Barefoot Notes: The Fly on the Wall vs. Our Simulated Universe


The fabulous, fantastic, fascinating fly and our ridiculous, plain fascination for a sickly computer-simulated life

Allegory on Life and Death (~1598), Joris and Jaccob Hoefnagel. Jacob Hoefnagel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. There is no escape from reality means the same as there is no world without insects.

This uncharacteristic piece that started as an idea that disrupted my planned course of thought that had me announce of my hiatus last year presents itself as I get attracted to this preposterous idea of living in a bubble orchestrated, for all I know, by a child. Here, and since it has been resurrected, I go back to 1999 when I watched the movie The Matrix: my eyes squinting at the grainy green filter of the sixth simulated world, my mind screaming at the lack of non-human substance that drained life out of the movie’s substance. The movie itself amazed me, save for the, spoiler alert, use of humans, the most prolific consumer of all animals – as batteries; the glimpses of digital pigeons, crows, and a cat, over a bleak-hued concrete dystopian world caused me little excitement, but they were all programmes, they weren’t ‘plugged in’. I was a teenager, I guzzled The Matrix before I dived into the world on the other side, the fantastical humans and non-humans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that increased my fascination for paleo-elephants.

The Matrix is said to have mainstreamed the idea of simulated worlds, a thought not original but more popular now thanks to it, a bubble where humans are simulated to life, while everything else is programmed to fit our narrative. As a teenager interested in the non-human world, just as some computer geeks including some of my peers tried to find the digital rabbit hole, I found mine in the natural world. What’s real and not is the crux of this piece, and I argue for the real with the help of an insect. A fly, to be specific, a fabulous, fantastic, fascinating fly that has had my imagination for so long that I was at one point in time not very long ago infatuated by it, so much that I found it in every other fly.

And then, just a decade later, came another world-making movie, Inception, that explored the world within our minds with very specific no-good agendas but a brilliant idea of combining dreams. It was designed to wake up sleeping soldiers. Curious. This world was plain, no programmed cats, just what’s in the character’s minds that did not dream of cats. In this world, simulated – a dreamer’s world is a cognitively simulated world – by the dreamer, there aren’t very many references to the world outside, the natural world that would be known to the characters of the creator’s narrative, save rain, snow, and mountains.

Either we lack interest in having the natural world showcased in the reel-life, or we lack the imagination and prefer having the natural world in documentaries, or we keep the natural life at bay thinking that it might overwhelm the script, or we can’t simulate it enough to make it look real or have them trained to do things human actors do, or we don’t know much about it hence, it is easier to heal an ailing person in a movie than to show a fly on the wall.

An adorable illustration of the Oliphaunt (Mûmak) by Zegreg63, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; and an at-scale representation of Palaeoloxodon namadicus, from fossils found in Central India, from Larramendi, A. (2016). Shoulder height, body mass, and shape of proboscideans. Acta Palaeontol. Pol. 61(3). pp. 537-674.; they both are strikingly beautiful and similar in built.

Seven years after Inception, the most ridiculously vivid, fascinating, and terrific movie was released, Annihilation. Deep in the niche-genre of cosmic horror, nature was on mutation-causing steroids. Preposterous. I wasn’t as fascinated as I was for The Matrix, not so much for the other monstrosity of Fantastic Beasts that is so much like Pokémon rife with non-human cruelty and goofery, nor like Avatar with its underdone of ‘kill or be killed’ or Shyamalan’s killer trees – no, not Ents – or monsters of movies that are moved like puppets, either. These movies, all simulations, thrust the narrative of nature versus us. I missed nature in the background of a simulated world: the wall and the fly, an insomniac and a mosquito, a flower and a butterfly, a flock of birds against the blue sky. A seagull by the window. Only a few attracted my attention.

In 2007, I started counting flies. While chasing butterflies was mostly restricted to the jungles, I found flies to be everywhere, in the balcony, at the restaurant counter, and curiously, unlike butterflies, they were all the same: two wings, with round and sometimes rotund eyes, biters and lickers. But as I really peered unto them, when I really began to count, they all seemed different. The count started as I learnt about their kinship segregated into families. By the time I counted five families, comprising hundreds of species each, I was ecstatic. And the further I went down the rabbit hole, the deeper still it went. There are more flies than butterflies, more diverse, more difficult to find, these things started bothering me in a way that it became an obsession.

When I started drawing parallels between movies centered around simulated worlds and real-world people discussing whether this universe is simulated, I found a correlation that is likely not coincidental. I find that a proponent of real-world-is-a-simulation is often disconnected from the ordinary world, and movie populism hints at a real-world problem, that we do not treat non-human nature as a part of our simulated life, for what is their utility there? The question that everyone seems to be asking or thinking revolves around an outdated idea that everything revolves around us, humans; that even as we are an intelligent, intelligible species, others are programmes of a lesser algorithm – or hologram – less senile, less sensible, less intelligent, stuck in their form and destiny.

A still of the work cabin from The Matrix (1999), directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; and an illustration of the philosophical thought experiment called Plato's cave by 4edges, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; based on Plato's cave, Mr Anderson (Neo) would be seated to the extreme left of the illustration.

The question about the existence of non-human life in a simulated world theory interests me. If we follow the movies, it is to kill human life. The notion that there is a utility, or benefit, for their existence stems from our – to quite Agent Smith – ‘me, me, me’ ideology that is quite commonly seen in most movies but also in real-life theories about simulated worlds explained by physical sciences theorists. It appears there is no place for nature in a simulated world; are the functions that help us thrive then taken care of by an unseen hand?

As my count rose – to nearly one-fourth of India’s family-level diversity of flies, I was bitten by the bug. Well, there are flies all around us – mosquitoes, for instance, breed in stagnant pools, houseflies on open food, blowflies on rotting meat, flowerflies in the sewers, botflies on living animals. Soldierflies in organic waste. Someone, somewhere, decided that among all these flies, the soldierflies were excellent at converting organic waste into fertilizer, and the maggots are now commercially available so that they can convert any volume to fertilizer while the adult flies pollinate flowers in gardens, and are generally pretty to look at.

With what I’ve read in the mainstream media, explanations of simulations appear to be with a purpose – by design. We don’t know if the universe can simulate itself – it needs a force behind it, a hand even, whether for reason or pleasure. To think that Hermetia illucens was by design, as were the other flies with a taste for the food we throw and spread diseases or feed on living tissue, has no explanation – for what purpose do they serve? – in a simulated space. And to think that it’s a jigsaw piece that just fell into place, I would agree, but to give it rhyme-and-reason of by-design, I wouldn’t.

Why, you ask. A simulated life is also likely going in the direction it is intended to take, against our free-will. On the contrary, the natural world teaches us that the concept of free-will, governed within the physical dimensions of this universe, is real: hello, thermodynamics. Hermetia illucens belongs to an ilk older than our imagination. Earliest fossil records date back to Cretaceous, the Aptian time when the world looked different, where dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, and Triceratops roamed. Beneath their feet, in the shallow pools, Stratiomyid larvae fed on the algal layer, leaving behind tracks in the soil as they eventually became trapped in the sediments and remained preserved for eons till humans came and unearthed them and marvelled at them about 125 million years later.

A still of Winslow resting by the window from The Lighthouse (2019) directed by Robert Eggers; and Portrait of a woman from Hofer family (~1470), German (Swabian) School; National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; while the gull symbolized something mysterious in the film, the fly on the headdress itself remains a mystery.

The larvae remain unchanged, just as mosquitoes remain unchanged for millions of years, yet this same timescale goes beyond a simulation theory that revolves around us, humans. Even today, the mainstream understanding seems stuck in time when humanity believed the sun and the moon revolved around Earth. Even if we are to assume that we live in a simulation, small flies quash the mainstream understanding of it by merely existing, nay, thriving, as a successful group of organisms among other organisms. To simulate billions of years of Earth’s existence is just taking every process of metamorphosis or a dinosaur evolving into a bird for granted.

The Stratiomyomorpha group of flies fascinated me like none other – it became my personal peeve. They’re not superior or fare better than other group of flies, but there’s one I was stuck on for a long time. I had the opportunity of meeting – finding – and this chance meet – encounter – led me to believe that so far as we live, we live a non-simulated, free-willed life burdened – limited – by our own imaginations of grandeur or indifference that this non-simulated world pendulates between. My fascination isn’t because of its name, they’re exactly the opposite of it: Stratio is ‘of an army’, from Stratios, the commander of Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey, and Myia, Greek for fly. An army of flies: Soldierfly. I cannot for one know why they’re called so, but I also do not know what a ‘mormon’ butterfly has to do with Mormonism, so I think that settles it.

Francis Walker F.L.S. 1851. Insecta Britannica, Vol. 1. Diptera. Reeve and Benham, London. Plate I showing 16 species of flies, 1—7 of flies belonging to Stratiomyidae, soldierflies. This is among the earliest illustrations of this family of flies.

This group, made up of three extant and one extinct family, are flower-visitors, with larvae that feed on diverse resources, some aquatic some terrestrial, some algae and fungi, some predatory, some feed on mulch of organic matter and some wood. Of the extant three, two are found in India, the third, a gem I equal to the Arkenstone if not the Silmarils, is Pantophthalmidae, commonly called timber flies, which feed on wood as larvae and are among the largest of flies – with wingspan up to 10 cm – found only in the neotropics. The other two, Stratiomyidae, the soldierflies, and the Xylomyidae, the wood soldierflies are found world-over. The former is a very diverse family with over 2,700 species (or 3,000 according to some) and the latter with about 140 species. Remember this ratio of 19:1 for a few minutes.

Somewhere in the middle of my decade-long quest, when I neared the count to about 45% of all fly-families found in India in the metropolis of Mumbai, I had an unlikely visitor. Standing in the balcony one usual day, a fly subtly buzzed inside:  a fly with an elongate body, legs dangling down in flight, and flying strongly but slowly, it didn’t settle down after I turned the lights on. Considering it a robberfly – a rather uncommon but not unsurprising predatory fly found in good diversity around the city, I dismissed it and went back to look at flies on my computer. When I returned to the window in the morning, without a thought for the fly at the window, I found it dead. A dead fly is no good, someone might say, but for a naturalist it serves a purpose not as great as that for a taxonomist. Looking at the dead fly in the gutters of the sliding window, I thought my Arkenstone had flown right to me: a Xylomid fly, the wood soldierfly that I earnestly wanted to see, lay dead before me. With only one species recorded from India, I thought I had found the second, but I was wrong. It turned out to be the relative of the robberfly, the stiletto fly in the family Therevidae, also uncommon and a first for the state of Maharashtra of India, but not the fly on my wish-list.

A still of the shimmer from Annihilation (2018) directed by Alex Garland; and Water-Lilly Pond, left half (1920-26) by Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The shimmer of the film and the water-lilly pond, which Monet painted over 30 years as his cataract worsened, are both remarkably relatable to humanity's vision.

There was a bias in my quest to find this family. That a fly I wanted to see flew right into my house bang in the middle of the city, a fly associated with dead trees – again rarely associated with cities, was too good to be true, precisely why my first intuition was to hurriedly tick it off my checklist. But I erred elsewhere nonetheless. Another fly on my list was a Conopid, a fly that torpedoes onto a bee as it visits flowers, sticks an egg on it as if throwing an unstrung harpoon, and flies off leaving the bee feeling only a bit dizzy – the fly larva then feeds on the bee as it goes about its business. For the longest time, I found a fly to be a Conopid, which made into my publication as a Conipid that was really a hoverfly in the family Syrphidae, a Monoceromyia.

To imagine that this universe is a simulation, the creator has to have a bias. To imagine that this simulation is being observed by someone and is writing about its elements, characters, and their admixtures, is also introducing bias in his observations. Is there a bias? There are nineteen species of soldierflies for one of wood soldierflies. Is this the bias? As for these two families of flies, it’s a lot about who evolved when, where, and on which resource (here, organic waste – a rather abundant resource versus dead wood – a comparatively less-abundant resource). Species diversification worked well for soldierflies than it did for the wood soldierflies. As for the bias in this universe, is it hiding in dark energy, which is pushing our universe to accelerate than decelerate, and makes up 70% of ‘stuff’ in our universe, which along with dark matter comprises 95% of what we cannot see but faintly detect, compared to what is visible and known to us, which is just 5% of this universe? For all we know, wood soldierflies comprise only 5% diversity while soldierflies 95%. Bias? That’s a stretch by light-years, I know. My point is, if there is a bias, we don’t know it, we can’t even feel it – but this piece is about two things, the existence of flies and my argument therefore that this isn’t a simulated universe, and I compared their proportions merely in the context of our subject.

The error that got included in the publication and the one that did not, did not make much of a difference to the fly diversity of Mumbai, or the northern Western Ghats, or the state of Maharashtra as a whole. My Arkenstone, however, remained hidden in the woodlands somewhere. In the quest between then and now, I found other wood flies, the Clusiidae, the Megamerinidae – both new to the region and the state, both handsome beyond comparison. The former, called druid fly, is a delicate little fly that is known to have lekking sites on wooden stumps to impress the female fly, they engage in intricate courtship dance, something worth watching once. The latter is a rather rare fly – with only about fifteen species known worldwide – found on a fallen log next to a dusty bus stop in one of the forest villages. That was quite a find – am I now silly to expect the wood soldierfly to fly into my house?

To simulate a world, we first need to realise that we are not at the centre of the universe, that – as JBS Haldane once famously said, ‘If He exists the creator has an inordinate fondness for beetles’ – for this to be a simulation the creator has to be an entomologist or at least fond of invertebrate diversity and humans are likely fringe-species that, to their credit, came to make changes but also, more importantly – and as Carl Sagan said, ‘And we, we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins–star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos’ – that our consciousness matters but is only a result of many, many permutations and combinations. Simulating? The Matrix? They’re all better, even if melancholic and dystopian, in movies.

A still from The Lighthouse (2019) directed by Robert Eggers, inspired from Hypnose (1904) by Sascha Schneider, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Enlightenment and disillusionment are both separated by a thin, invisible line.

Five years after the fly at the window, in 2021 as I was tallying insects, I found myself staring at something on the wall. I was in the middle of a rainforest, by one LED light, on one of the several cold nights when I photographed a fly: robust in built, striking yellow legs and shoulders, with a pubescent golden-brown vest, perched on the wall. I photographed it and went after other flies.

For a simulated world like ours to work, religious texts are meant to be written, edited, and published the way they are. JRR Tolkien was meant to simulate Middle Earth into existence. In Gandalf’s words, “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” And by extension, I was meant to find this fly on the wall just as Johann Wilhelm Meigen was supposed to give it a name two-hundred-and-one years ago; the fly on the wall is Solva, in the family Xylomyidae, aptly called by someone as the drab wood soldierfly. It lays eggs in crevices of the bark, and the larvae feed on the wood just beneath the bark, hence the name – xylon is Greek for wood, myid is from Greek myia - a fly. There it was, when I least expected it, in a place I cannot romanticise much - the wall, not deadwood deep inside the rainforest I was surrounded by, at a time I would otherwise be huddled in a blanket, possibly swooning over the collection of other flies. Even if the quest for this fly, and the situation I met her in, and the substrate I found her on, is least adventurous, the very incident of having seen one, and then realising that it was the one, brought me enormous satisfaction; here in the central Western Ghats, the wood soldierfly lives. It isn’t common, but chances of encountering it in pockets of rainforests are higher.

Solva, Meigen 1820, Xylomyidae, central Western Ghats. The fly on the wall.

And then I thought to myself, what a world we live in. Simulated? If this fly was simulated, how was it simulated is a bigger question for me before who simulated it. But once we understand the how, how the pieces in this universe just fell together, unknown to this end-product – this fly, we – or if you beg to differ, I – find that it did not have to be simulated, it evolved to live – not to serve, enrich, preach, or revere this world, but to exist – then there is no question of who. To call it simulated is to belittle great thinkers and creators and discoverers, of the dark and bright history of humanity, of the wonders of nature, of the existence of this third rock from the sun, of this universe itself. A simulated world requires imagination, and I don’t know anyone other anything that challenges our imagination more than nature itself, and so, that’s not the world we, or the drab wood soldierfly, lives in.

As we go on simulating worlds in the reel-life, we should remember that no harm has come from sprinkling nature in all things we do and see, more so in the real life. Here, I point you to the fly-on-the-wall in this conversation, for she exists in the form of impermanence as we do, long before us, longer after us.

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian (~1700), Jacobus Houbraken, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, the author-illustrator of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium among many others, was one of the first to study live insects. Here, she is surrounded by her works, including a butterfly flying towards her.