German Transhumanism: Haunted by History
An Interview with Miriam Ji Sun, Chair of the German Transhumanist Association
This interview was conducted with Dr. Miriam Ji Sun (a.k.a. MJSL2050), the current chair of the German Transhumanist Association (De:Trans). Miriam has a PhD (MCL) in sociology with an interdisciplinary thesis on robotics and society. Genetically Asian, she’s lived in 6 countries. She speaks German, English, Japanese, Dutch, French and Arabic and she can read basic Spanish and Italian. She considers herself a “world citizen with a German passport.” Currently she works as foresight researcher at a major Dutch Research Institute.
H+: What are the major German transhumanist groups?
Miriam Ji Sun: There is the German Transhumanist Association (De:Trans) that also includes members from Austria and Switzerland as well as expats and also has relations to the Dutch Transcedo and the Japanese transhumanists. Besides this, there also exists a group focussed on cryonics and biostasis: “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Angewandte Biostase e.V.” where many De:Trans members are also involved.
H+: Are there Germans in history that are admired as transhumanists?
MJS: Actually, not admired. Some — among them many non-transhumanists — relate Nietzsche, who was a German, to transhumanism because he introduced the term “Übermensch” or “overman.” However Nietzsche’s concept of the “Übermensch” is prone to misinterpretation and has also been related to — and misused by — Nazi Germany, which in turn also led to certain negative interpretations of transhumanism that do not reflect actual transhumanist philosophy as it is understood by the vast majority of transhumanists. Some critics of transhumanism also draw relations to Ernst Haeckel. He is also associated with German Nazi eugenics. So “historical” Germans may rather serve as an example for the misuse or misinterpretation of ideas like human enhancement. This could also explain the uneasiness of Germans with transhumanism in general. But also popular German bands like Rammstein or Kraftwerk who display some hard and industrial/technological elements have been wrongly accused of being somewhat Nazi-related. One could get the feeling that Germany is suffering from some form of “Nazi complex” that causes mis- and over-interpretations in some cases.
H+: Who are the major figures in contemporary German transhumanism?
MJS: There are not what you may consider “major figures” in transhumanism who live in Germany. We do regard Nick Bostrom, Anders Sandberg, Aubrey de Grey, Andy Miah, Max More and James Hughes as prominent transhumanist or transhumanist-related figures.
H+: What books are admired?
MJS: Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, Aubrey de Grey, Dawkins, Drexler, Greg Egan, James Hughes (Citizen Cyborg), Kurzweil, Lem, Minsky, Neal Stephenson, Moravec, Tipler, Ed Regis. Two of our De:Trans members, Melanie and Patrick, were involved in translating Aubrey de Grey’s Ending Aging from English into German. Another team is currently working on a general book about transhumanism in German that is planned to be published before the end of this year.
H+: What are common occupations of transhumanists in Germany?
MJS: Most German transhumanists are working in the area of natural science (basic and applied research, mostly in life sciences, physics and material science), computer science/programming and mathematics, engineering and economics with a few cultural and social scientists working in media-related areas or in consulting. Therefore it seems to be pretty much the same as in the US. However it seems that transhumanists tend to be more interdisciplinary, with transhumanist natural scientists being more interested in social and ethical dimensions of technology, engineering and scientific advances and transhumanist social and cultural scientists much more knowledgeable about hard facts in engineering, technology and natural sciences than their non-transhumanist peers within the respective subjects. However, this statement is just a hypothesis based on informal observations and not research studies.
H+: Are there many female transhumanists in Germany?
MJS: De:Trans currently has around 144 members of which only 7 are female, which makes a share of 5%.
H+: What transhumanist topics are popular in Germany?
MJS: German transhumanists tend to be rather oriented towards actual scientific research and technological developments and less concerned with (meta[-]) philosophical questions, at least as far as I know… and how I judge the discussions on the German list. In regard to societal issues, legal aspects and practical ethics are discussed rather than philosophical questions.
Life extension, cryonics and whole brain emulation (“uploading”) are major topics where scientific developments are also being closely followed. In Germany, there is also another organization, www.biostase.de, centered around cryonics, whose members are also actively taking part in building up a cryonics infrastructure. However the legal situation within Germany is unfavourable in regard to cryonics since legally dead bodies need to be buried or cremated. Ironically, there is considerable interest in Germany to allow so-called promession, where dead bodies are being frozen in liquid nitrogen in order to be shattered and crumbled to dust afterwards – cryonics in its absurdity!
H+: Is there any interest in eugenics in Germany now or is it a totally taboo topic?
MJS: Due to the Nazi history of Germany, eugenics is actually a total taboo topic there, regardless of differences in definition, goals or means. It is also similar with procedures like pre-implantation diagnostics (PID), euthanasia and other human enhancement technologies that are also often viewed in this context. And although the German Federal Court of Justice in June 2010 concluded that PID should be allowed to scan for severe diseases and illnesses that are knowingly related to genetic defects, protests are high, especially from churches and ethicists who warn about misuse.
H+: What political party or parties do German transhumanists belong to?
MJS: There are some German transhumanists actively involved with the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), the progressive factions of the Greens and the Pirates. In general, there seems to be rather a tendency of dissatisfaction with all political parties among transhumanists. Conservatives are not popular. Since the German group is small with its 144 members, as compared to the US with possibly 2000 or more, there is much more homogeneity than in the U.S., with a tendency towards liberalism and social democracy. Religious affiliations are basically absent.
H+: Do Germans see themselves as technological leaders in the future?
MJS: Germany is among the world leaders in exports, but the country has generally become quite risk averse and tends to be skeptical in regard to “radical innovations.” Germany holds a strong position in renewable energy technologies, as well as optics and photonics, cars, transport systems, large industrial machinery and industrial robots. In medical devices and technology, the country belongs among the world leaders in innovation. It’s also regarded as important to stay on the competitive edge in nanotechnology, biotechnology and neurotechnology, but these research areas also generate a considerable amount of controversies. Nonetheless, German research institutes are doing high class research in the area of neuroscience/neuroinformatics. One example is the FACETS Project of University Heidelberg that aims at developing hardware concepts based on peculiarities of the architecture and design of the human brain, which are to to be (partially) emulated in hardware. However bold statements of the “brain on a chip” sort as described on PhysOrg (ed: also on H+) can’t be found on the FACETS website and it rather reads like “alternative hardware concepts inspired by the architecture of the human brain which differs from what they call the ‘Turing approach’”.
I think that Germany is too cautious to really foster transhumanist-related technologies. It is not primarily a matter of technological know how — Germany has very good engineers, although their number is declining — but in my view, it’s a matter of culture. Saying “we want to be the best,” for example, would be looked upon with suspicion and still raises associations with World War II and Nazi Germany. I think that the ‘transhumanist future’ may be in Asia — possibly not even in Japan which also seems to somewhat lose its ambitious drive, but perhaps Singapore, South Korea, or possibly China in the longer run. If you would ask me about my own personal opinion, I would say that currently Singapore may be the most “transhumanist” country in regard to technologies and attitude toward education and innovation.