First Contact or First Murder?
Would it be justifiable to kill alien life in order to know it?
Posted Jul 31, 2019
It is an odd sequence of events common to many branches of scientific study: A student falls in love with the beauty, mystery, and complexity of a plant, animal, or microbial species. Then the student learns as much about it as possible, searches for it in the wild, finds it—and promptly kills it. The preferred term for these routine sacrifices is “voucher specimen." Labs and museums around the world contain millions of them.
There is some controversy over this process of killing and collecting. (See endnotes.) But it is not difficult to see both the honorable motivations behind it and the significant payoff. Scientists are driven to learn, and dead specimens are effective teachers. A dissection may reveal many things that simple observation or a good photograph cannot. How much less would we know today about the life we share this world with if researchers had not killed and studied so much wildlife over the centuries? How many species have been protected—saved from extinction, perhaps—because of knowledge gained from voucher specimens?
But this is still killing. And it raises a moral question about space exploration that we should be thinking about. Should we encounter an extraterrestrial life form on Mars or perhaps on one of Saturn’s moons, what do we do? Will the astronauts, astrobiologists, and robot controllers of Earth be content to observe, take a few photographs, maybe grab a gentle swab of its exterior? Or will First Contact become First Murder?
This is a tough question because the idea of finally discovering life beyond the Earth and then ending that life probably feels wrong to many people. But if killing newly discovered extraterrestrial life in the name of research is wrong, then why is the routine carnage here on Earth for the same reason okay? Is a bat or a gulper eel somehow less valuable to the universe or less worthy of survival than a microbe on Mars?
My simple and short answer is that we should be prepared to make case-by-case decisions according to what can be determined from observations. Does the extraterrestrial life form appear to be abundant or rare? If it is potentially rare, let it live. Does the life form demonstrate any obvious signs of higher intelligence? If so, let it live. This is how most researchers operate on Earth now, of course. Killing an earthworm for study is not viewed as comparable to killing a dolphin or bonobo because of the cognitive contrast. This may not be so easy on other worlds, however. Even here on Earth we do not yet understand intelligence fully or consistently recognize it. Making a sound life-and-death judgment could be challenging if not impossible because the new life form might think in ways that are outside of our experience and imagination.
I struggle to harm a lone ant in my kitchen because I’m aware of how collectively smart and complex ants are. What if there were a life form on Enceladus, Ganymede, or Europa that operates with a subtle but even more sophisticated hive intelligence? Would this necessarily be detectable or recognizable to us? Maybe not. In isolation, it might appear simple and therefore ethically killable to researchers. But if there were more going on than we could understand, collecting the opening extraterrestrial voucher specimen could be our first galactic felony.
A case can be made for leaving all extraterrestrial life alive and unharmed, regardless of intelligence. This is a beautiful idea but one that could be impossible to achieve short of just staying home. Merely taking that first step on another world, for example, could destroy tiny unseen creatures beneath the boot. The simple presence of a human or robot could be apocalyptic to local life. Think of how the nature we know operates. For all its beauty, it’s obnoxious, rude, destructive, unfair, indifferent, and deadly. Here, one life form can scarcely do anything without causing stress or death to another. As a result, our planet is a constant horror show of sorts. From microbes to giants, everyone is parasitizing, injuring, enslaving, depriving, stomping, breathing in, or swallowing other lifeforms. Yes, it may be a beautiful contemplation: Humanity as some kind of spacefaring practitioners of Jainism. But that fantasy is a tough sell because it would require us to conduct ourselves on other worlds in a way that we do not and realistically cannot at home.
By the way, all of this assumes that First Contact would be with a life form that is weaker or less capable than Homo sapiens. There is no guarantee that this would be the case, of course. If we do find life out there somewhere, maybe it will be contemplating the moral implications of killing us for further study.
- “Avoiding (Re)extinction”, Ben A. Minteer, James P. Collins, et al, Science, 18 Apr 2014: Vol. 344, Issue 6181, pp. 260-261, DOI: 10.1126/science.1250953. From the paper: “Field biologists have traditionally collected voucher specimens to confirm a species' existence. This practice continues to this day but can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations. The availability of adequate alternative methods of documentation, including high-resolution photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling, provide an opportunity to revisit and reconsider field collection practices and policies.”
- “Killing animals is a necessary evil for natural history”, by Terry Wheeler, New Scientist, 30 April 2014.
- “Collection of voucher specimens for bat research: conservation, ethical implications, reduction, and alternatives”, by Danilo Russo, Leonardo Ancillotto, Alice C. Hughes, Andrea Galimberti, Emiliano Mori. Mammal Review, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/mam.12095
-Jainism: “The worldview of the Jainas might be characterized as a biocosmology. Due to their perception of the ‘livingness’ of the world, Jainas hold an affinity for the ideals of the environmental movement. . . . The practice of nonviolence in the Jaina context fosters an attitude of respect for all life-forms.” “Jainism, Hinduism, and Ecology”, by Christopher Key Chapple, The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, http://fore.yale.edu/religion/jainism/
- “Why Jainism Is the World's Most Peaceful Religion”, Now This, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAc33hNc7ak