How mankind reacts to its first encounter with intelligent extraterrestrial life may determine the fate of our race.

Key takeways

  • 2023 has seen a surge in interest in alien contact, with reports of UFO sightings and government investigations into the phenomena.
  • Experts suggest that contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is already underway and emphasize the importance of ethical considerations in this process.
  • The military, businesses, and scientists are likely to be the main players in any first contact scenario, with organizations like SETI playing a crucial role in the search for alien life.
  • There is a need for clear ethical guidelines on listening for extraterrestrial signals, as current efforts lack transparency and inclusivity of diverse perspectives.
  • The history of colonialism on Earth highlights the potential risks of contact with extraterrestrial life, suggesting that caution and ethical foresight are essential to avoid negative outcomes.
SETI has been listening for markers that may indicate alien life – but is doing so ethical? (Image credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

 

This post was first published on The Conversation. The publisher provided an item to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

We’re just halfway through 2023, yet it already seems like the year of extraterrestrial contact.

In February, President Joe Biden issued orders to take down three unidentified aerial phenomena, or UFOs, as NASA calls them. Then there was purported leaked film of a UFO from a Navy pilot, followed by news of a whistleblower’s report on a probable U.S. government cover-up regarding UFO research. Most recently, an independent investigation published in June shows that UFOs were gathered by a clandestine agency of the United States Government.

If true evidence of alien life is discovered, whether through whistleblower testimony or an admission of a cover-up, humanity will confront a momentous paradigm change.

As members of an Indigenous studies working group, we were requested to contribute our academic knowledge to a workshop hosted by the Berkeley SETI Research Center. We have researched millennia of cultural exchanges and their effects from throughout the world. Our joint workshop preparations relied on transdisciplinary research from Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and the Americas.

In its ultimate form, our group statement demonstrated the importance of varied opinions on the ethics of listening for extraterrestrial life, as well as a widening of what “intelligence” and “life” mean. Based on our findings, we see first contact as a long-term process that has already begun.

Who is in charge of initial contact?

The question of who is “in charge” of preparing for contact with alien life arises quickly. The military, business, and scientific communities are the most likely to engage in any contact situation, based on their interpretative lenses.

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which grants Americans the legal right to profit from space tourism and planetary resource exploitation, may indicate that companies will be the first to discover traces of alien cultures. Otherwise, while detecting unusual aerial phenomena is often a military concern, and NASA is in charge of delivering signals from Earth, the majority of actions involving alien communications and evidence are handled by SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI is a group of scientists working on a range of research projects, including Breakthrough Listen, which listens for “technosignatures,” or signs of designed technology, such as pollution.

SETI investigators are almost invariably STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) researchers. Few people in the social sciences and humanities have had the opportunity to contribute to contact conceptions and preparations.

In a potential example of disciplinary inclusivity, the Berkeley SETI Research Center invited working groups from non-STEM fields, including our Indigenous studies working group, to create perspective papers for SETI scientists to evaluate.

Ethics of Listening

Aside from a dedication to transparency, neither Breakthrough Listen nor SETI have a current declaration of ethics on their websites. Our working group was not the first to address this issue. And, while the SETI Institute and certain research facilities have included ethics in their event programming, it seems appropriate to inquire as to who NASA and SETI answer to, and what ethical rules they are following for a future first contact situation.

SETI’s Post-Detection Hub, another rare exception to SETI’s STEM-centrism, appears to have the best chance of developing a variety of contact scenarios. Possible scenarios include discovering ET artifacts, receiving signals from thousands of light years away, overcoming linguistic barriers, discovering microbiological creatures in space or on other worlds, and biological contamination of either their or our species. It is unclear if the United States administration or military leaders will take these situations seriously.

SETI-affiliated scientists frequently reassure doubters that individuals listening for technosignatures have good intentions, stating, “What harm could come from simply listening?” Jill Tarter, the chair emeritus of SETI Research, defended listening, claiming that any ET society would see human listening tactics as infantile or rudimentary.

However, our working group used the history of colonial interactions to demonstrate the pitfalls of assuming that entire civilizations are relatively evolved or clever. For example, when Christopher Columbus and other European explorers traveled to the Americas, their interactions were affected by the preconceived belief that the “Indians” were less sophisticated owing to their lack of writing. This resulted in decades of Indigenous servitude across the Americas.

The working group statement also implied that the act of hearing is already in the “phase of contact.” Contact, like colonization, may be viewed as a series of events beginning with preparation rather than a single occurrence. Isn’t listening without permission just another type of surveillance? Our working group thought that listening closely but indiscriminately amounted to eavesdropping.

It appears incongruous that we begin our interactions with aliens by listening in without their consent, while aggressively seeking to prevent other countries from listening in on specific US exchanges. If humans are seen as rude or irresponsible, ET encounter may lead to our colonization.

Histories of contact

Throughout the history of Western colonialism, even in circumstances where contactees were supposed to be safeguarded, contact resulted in violent violence, pandemics, enslavement, and genocide.

The Royal Society initiated James Cook’s 1768 expedition on the HMS Endeavour. This famous British academic institution tasked him with determining the solar distance between the Earth and the Sun by tracking Venus’ observable journey across the Sun from Tahiti. The group firmly prohibited him from any colonial involvement.

Though he met his scientific objectives, Cook was also given orders from the Crown to chart and claim as much area as possible on the return journey. Cook’s efforts triggered widespread colonialism and Indigenous dispossession throughout Oceania, including brutal invasions of Australia and New Zealand.

The Royal Society granted Cook a “prime directive” to do no damage and to do research that would benefit mankind as a whole. However, explorers are seldom autonomous of their financiers, and their expeditions reflect the political conditions of their day.

As scholars interested in both research ethics and colonial history, we used Cook’s example in our working group statement to demonstrate why SETI would wish to expressly distinguish its aims from those of companies, the military, and government.

Although separated by great time and space, Cook’s expedition and SETI have important characteristics, including an appeal to cosmic science for the sake of all humanity. They also have a mismatch between their ethical guidelines and the expected long-term consequences of their achievement.

The first domino of a public ET message, or recovered bodies or ships, might set off a chain reaction of events, including military intervention, corporate resource exploitation, and possibly even global restructuring. The history of imperialism and colonialism on Earth demonstrates that colonization does not benefit everyone equally. No one knows for certain how an encounter with extraterrestrials will go, but it is best to ponder cautionary tales from Earth’s own past sooner rather than later.

This page has been amended to reflect the exact date of James Cook’s journey.

This post was first published by The Conversation.

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