What do we do? Officially, we leave them alone. Unofficially, they will be sampled, abducted, their natural resources plundered and their planet contaminated with Earthly microbes. Even if we never set foot upon their planet, and they don’t even know we’re there, we’ll pollute them.
What the governments of Earth say is legal and what enterprising individuals do are entirely different. There’s no proof that humankind will change from how it has operated for the last 2 million plus years. So, I’d bet on the first contact by an agency like NASA being non-invasive, and then prompt exploitation and collateral damage contamination from private entities.
History always repeats.
The very similar thing happened in the early years of the discovery of the Americas. We kidnapped a Native American and brought him back to Europe to showcase him with a group of his kinsmen, and they never returned home.
We traded with the native populations, gaining their trust with trinkets and alcohol, then be fought with them over disagreements about who’s land it was, and who should control its resources. We oppressed the native populations, pushing them off their ancestral lands onto small reservations, and we tried in earnest to eliminate their culture and erase their teachings and way of life from the face of this Earth.
Maybe things would be different if we ever encounter non-terrestrial life.
Actually, this discovery of alien life could happen. Hard to say the probability, – and maybe not on a planet but a moon. Jupiter’s moon Europa has a liquid water ocean which is thought to be rich in oxygen – produced by the radiation from Jupiter splitting the surface water ice into hydrogen and oxygen and the oxygen then makes its way down many kilometers into the ocean.
It’s currently thought to be the most likely place to find complex life – perhaps as complex as squids. Their best guess is, not as much biomass probably as Earth, but roughly similar to the populations of the hydrothermal vents in the ocean floors of Earth’s ocean.
So, it could have complex life, such as perhaps squids. But if that’s possible, is it not also possible that over billions of years, it could also produce intelligent life like us?
Here, their civilization is pretty much bound to be at least millions of years old, maybe billions of years old. It would be such a remarkable coincidence as to be almost impossible that they develop technology at exactly the same time as us. So if they don’t have the technology it is for fundamental reasons such as living in an ocean or not having hands, or some such. I think the scenario you get in science fiction of extraterrestrials in e.g. early stone age or whatever level of technology is pretty much impossible.
So then, if there was intelligent life there, as close as Europa, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them yet.
Living in an ocean, even if they are very clever and also have hands – or tentacles – still – there is no access to fire, at least not easily (maybe occasional underwater eruptions). They might well not develop technology at all, even in a billion years old civilization. At least not much more than, maybe, building dwellings of some sort and tools that to us would be primitive but the most complex things they can make in their environment.
And what we must do, surely, is to take great care. Not to introduce Earth life to start with, because that could make them extinct – it would be like releasing a genetically engineered totally artificial lifeform into the wild on Earth. Not safe, not unless you thoroughly understand what you are doing – and even then you’d doubtless get a lot of debate and some people who are not sure if the scientists involved have thought through everything and do totally understand what they are doing.
What we could learn from them could be of tremendous value. It’s what I like to call a “super positive” outcome. Something so positive that even if there is only a tiny chance of it happening, it’s worth going to a lot of care to give the best chance of it to happen.
Any form of alien life would be of tremendous interest, to learn about a biochemistry different from our own.
But imagine actually meeting an ET that’s been living for billions of years within the Europa ocean?
And – we do learn from our past mistakes. Slowly, but we do learn. For instance, after making the dodo and the passenger pigeon extinct, we now do try to preserve species – a couple of centuries ago then nobody would even think about trying to preserve anything. Now many people try hard and put a lot of effort to preserve species.
Back a couple of centuries ago, slavery was considered to be acceptable and normal in parts of the US, until 1865. Now it is totally unacceptable. Apartheid was considered normal in South Africa until the 1990s.
So we do learn and move on and things change. If you lived in South Africa in the 1970s, say, you might think that Apartheid was never going to end. But it did eventually.
We have also developed standards of human rights that weren’t present in saying the nineteenth century – there are many violations – but still, many places that do uphold those standards. And that we call them violations rather than accept them as normal is a big step forward.
Also, equality of women – in many countries, not all of course.
Our times are still very inadequate in many ways – so much still to do. But if you look back, even as little as just a century or two back – we have also come a long way. So we can change, and do change, and will continue to change. What will the situation be, say, two centuries from now?
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So – when you look back at the way that native peoples have been treated in the past – we don’t have to behave in the same way in the future. Again there is much to be done there but at least we’ve established the principle that native people do have rights, and there are places where those rights are protected, though other places where they are not.
Hopefully, we have moved forward a fair bit more in the future. Indeed I think that unless we become much more peaceful as a civilization than we are now – competition, healthy competition in sports, science, etc – but managed to find a way to a future without warfare and exploitation – at least in space – unless we can achieve that, I don’t see how we can have large numbers of people in space.
Because the technology available in space by then would be too powerful to be used in any way except peacefully. If there are millions of people in space, that means millions of people with easy access to spacecraft able to travel at kilometers per second, probably more capable than any ICBM, living in habitats that by comparison are fragile as a soap bubble. For this to work, they must be peaceful, however, that is achieved. Well, that’s what I think anyway.
As for the near future, then they are protected by our planetary protection policy, which prohibits contaminating other places that are possible habitats for Earth life. Which we apply for reasons of protecting our own science interests – it would be a huge anticlimax to go to Europa or anywhere else and only find the life we brought there ourselves. So for that reason alone then we need to prevent the introduction of Earth life. But some who write on this subject say we also have a duty to protect lifeforms on other planets for themselves, over and above this obvious reason of protecting them because of their scientific value to us. You could also say we need to protect them for their science value to future humans thousands of years from now.
But for intelligent lifeforms or complex lifeforms that could evolve intelligence, or that have lives of their own, you could also say that they have rights themselves of one sort or another. After all, if an advanced alien were to contact Earth – would we not say that we have intrinsic rights in that encounter over and above our value as beings of scientific interest to them?
So surely the other way around, alien lifeforms also can have rights too. We may some day draw up some guidelines of rights of extraterrestrial species similar to our human rights.
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