blogger drafts an extraterrestrial bill of rights

November 4, 2010

Kyle Munkittrick of Science Not Fiction decided that it could be a fun exercise to create a draft of rules for how we should deal with alien species, especially if we get to make first contact in person, rather than via radio or laser transmissions. Sure, it’s just a speculative exercise and as someone who had to sift through legalese enough to get a sense of what documents like that really look like, I can say that it has a long ways to go until we actually start thinking about it seriously. But it is an idea that we may want to ponder. Right now, if an alien spacecraft slides into orbit around Earth, there’s no real protocol for how we will deal with the craft or whatever living creatures might be on board, who will contact it, and how. And when we figure that out, we’ll need to get some sort of team to introduce the aliens to the rest of the world, hence Munkittrick suggests the following…

Article I. The People of Earth shall, in a manner prescribed by national and international law, form a delegation of representatives appropriate to the Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This delegation will be entrusted with ensuring adherence to the values and articles within this document.

This, along with several more articles specifying that we won’t treat extraterrestrial living things as lab rats, or get excited about playing Operation with alien innards, sound just fine to me. I also like the clause which does away with all these rules in the event that otherworldly visitors declare that we should take them to our leader to sign the planet’s capitulation rather than to introduce themselves. But what if the aliens’ choices violate our own principles? What if the aliens are being unreasonable or belligerent because on their world, they’re high level diplomats and that’s how their high level diplomats are supposed to act? What if the extraterrestrials we want to treat with respect befitting a foreign emissary are really nobodies who aren’t even going to be missed on their home worlds? In other words, what if we’re dealing with a scenario closer to District 9 rather than the modern day version of Star Trek? Again, these are issues we need to consider before talking to any aliens. In the same vein, compliance with another article Munkittrick emphasizes may be extremely tricky…

Article II. The People of Earth shall make no act of aggression, pre-emptive or otherwise, towards an Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

As nice it would be to know exactly what to do not to tick off an alien visitor, we have trouble being polite across cultures in our own species. You never know what might set an extraterrestrial off. It might be horrified when a human sneezes because that’s how duels are declared on its world, or the most obscene insults are voiced: with a spread of potential pathogens. (Assuming, of course, that its species is aware of germ theory). And on the other hand, it might find sneezing to be a romantic gesture and do something we consider hostile in reply but is actually a flattering gesture on its planet. I understand that acts of aggression probably means firing our kinetic impactors and nuclear warheads at an alien delegation. However, countless wars started over simple misunderstandings and cultural miscommunications which were interpreted as hostile actions while several heated exchanges wound down after enough missiles were pointed towards each other. Lucky for us, we’re very unlikely to even talk to, much less infuriate any aliens, so the only diplomacy with which we really have to concern ourselves for the foreseeable future is the Earthly kind…

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Long ago, there was a simpler suggestion as to what to do with alien visitors.

    Kill them and eat them.

    This was proposed, not out of any xenophobia, but a concern based on prior history when advanced human cultures contacted less advanced cultures. The cultures that had retained the most independence, that had survived the encounter with a distinct culture, were generally the ones that resisted most fiercely. This was not always true; but cultures that had openly welcomed the visitors tended to vanish, their unique culture subsumed into the more advanced culture’s orbit.

    Whether or not successful resistance would be possible against a technology advanced enough to travel between stars is problematic, depending on the limits of technology we can barely envision at this time.

    All things considered, it’s probably better, for both the aliens and us, for humans to travel to them.

  • Paul

    Bruce: “but a concern based on prior history when advanced human cultures contacted less advanced cultures. … cultures that had openly welcomed the visitors tended to vanish,”

    Hawking’s recent argument. (Amongst many others.)

    But it only applies, IMO, to conquest. The Australian Aborigines had their culture destroyed by contact with Europeans, right? Wrong, they had their culture destroyed by Europeans moving in, taking over the land for farming, killing any Aborigines who “trespassed” on or “stole” from those farms, gradually taking over, and always assuming the sovereignty of white law over Aborigines.

    Aborigines had had a long history of contact with asian traders and fishermen, including the advanced Chinese. And west coast Aborigines were contacted by Dutch explorers a hundred years before English colonisation. The difference? The Chinese traders and Dutch explorers didn’t move in.

    Likewise, awareness of advanced Chinese culture and technology didn’t destroy European culture in the 13th-16th centuries. OTOH, in the 17th-19th centuries, Europeans trashed every Asian society they invaded.

    “Contact” does not destroy culture. Conquest does.

  • reknaw

    “Assuming, of course, that its species is aware of germ theory”
    They have the technology to travel between stars but not a single person in their species ever looked through a microscope? I find it hard to believe :P

  • Greg Fish

    Actually Reknaw, they might have never invented microscopes and not really aware of what causes disease. After all, advancement in one set of scientific disciplines doesn’t mean advancement in all scientific disciplines. Just look at us. We can build rockets and robots to explore other planets, but we can’t build new organs in a lab.