The Ethics of First Contact

It’s a common trope in science fiction. We make first contact with an alien species. Either we’re more powerful than they are or they’re more powerful than we are. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the stronger of the two wreaks havoc on the weaker.

The trope is taken from pretty much every human encounter with a previously uncontacted human tribe. Without exception, we, the contacters, somehow end up negatively impacting the lives of the previously uncontacted. In modern times, this often takes the form of industry destroying indigenous populations’ food supply or displacing them without their prior consent. The Belo Monte Dam in Brazil is one example of this. Historically, of course, we spent no time fussing over what the “savages” might want and either enslaved them or killed them.

Artist Chris Wyatt’s rendition of the Myall Creek Massacre of unarmed Australian Aborigines in 1838

Once we were no longer interested in overtly destroying indigenous peoples, governments and anthropologists began to take an assimilationist approach instead, thinking that we were doing indigenous peoples a favor by introducing them to the modern world. The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 sought to move away from this approach, noting that after indigenous peoples have been “integrated” into the countries in which they live, they are often no longer able to enjoy basic human rights and their traditions invariably erode. The Convention recognizes instead “the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions.”

Because of our persistent failures to contact indigenous peoples in a way that is objectively beneficial to them, the Brazilian government has decided to legally protect and monitor the last uncontacted tribes we know about in the Amazon Rainforest so that they can continue their traditional way of life. Here’s some particularly poignant aerial footage of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil:

Why am I writing about all this? It’s good to know, of course, but it also got me thinking about the ethics of astrobiology. What if we’re an “uncontacted” species, and some extraterrestrials decided that either we weren’t ready for contact or that it’s probably better for us to remain uncontacted? Maybe someone has been getting the radio signals that SETI is broadcasting into space, and maybe that someone came to Earth to investigate us as discretely as the man in the video above investigated the tribe in the Amazon, and then decided that it’s probably best to stay away?

Now reverse the situation. What if we visit a planet where we find a lifeform that, like us, has the potential to learn and use science and technology, but is still primitive? In other words, these extraterrestrials have something like a plastic brain that allows them to learn advanced abstract concepts, but when we find them they haven’t yet developed science or technology. These lifeforms are analogous to a population of indigenous humans: like indigenous humans, they could learn something as advanced as quantum mechanics given the right education. But, again like indigenous peoples, these lifeforms never developed a culture of scientific inquiry. If we educate these lifeforms, they could become as advanced – or more advanced – than we. If we don’t contact these lifeforms, then maybe one day in the distant future they too will reach technological maturity. So what’ll it be: contact or no contact?

Presumably we could draft a set of criteria that must be met for an intelligent extraterrestrial species to be considered fit for first contact. I can think of two key conditions. The first is that the lifeforms shouldn’t be too far behind us technologically. What “too far” means will obviously be up to interpretation, because their trajectory of technological advancement might be nothing like ours. But if they are too primitive, then they might not respond well to the technology we have to offer them. To them, our machines will look like magic.

Perhaps the more important criterion is that they should be peaceful. The last thing we want is for a primitive alien species to take interest in our weapons and nothing else. We also don’t want them to suspect us of trying to go to war with them, nor do we want to have to keep them under control lest they go to war with us.

And that brings me to my last point. Imagine you were a technologically advanced extraterrestrial and you were looking at footage of life on Earth to help you decide whether humans were worthy of contact. Would you trust us with your technology?


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of First Contact

  1. Hey Dan, sweet post! That said, I wonder what our criteria should be when we encounter an alien species that is nothing like us. The historical examples you use are really interesting and informative, but indigenous humans are still very similar to non-indigenous humans on the most basic of levels. It might be really hard to gauge the intentions of an ant colony-like species, a giant hive mind or some non-corporeal entity. What if the aliens we encounter — though matching our intelligence as a whole — are far smarter or dumber than we are individually? What if they think on a different time scales than we do?

    This reminds me of the Sci-Fi book ‘Solaris’ (which is awesome btw. you should read it). It expounds on the idea that a super-intelligent alien entity may be so enigmatic in its behavior that it is impossible to understand.

    1. All good points. In that case it’ll be a lot harder to determine whether or not we should (or how we’d even be able to) contact them.

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