Expert Voices

First contact with aliens could end in colonization and genocide if we don't learn from history

An array of radio telescopes pointing into the night sky with the milky way behind
SETI has been listening for markers that may indicate alien life – but is doing so ethical? (Image credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

We're only halfway through 2023, and it feels already like the year of alien contact.

In February, President Joe Biden gave orders to shoot down three unidentified aerial phenomena – NASA’s title for UFOs. Then, the alleged leaked footage from a Navy pilot of a UFO, and then news of a whistleblower's report on a possible U.S. government cover-up about UFO research. Most recently, an independent analysis published in June suggests that UFOs might have been collected by a clandestine agency of the U.S. government.

If any actual evidence of extraterrestrial life emerges, whether from whistleblower testimony or an admission of a cover-up, humans would face a historic paradigm shift.

As members of an Indigenous studies working group who were asked to lend our disciplinary expertise to a workshop affiliated with the Berkeley SETI Research Center, we have studied centuries of culture contacts and their outcomes from around the globe. Our collaborative preparations for the workshop drew from transdisciplinary research in Australia, New Zealand, Africa and across the Americas.

In its final form, our group statement illustrated the need for diverse perspectives on the ethics of listening for alien life and a broadening of what defines "intelligence" and"“life." Based on our findings, we consider first contact less as an event and more as a long process that has already begun.

Who's in charge of first contact

The question of who is "in charge" of preparing for contact with alien life immediately comes to mind. The communities – and their interpretive lenses – most likely to engage in any contact scenario would be military, corporate and scientific.

By giving Americans the legal right to profit from space tourism and planetary resource extraction, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 could mean that corporations will be the first to find signs of extraterrestrial societies. Otherwise, while detecting unidentified aerial phenomena is usually a military matter, and NASA takes the lead on sending messages from Earth, most activities around extraterrestrial communications and evidence fall to a program called SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI is a collection of scientists with a variety of research endeavors, including Breakthrough Listen, which listens for “technosignatures,” or markers, like pollutants, of a designed technology.

SETI investigators are virtually always STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – scholars. Few in the social science and humanities fields have been afforded opportunities to contribute to concepts of and preparations for contact.

In a promising act of disciplinary inclusion, the Berkeley SETI Research Center in 2018 invited working groups – including our Indigenous studies working group – from outside STEM fields to craft perspective papers for SETI scientists to consider.

Ethics of listening

Neither Breakthough Listen nor SETI's site features a current statement of ethics beyond a commitment to transparency. Our working group was not the first to raise this issue. And while the SETI Institute and certain research centers have included ethics in their event programming, it seems relevant to ask who NASA and SETI answer to, and what ethical guidelines they're following for a potential first contact scenario.

SETI's Post-Detection Hub – another rare exception to SETI's STEM-centrism – seems the most likely to develop a range of contact scenarios. The possible circumstances imagined include finding ET artifacts, detecting signals from thousands of light years away, dealing with linguistic incompatibility, finding microbial organisms in space or on other planets, and biological contamination of either their or our species. Whether the U.S. government or heads of military would heed these scenarios is another matter.

SETI-affiliated scholars tend to reassure critics that the intentions of those listening for technosignatures are benevolent, since "what harm could come from simply listening?" The chair emeritus of SETI Research, Jill Tarter, defended listening because any ET civilization would perceive our listening techniques as immature or elementary.

But our working group drew upon the history of colonial contacts to show the dangers of thinking that whole civilizations are comparatively advanced or intelligent. For example, when Christopher Columbus and other European explorers came to the Americas, those relationships were shaped by the preconceived notion that the "Indians" were less advanced due to their lack of writing. This led to decades of Indigenous servitude in the Americas.

The working group statement also suggested that the act of listening is itself already within a "phase of contact." Like colonialism itself, contact might best be thought of as a series of events that starts with planning, rather than a singular event. Seen this way, isn’t listening potentially without permission just another form of surveillance? To listen intently but indiscriminately seemed to our working group like a type of eavesdropping.

It seems contradictory that we begin our relations with aliens by listening in without their permission while actively working to stop other countries from listening to certain U.S. communications. If humans are initially perceived as disrespectful or careless, ET contact could more likely lead to their colonization of us.

Histories of contact

Throughout histories of Western colonization, even in those few cases when contactees were intended to be protected, contact has led to brutal violence, pandemics, enslavement and genocide.

James Cook’s 1768 voyage on the HMS Endeavor was initiated by the Royal Society. This prestigious British academic society charged him with calculating the solar distance between the Earth and the sun by measuring the visible movement of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. The society strictly forbade him from any colonial engagements.

Though he achieved his scientific goals, Cook also received orders from the Crown to map and claim as much territory as possible on the return voyage. Cook’s actions put into motion wide-scale colonization and Indigenous dispossession across Oceania, including the violent conquests of Australia and New Zealand.

The Royal Society gave Cook a "prime directive" of doing no harm and to only conduct research that would broadly benefit humanity. However, explorers are rarely independent from their funders, and their explorations reflect the political contexts of their time.

As scholars attuned to both research ethics and histories of colonialism, we wrote about Cook in our working group statement to showcase why SETI might want to explicitly disentangle their intentions from those of corporations, the military and the government.

Although separated by vast time and space, both Cook's voyage and SETI share key qualities, including their appeal to celestial science in the service of all humanity. They also share a mismatch between their ethical protocols and the likely long-term impacts of their success.

The initial domino of a public ET message, or recovered bodies or ships, could initiate cascading events, including military actions, corporate resource mining and perhaps even geopolitical reorganizing. The history of imperialism and colonialism on Earth illustrates that not everyone benefits from colonization. No one can know for sure how engagement with extraterrestrials would go, though it’s better to consider cautionary tales from Earth’s own history sooner rather than later.

This article has been updated to correct the date of James Cook’s voyage.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

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David Delgado Shorter
Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. David Shorter is a tenured professor at UCLA, where he has taught the class "Aliens, Psychics, and Ghosts" for over a decade. He has been researching how science helps and doesn’t help us understand the paranormal. He is also the Director of the Archive of Healing, having been raised by a curandera, and learning with healers in Indigenous communities as well as in Japan. Most recently, Dr. Shorter has been named the Editor in Chief for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, a leading scholarly journal in the field of Indigenous Studies. He has published scholarly essays in anthropology, Indigenous Studies, and the history of the sciences. He has produced films, created digital content, and curated art exhibits.

  • Dave
    We are exploring new ground in this endeavor. Our history is tainted with the same cycle of social problems we deal with today. Tribal warfare. We have always been and continue to be a socially aggressive species. The human species is separated into different countries (or tribes) Our viewpoint is skewed as we would perceive any advanced form of life as a threat. It is reasonable to believe that this non- human race observing us has achieved unity as a species. This intelligent lifeform observing us has in no way been a threat to us. Their intent has been observation.

    It is true SETI must dissociate itself from corporations and the military. A body representing a global government ( likely the UN) is both necessary and vital for both problem solving and decision making purposes. Experts from various fields including diplomacy are crucial. Any contact from earth must be unified.
  • Mental Avenger
  • Mental Avenger
    Then there is the question of what an Extra Terrestrial Alien would be. IF there are intelligent ET Aliens, they might be almost unrecognizable as a species, and intercommunication might not even be a possibility. However, most discussions assume and ET Alien like this.

    Anatomy Of An Alien

    The popular vision of an ET Alien is rather the same everywhere, but with mass media, that is not surprising at all. In fact, it is to be expected, since media is largely involved in creating news, not reporting it.

    Let’s look at ET. His head is large and bulbous, so that it can contain a larger brain. His fingers are long and slender, indicating that he no longer does manual labor because he has developed devices to do all of his work for him. He is small and fragile, because his technology has relieved him of the need for physical strength. His eyes are large, probably because he is into visual rather than physical activities. He wears no clothes, because he has progressed past the need for modesty. He carries no tools or weapons because his superior intellect allows him to control humans without physical interaction.

    What can we discover about the ramifications of these physical properties? Look at our own evolution, and it is clear that each of these attributes is a natural evolutionary extrapolation of what we would look like if we continue to evolve along our current evolutionary path. Since it is natural for most people to assume that in order for ET Aliens to visit us they would have to be far advanced, this is then a natural expectation of what ET “should” look like.

    If there had been no UFO flap, and no “sightings” of “abductions”, and people were asked to describe what an ET Alien would probably be like, they would all most likely come up with an “alien grey” or something very similar.

    There is one other factor which is never talked about. If we assume that ET Aliens would naturally be far more advanced than we, it would be extremely unlikely that ANYONE would EVER propose that ET was “insectoid”, or “reptilian”, or a “bug-eyed monster”. It would be unthinkable, not to mention treasonable, to assume that any of those could be superior to us. The only entities which could possibly be superior to us is……….our own evolved selves.

    Stereotypical ET Aliens are clearly the creation of the projection of our own advancing evolution. They are really the only likely form our imaginations would create, but they are certainly not what nature would be likely to create on a distant world. I would be greatly surprised if distant independent genesis and evolution produced beings that so closely resembled humans. There is no compelling reason that evolution should choose this form over the thousands of other possible forms in the complex chain of evolutionary development.
  • Unclear Engineer
    The history, and "pre-history" that was not written down, indicates that tribes of humans have been fighting each other for resources for a long time, probably for the entire duration of the human species. While the most recent colonizations by European ethnic groups provide a good history of how that can hurt less technologically capable indigenous groups, those groups hurt then were most likely themselves the colonizers of some other groups in the past, although they did not document it with written histories. The Americas show evidence of developed societies such as the Aztecs conducting wars with surrounding, less advanced tribes. The Carib "Indians" conquered the Caribbean islands from other groups, actually eating them in cannibalism. It is considered not unlikely that "modern humans" killed off the Neanderthals in ice age Europe by virtue of more advanced weapons and survival strategies, even though the Neanderthals were better physically adapted to the environment there.

    So, our history has been self-destructive for a very long time.

    But, we do seem to be making some progress in some places on some issues. Most nations have outlawed slavery, and most seem to at least pretend to be "democratic", even when they are totalitarian. Still, we have a very long way to go to become one peaceful society. I am not sure we will even get that done before we crash our technological civilization and revert to more beastly behaviors to survive.

    So, do we really think that any other species that is technologically advanced enough to physically reach Earth will have by then achieved what we say we are still striving to achieve in the way of peaceful respect for others? Would their societies have self-destructed before attaining the technological capabilities needed to reach Earth if they had not achieved the ethics we say we want to achieve? Are we sure? Why are we sure? We don't even know what the necessary technologies are, so we don't know what is required of a society to develop them. Maybe they are one discovery away from us, today, and we will make that discovery before we evolve into "our better selves".

    We really just don't know what we would be like if we were the ones going to another planet.

    And consider that another species coming to this planet might be so different from us that the would not even consider us worthy of preservation. Earthlings step on bugs - why wouldn't a space faring bug species step on humans, especially if they see us stepping on bugs that remind them of their ancestors?
  • Pogo
    Chimpanzees and Bonobos separated a couple million years ago with the rise of the Congo River. The Chimps are more warlike, sometimes attacking other tribes when encountered. Bonobos are more like hippies. Make love not war. If only we had inherited the Bonobo personality traits. So, that’s not to say that all exocivilizations would be like us.
    But, anyway, we seem to be spending a lot of time and energy conjecturing what aliens will be like when we have no clue what any kind of life is like out there besides us.
  • Classical Motion
    I think man has tried to characterize himself as an explorer, seeking news lands, new resources and new peoples, where no man has gone before. I'm more cynical. I don't believe migration was due to lack of resources, famine or climate change. I think it was to get away from people. People change their nature when making groups. I think disease and conflict caused migration. The want of getting away from the screwy people. And taxes. And conscription. Servitude. You know.....the screwy people.

    Societies run-a-ways. Awol-ers. People who don't want to put up with other people. And are willing to live in hardship to be free of it. Who had to grub much.

    Maybe the first to visit us will be considered misfits from the home they come from. Hunter gatherer lifestyle.

    And then some say the first would likely be machines and probes not living forms.
  • Francis_K
    The aliens will be the ones who determine the parameters of a first contact, not us with our petty little divisions.

    Any alien race advanced enough to accomplish interstellar travel will be so far ahead of us technologically and sociologically that we will be toddlers in comparison. They will set the rules regarding contact and we will follow them.

    It is much more probable that our first evidence of alien intelligence will be found remotely by our radio telescopes. Giving us decades or centuries or even millenia to adjust to the idea that we are not alone before direct contact is made. If it is ever made before we destroy ourselves.
  • Dave
    Agreed. At the moment, they do not wish contact. But, we may be forcing their hand. For all the terrible things humanity has done (think back to back world wars) there is the other side of the coin, we do great good as well.
    if a someone falls overboard on a boat, everyone around him will do all that they can to save him.
    Do not discount the greatness of humanity. Give us any environment and we will adapt to it. They have been observing us, even the smallest of our inventions could be an enormous breakthrough in their society.
    It is more like we are a wayward child or teenager and in the background we have a mentor, attempting to guide us.
  • Coinneach
    I am forever haunted by Iain M. Banks description of the Idirans (in Consider Phlebas) as apex predators on a planet of monsters.

    Lets hope they're not the first folk we meet!

  • Dave
    Social aggression is a trait of tribal warfare. If all goes well in our future humans will begin to act as one race, the human race. There will be no need for aggression or warfare. It is likely that any race capable of star travel would also be a race that achieved unity amongst themselves. An alliance between different species benefits both parties in this scenario.