Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to decide their own fate. Cultural harm is one of the significant threats that we would have to consider in a direct alien First Contact event. It’s a topic addressed in a recently published book titled “Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy and Governance.” In one chapter Philadelphia area writer Brent Franklin focuses on the interaction between civilizations and what that could mean for humans in a First Contact situation. Cultural harm is the potential damage that interaction between civilizations could have, especially for the weaker, less-advanced society. Franklin points to Brazilian relations with the isolated tribes of the Amazon. These may be the last such isolated societies on the planet. Brazil has gone to great lengths to protect the autonomy of the indigenous tribes. Those actions are based on the negative outcomes for many other tribes in previous years. Interaction with humans has collapsed indigenous economic and social structures, to the point of completely dissolving some cultures. This is not a new aspect of human life. We have experienced such actions for thousands of years. Some may argue that it is a natural progression for more advanced societies to subsume less advanced. However, in the last 100 years fierce opposition to this argument has developed. It can be seen in the efforts of Native North Americans to preserve their culture, much of which was decimated by European settlement and intrusion.
We may consider our human society rather advanced in terms of depth and complexity. But there could be risks in interaction with extraterrestrials. Technology is one of the most obvious considerations. Should aliens provide technological information to us? If they are more advanced we may not even have the foundation to understand alien technology. But if we did, would having knowledge given to us make us stronger or weaker? Science is a foundational system that grows through the sharing of ideas and replication of study results. Each new piece of information is a building block, but that block is only put in place once it has been critically reviewed. Along the way, all sorts of other ideas, challenges and considerations can come to light. Human science is a complicated set of interactions and development. Alien technology could throw us off course. Or it could make us dependent on alien tutoring.
Human religion could also suffer cultural harm. Perhaps the aliens have a religious system that is adopted by humans? That could undermine human religions and have a drastic impact on human culture.
There could also be benefits to alien interaction with humans. New ideas could cause us to develop our technology in new directions and grow our religious perspectives. A lot would depend on how interaction with aliens would occur. The negative comparisons in human history usually involve the new society encroaching on the geography of the indigenous group, quite often through dominance and even war. If aliens were not threatening us physically, could interaction create positive change for the human civilization? Many would argue that we need new religious perspectives, as religion is the source of much conflict here on Earth. Perhaps alien technology could be shared in a way that would incorporate our human scientific system?
Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to guide the future development of their culture. If there is agreement that some alien perspectives might be beneficial, those perspectives could be incorporated into human society. The point is that humans need to make the decisions. If aliens do visit our solar system some day they will be encroaching on our space. We should be the ones who decide how the relationship should progress. We should have the ability to limit and control contact. That could even mean turning down alien assistance.
Franklin suggests a “peaceful and cautious approach to contact.” This is something I have been promoting for several years now. Yes, there would be clear threats to humanity in an alien First Contact scenario, especially if it is Direct First Contact, taking place in our solar system. But there may also be benefits in such a relationship. The tough part would be setting up a framework for the relationship that would allow for that “peaceful and cautious approach.”
In simple terms humans would need to assess the following in any First Contact scenario:
-The details of the situation itself: what are the aliens proposing?
-Our position in this scenario: what are our weaknesses and strengths?
-The risk that further contact could provide to the human civilization
-The benefits that further contact could provide to human civilization
It’s basically the SWOT analysis that businesses use for planning. You evaluate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. From there you can develop a short-term response and a long-term strategy.