4 Questions for Marianne del Cerriota

Marianne del Cerriota, M.D. is a senior fellow at the Kassel Institute for Bio-Economic Policy, a think-tank in San Diego. del Cerriota is a respected authority on bioeconomics issues at the frontier of medicine and technology, most notably generative medicine and semantic bio-diagnostic research. Author or editor of 14 books as well as a chapbook of “anti-sonnets,” del Cerriota served as an advisor to surgeons general under the Carter, Bush I, and Clinton administrations. Her latest book Not Now (Grove Press), paints a bleak picture of human behaviors in the face of rapid scientific encroachment on intellectual and psychological territory. She responded to these queries Jan. 26-29, 2009; some are edited for length and clarity.

SU: Not Now was published last month, so I’m guessing it was completed by mid-2008 or thereabouts. Has the turmoil in the western financial system in the last six months got you wishing you could make some adjustments to the book?

MdC: You seem to be implying that I might now want to paint a less optimistic picture of the future, which would hardly be possible. I would not change a line in my book, nevertheless. We are headed toward catastrophe, inevitably. Mainstream news outlets are serving the same narcotics, using innocuous terms like “meltdown” and even “disaster” to describe the so-called financial crisis. Disaster is what happened yesterday, while any thinking person understands that recovery is, in the absence of some miracle, literally impossible. I described the unfolding disaster in my book as being like the peeling of an onion where each new layer’s rottenness had been obscured by the last’s. No, I believe my book to be still well ahead of the curve.

Your book’s title refers to emergent scientific breakthroughs which will be thwarted by, to use your phrase, a “bioeconomic catastrophe.” Can you explain the process by which global economic events constrict science at precisely the wrong times?

The first thing to understand, before moving to that induction, is the significance of the extent to which people seem to misunderstand our current problem. Because of my own reluctance to believe in our ability to escape catastrophe, it’s become clear to me that denial is uniquely qualified as a collective survival tactic. Nevertheless, when the world’s wealth falls by 50%, as I believe it will, certain statistical inevitabilities start to trigger. Local governments will be bankrupt and their offices plundered. The capitol will be besieged. Soldiers will desert in the thousands. Every person with a college degree will start to sound like Marx, talking about means of production and natural resources and labor instead of about money. The entire world will essentially seem to consist of unskilled graduate literature students and revolutionary gangs.

In the meantime, anti-natalogists, eugenicists, bioethicists, pre-natal genomic cartographers and the like are threatening to eradicate all institutional (and personal—including at the cellular level) capital systems. The result won’t be that information will replace agriculture or cars or even commodities as capital—it’s not even that meta-information will. Instead, new developments will make it clear that capital exchanges as such have run their course, in favor of a more sublime rendering of the human stamp. However, the 1st gen technology threatens to prevent the move to 2nd gen.—which is a classic law of biological order. What is unnatural, in this case, is the extent to which a revolutionary Darwinian leap has been predicted—by myself and others. So few are aware for two reasons: the science is difficult and the science is scary.

This confluence of circumstances brings us to the precipice of a huge bioeconomic chasm that begs for new ideas—it demands that we start jumping off cliffs and then hoping, with no good reason, that we’ll land somewhere. This sort of thinking becomes even more difficult during high-pressure times.

But hasn’t cutting-edge science itself begotten the very problems that threaten it?

For the most part, yes; and this continues to trouble me. It’s frustrating to be so distracted by a 19th century problem, but Frankenstein still walks the earth. If however, this cutting-edge science leads to…Let me put it this way, there will be a liberating aspect to the eradication of the disposition for the empirical. Engaging in empiricism, of course, is to practice the most basic bio-economic activity, and to do so in the most traditional sense. Rejecting this approach is what will allow us to account for, for example, Zeno’s paradox, or bust through Moore’s law, or accomplish any of our other scientific goals. This demands re-investment in radical ideas, which have for so long suffered under the curse of marginalization. Pressure may bring these ideas forward, or it may not.

I know this is old-thinking, but the average citizen may be investigating a plan to convert all his wealth to cash or even gold. Are such activities outright absurd, in your view?

I wouldn’t criticize or ridicule anyone for attempting to build their ark. The time horizon on bioeconomic shifts is unknowable. At this point, it’s all gambling. I have nothing to hide. In the near term, I’m betting on cash, which is to me not a conservative but a radical strategy. The conservative strategy is to find a way to collect and store potable water.