The Evil Out There
Well, I was disappointed that no one identified the image on the first post. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against aliens if we can’t even identify the fictional threats? Oh well. OK, this is the post about why I don’t think the first explorers the stars should be allowed to return home. It sounds harsh, but as I said before, they could bring home something much worse than syphilis.
What could be worse than syphilis? Who knows. That’s my first point, when experimenting with one’s only habitable planet, some experiments shouldn’t be performed. Like pumping the atmosphere full of CO2 and methane, but I digress. And in the early stages of exploring nearby stars, why take the risk that a sample return could be malignant? Humans have done terrible damage to isolated ecosystems on Earth through accidental biological contamination, and Earth in a galactic sense is definitely an isolated ecosystem. It’s not had to imagine that some alien organism or bacteria could wreak havoc on Earth, as countless sci-fi movies and books attest.
It’s easy to imagine pests such as we have on Earth, and that alone is sufficient reason to be very cautious about anyone coming home from the stars. Then of course there is the alien invader and/or parasite genre. The former is not likely to happen, the later seems very unlikely. Still, why take the chance? We are talking about the human race and Earth here. There’s no harm done if no one comes home from the stars. As for invaders, the idea is so anthropomorphic that it hardly bears mentioning. A superior intelligence could destroy humanity without going to all the trouble to sending in invading armies, and an alien race capable of actually infiltrating human society is again pretty much by definition one we would be helpless against.
There’s some more exotic possibilities. In fact, considering that everywhere we look in the Universe we find stuff we never expected, it’s pretty safe to say that we will find exotic hazards out there. An idea I have been toying with, what if what we think of as “life” isn’t really life? Or maybe more accurately, maybe there is a form of life out there so radially different than us and so radically superior to us that we can’t imagine it. Maybe DNA based life is an evolutionary dead end, and will be quickly supplanted if it ever encounters other life. Only our isolation in a star system has kept our primitive form of life around. We may be no more than the Lord Howe Stick Insects of the galaxy.
Lastly there are the unknown psychological effects of star travel. For all we know there is something about the Solar System that makes us uniquely human, and that leaving the Solar System will do something totally unpredictable to the human psyche. Granted that seems unlikely, but the truth is that “unlikely” is a judgment call based on our common experience. While it is certainly scientific to assume that the conditions for healthy human psychology are universal, it’s an assumption that should be tested without putting Earth at risk.
Frankly I think the same case can be made for the first human visitors to Mars, but I think many would consider that paranoid. In most cases I would agree that minimizing the risks is the way to go, but when the consequences might be devastating to life on Earth, there’s no harm in shooting for zero risk. Fortunately the hurdles of getting the first explorers back from the stars are so large that the problem is unlikely to come up, if ever.
Then again, I’ve often thought: If aliens exist and the hurdles of interstellar travel are surmountable … they are already here.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s from The Outer Limits, credit and copyright: ABC. I am not making a profit from it, and I urge everyone to go out and buy the DVD. It’s the episode where some alien poison gas spewing plants are brought back to earth and begin to multiply out of control. Finally a rainstorm destroys them. So many aliens are destroyed by water, from Triffids to the Wicked Witch of the West. Sadly the real deal will not be so vulnerable.)