Initial contact with extraterrestrial beings might lead to colonization and genocide without historical reflection

Initial contact with extraterrestrial beings might lead to colonization and genocide without historical reflection

Key Takeaways:

  1. Ethical Vigilance: SETI and NASA must address ethical concerns regarding potential contact with extraterrestrial life to ensure responsible engagement.
  2. Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Incorporating insights from diverse fields like Indigenous studies can enrich our understanding of the implications of first contact scenarios.
  3. Historical Parallels: Drawing parallels with colonial encounters underscores the risks of presuming superiority or innocence in interstellar interactions.
  4. Corporate Influence: The involvement of corporations in space exploration raises questions about the prioritization of profit over ethical considerations in the event of contact with alien civilizations.
  5. Long-term Implications: Preparing for extraterrestrial contact necessitates considering the enduring consequences, such as geopolitical shifts and potential conflicts, akin to historical examples of colonialism.

In contemplating the inaugural interaction with sentient extraterrestrial beings, humanity faces a pivotal juncture that could profoundly shape its destiny.

The emergence of tangible evidence pertaining to alien existence, whether divulged through disclosures by whistleblowers or admissions of clandestine concealment, would precipitate an epochal paradigm shift for mankind.

As participants of a consortium specializing in Indigenous studies, commissioned to contribute our specialized insights to a symposium affiliated with the Berkeley SETI Research Center, we have scrutinized centuries of cross-cultural encounters and their repercussions across the globe. Our collaborative endeavors for the symposium drew upon interdisciplinary research conducted in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and throughout the Americas.

In its ultimate iteration, our collective declaration underscored the imperative of embracing diverse perspectives on the moral implications of seeking out extraterrestrial life, as well as broadening the scope of what constitutes “intelligence” and “life.” Drawing from our findings, we conceive of the notion of inaugural contact not merely as an isolated incident, but rather as an extensive process already underway.

The Inquiry into Custody of the First Interaction The inquiry into which entity assumes the mantle of readiness for contact with alien lifeforms is of paramount importance. The stakeholders — predominantly military, corporate, and scientific entities — most likely to engage in any prospective contact scenario.

The enactment of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, endowing American citizens with legal entitlements to capitalize on space tourism and the extraction of planetary resources, portends that corporations may well be the pioneers in discerning signs of extraterrestrial civilizations. While the identification of unidentified aerial phenomena typically falls under military purview, and NASA spearheads the transmission of messages from Earth, the bulk of endeavors pertaining to extraterrestrial communication and evidence reside within the domain of SETI, or the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI comprises a cadre of researchers pursuing diverse avenues of inquiry, including Breakthrough Listen, which seeks out “technosignatures,” or indications akin to pollutants, indicative of designed technology.

The roster of SETI investigators predominantly comprises STEM scholars — individuals versed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Opportunities for contributions from the social sciences and humanities realms to the conceptualization and preparation for contact have been sparse.

In a commendable gesture of disciplinary inclusivity, the Berkeley SETI Research Center extended invitations in 2018 to working groups hailing from non-STEM domains, including our Indigenous studies cohort, to draft perspective papers for consideration by SETI researchers.

The Ethical Dimension of Auditory Surveillance Neither Breakthrough Listen nor SETI’s official platform presently espouses a definitive ethical framework beyond an avowal of transparency. The issue of ethical considerations has not eluded previous scrutiny. While certain research institutions, such as the SETI Institute, have incorporated ethical deliberations into their event agendas, it behooves us to question to whom NASA and SETI are ultimately answerable, and the ethical precepts guiding their conduct in the event of potential inaugural contact.

The Post-Detection Hub within SETI — a rare departure from the organization’s STEM-centric orientation — stands poised to formulate a spectrum of contact scenarios. Envisaged scenarios encompass the discovery of extraterrestrial artifacts, interception of signals originating thousands of light years distant, navigation of linguistic disparities, detection of microbial life forms in outer space or on extraterrestrial bodies, and mitigation of the risks of biological contamination to either terrestrial or extraterrestrial ecosystems. Whether these scenarios would command attention from the U.S. government or military brass remains uncertain.

Proponents affiliated with SETI often seek to allay apprehensions by positing the benign intentions underlying the pursuit of technosignatures, reasoning that “what harm could ensue from mere observation?” Jill Tarter, chair emeritus of SETI Research, has defended the act of listening on the grounds that any extraterrestrial civilization would likely regard our listening endeavors as rudimentary or rudimentary.

However, our working group drew upon the annals of colonial encounters to underscore the perils inherent in presuming the relative advancement or intelligence of entire civilizations. For instance, the colonial forays of Christopher Columbus and his European counterparts into the Americas were underpinned by the preconceived notion of the purportedly inferior status of the indigenous populations due to their absence of written language. This fallacious belief precipitated decades of subjugation of indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Moreover, the working group’s declaration intimated that the act of listening in itself constitutes a preliminary phase of contact. Analogous to the phenomenon of colonialism, contact may best be construed as a sequence of occurrences commencing with preparatory measures, rather than a singular event. Viewed through this lens, does not unbidden auditory surveillance amount to a form of unwarranted scrutiny? The notion of attentive, albeit indiscriminate, listening struck our working group as akin to surreptitious eavesdropping.

The incongruity inherent in embarking upon interstellar relations by means of unauthorized surveillance while simultaneously endeavoring to impede foreign entities from intercepting specific U.S. communications is readily apparent. Should humanity’s overtures be perceived as disrespectful or heedless, the prospect of extraterrestrial contact might well culminate in the colonization of our own species.

Legacies of Intercultural Encounters Throughout the annals of Western colonialism, even instances where contact was ostensibly intended to be benign, it has invariably precipitated a litany of woes, including wanton violence, pandemics, enslavement, and genocide.

James Cook’s 1768 expedition aboard the HMS Endeavor was commissioned by the Royal Society, a venerable British scholarly institution. Tasked with computing the solar distance separating Earth from the sun by observing the transit of Venus across the solar disc from Tahiti, Cook was strictly enjoined from engaging in colonial ventures by the society.

Though he succeeded in his scientific objectives, Cook also received directives from the Crown to chart and lay claim to as much territory as possible during the return voyage. Cook’s actions set in motion a wave of colonization and dispossession of indigenous peoples across Oceania, including the violent subjugation of Australia and New Zealand.

The Royal Society had issued Cook a “prime directive” to do no harm and to conduct research with broad applicability to humanity. However, explorers are seldom divorced from the agendas of their benefactors, and their expeditions invariably reflect the prevailing political zeitgeist.

As scholars attuned to the imperatives of research ethics and cognizant of the legacies of colonialism, we invoked Cook’s legacy in our working group’s declaration to underscore the imperative for SETI to disentangle its aspirations from those of corporations, the military, and governmental entities.

Despite being separated by vast expanses of time and space, Cook’s voyage and the endeavors of SETI share notable similarities, including their invocation of celestial science in service to humanity at large. They also share a disjunction between their ethical protocols and the potential long-term ramifications of their successes.

The advent of a public pronouncement from extraterrestrial entities, or the retrieval of extraterrestrial artifacts or spacecraft, could catalyze a chain of events encompassing military interventions, corporate resource exploitation, and conceivably, geopolitical realignments. The annals of imperialism and colonialism on Earth serve as a cautionary tale, attesting that not all stand to benefit

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