, include biochemists, biophysicists, ecologists,
geneticists and zoologists from the University of California at
Berkeley, the Smithsonian and other institutions of scientific repute.
The mission: to determine where on the phylogenetic map -- the
scientific tree of life -- to put God.
Keats, as you may suspect, is not a scientist. He's a conceptual
artist. But legitimate scientists, such as Smithsonian zoologist
Mark Moffett and Berkeley geneticist Tom Cline, happily lend Keats
credibility by helping him design experiments and interpret the
"He's applying a rigorous scientific question to the absurd," Cline
said. "That's where the irony comes in, what makes you think about it.
"But then the question is: What is ludicrous about it? It introduces
people to the kinds of systems used to answer questions -- though this
isn't the kind of question people usually ask."
Keats' project asks some serious scientific questions -- and no small
number of religious ones: If evolutionary theory is accurate, then
God's genetic makeup should most resemble Earth's first life forms.
Or, if creationists are right, then God's DNA is more like the
life forms he created in his own image.
Said another way: Is God more like blue-green algae or the fruit fly?
After all, blue-green algae (aka cyanobacteria) are the first known
organism on Earth, evolutionarily more primitive than mammals or even
slime molds. At the other end of the tree, the fruit fly sits on the
same phylogenetic branch as man.
Without flinching or cracking a smile, Keats explains that the first
step in his study -- which will be made public at San Francisco's
Modernism gallery Wednesday -- was to hypothesize where exactly God
might sit in the three-domain tree of life.
Recognizing that God probably is unique enough, genetically speaking,
to warrant a category of his own, Keats added a fourth domain to the
existing Archaea, Bacteria and Eucarya, dubbed Divinea. It includes
Pagan and Hindu gods, as well as Diveneus deus, Keats' scientific
moniker for the monotheistic God known as Jehovah, Yahweh or Allah.
"All the same god with different names, just like different plants in
different countries all have the same name," Keats said.
In keeping with his "blue-green algae or fruit fly" premise, Keats
created two hypothetical four-domain versions of the tree of life. The
Divinea are near the domain Bacteria in one version, and near domain
Eucarya, home of the animal and plant kingdoms, in the other.
"Ordinarily, to fit a species on the phylogenetic tree would be to
sequence its genome," he explains, "but nobody I contacted had a
sample of God's DNA."
So he decided to genetically engineer a god. Since testing his
hypotheses for all gods in Divinea might overwhelm the lab in his
apartment, he focused on Divineus deus.
Using "continuous in-vitro evolution," Keats tried to mutate a species
-- bacteria or fruit fly -- to make it more godlike. He calls it "an
accelerated form of Darwinian natural selection," which, he points
out, is a standard scientific procedure.
To begin, he gathered petri dishes and bell jars, light and decibel
meters, a healthy supply of cyanobacteria and about 160 caged fruit
"Then I put it in controlled lab conditions that would be amenable to
God," he said.
Based on readings of those who have observed God in the field, from
St. Augustine to Muhammad, Keats determined that worship was one such
condition. So his laboratory also acquired MP3 recordings of prayer.
He prepared three recordings: the Jewish Shema, the Muslim Allahu
Akbar, and the Christian Kyrie Eleison.
"I didn't know which prayer would be most effective for mutation," he
Keats played the prayers on an endless loop for seven days and nights
-- a standard Biblical time period -- while control-group flies
listened to live talk radio. He documented light and sound intensity
daily to ensure consistency between groups.
But how does one measure the godliness of bacteria versus a fruit fly?
(Keats opted for flies in lieu of humans, which, he said, would
require "a really big bell jar.") After briefly considering
omnipotence, Keats decided to measure omnipresence. Did the number of
organisms increase? How fast? In the case of the fruit flies, Keats,
who considers himself Jewish "by heritage," found the Christian Kyrie
prayer brought about increased and statistically significant
reproduction compared to the control group.
"By a random mutation, the fruit flies appear to have become more
godlike, capable of metabolizing worship into divinity," he said.
Unfortunately, the results aren't definitive: Keats also detected
abnormal population growth after he exposed cyanobacteria to the
Kyrie, but couldn't compare the cell count to the flies because he
used petri dishes instead of a liquid medium. So, at the First
Congress of the International Association for Divine Taxonomy,
Wednesday at Modernism, Keats will run the experiment again, this time
putting the cyanobacteria in liquid to enable an accurate count using
Whatever the outcome, Keats' real interest is to explore whether faith
and reason can peaceably coexist. "There's a schism between science
and religion, a sense that you have to pick sides, and it threatens to
turn us all into fundamentalists of one sort or another," he said.
"Science rejects God for want of empirical evidence, and religion
rejects the scientific method the moment it contradicts the Bible.
"I'm trying to explore whether faith and reason can peaceably coexist.
I think they can. So this project is truly a thought experiment: By
taking the assumptions of extremists on both ends of the spectrum, and
combining them, I'm hoping we can sort out the implications."
As if in direct answer to Keats' stated motivations, William Dembski,
a proponent of intelligent design, called the project "scientifically
jejune and theologically incompetent." Dembski, a Baylor University
professor of science, religion and philosophy, also noted that if the
God element were removed, the project would be "strictly conventional
Other observers, however, may be picking up on Keats' decidedly
dadaist undertone. "It's hard to tell from this whether Mr. Keats is
just having some fun or is seriously deranged," said Michael Behe,
Lehigh University biology professor and renowned anti-Darwinist
author. "I wish him well and look forward to hearing of his results."
For now, Keats has an organization to run. Wednesday he'll be signing
up new members to the International Association for Divine Taxonomy,
which so far includes web entrepreneur Craig Newmark and
best-selling author Po Bronson. Modernism gallery will also be
screening a documentary on the project by filmmaker Paul Lundahl.
And, perhaps most important of all, given the contentious questions at
stake, refreshments will be served from 5:30 p.m. until 8 p.m.
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