Monday, April 5, 2010

Good or bad?

Popular culture has focused on the good, bad and the ugly of extraterrestrial First Contact. The extremes may make for amusing entertainment, but do little to help us prepare for what might happen after Direct First Contact. If aliens are in any way like us, they will most likely have a mix of positive and negative attributes, or perhaps more specifically a combination of altruistic and selfish tendencies.

Dr. David Brin has an essay posted on the website for the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Study Group. A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact is a devil’s advocate piece, designed to get us thinking beyond the simple clichés of First Contact.

Brin examines human altruism, the unselfish regard for the welfare of others, and asks some tough questions. Is the human move towards altruism in recent generations part of an overall evolutionary process that extraterrestrial creatures might also experience? Or is our altruism a “quirky outcome” that is a result of our particular set of evolutionary circumstances?

The answer is important. Many researchers believe that extraterrestrials will be far advanced in not only technology, but also in the philosophical realm. They tend to view extraterrestrials as not only providing scientific support, but also giving us new altruistic goals for our culture and society. Is this a reasonable expectation?
Brin points out that human first contact situations in history rarely had an altruistic nature. Human explorers were interested in wealth through discovery. They wanted to build trade, take new lands for the mother country and exploit natural resources. Would we expect extraterrestrials to act differently? Have we let our hopes and aspirations for First Contact skew our speculation, in favor of positive interactions?

There are plenty of folks who take the negative side of the argument. They point to the numerous threats that extraterrestrials could provide, aside from the usual slash and burn domination scenarios. Brin mentions disease. Extraterrestrial microbes could be the biggest threat of all, if they manage to survive a space flight. Extraterrestrial microbes are a big concern for space agencies. In the 1950’s one of the first international protocols for space exploration raised serious concerns and a set of guidelines regarding craft returning to Earth after space missions. NASA has an extensive decontamination policy for U.S. space travel, although some of this has lessened in the last couple of decades.

Should aliens be allowed unfettered access to our world? Should they be allowed to walk down city streets and mingle with the human population? All of this goes into the control of First Contact. Who makes the initial decisions about what will be allowed with extraterrestrial contact? Who makes the long term decisions? It would seem prudent to have at least a rudimentary response worked out ahead of time, even if Direct First Contact is a highly unlikely event.

A strong point in Brin’s paper is the examination of human response to the news of First Contact. Will religious leaders try to capitalize on First Contact, using fear and suspicion to rally their followers? Will political leaders do the same? Brin says that there are likely to be versions of all these behaviors. I agree that it is naïve to think that all of humanity will simply embrace First Contact. There may be an initial period of shock that resembles such a reaction. However, civil unrest, perhaps even severe disturbances, would most likely build over time in some parts of the world. The first months and years after First Contact may be extremely volatile for our civilization.

Brin ultimately suggests open contact with caution and expectations of quid pro quo. It seems unlikely that extraterrestrials will want nothing of us, while offering us the knowledge of the universe. What will we have to offer them? We will only find out if the introduction ever occurs.

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