A space boffin has called for more diversity among ET hunters – to stop Earthlings becoming alienist.
Science historian Rebecca Charbonneau wants indigenous people – such as American Indians – involved in the search for extraterrestrial life as they know what it is like to have their country colonised by invaders.
She believes their experiences could help explorers seeking out intergalactic life from making the same mistakes as those on Earth where were seized and native populations displaced and mistreated.
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The former Cambridge University student, historian in residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, US, wants those involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – known as SETI – to weed out biases ready for positive relationships should aliens be discovered.
She said: "Often times when we think about colonialism in SETI we do think of it primarily in metaphors.
Space being the final frontier’, first contact with aliens as a stand-in for encounters with indigenous peoples—that sort of thing.
"But it actually is much more than a metaphor. Because space exploration is also an extension of our imperial and colonial histories. "Space, despite our best efforts, is highly militarised.
"Nations talk about becoming space superpowers, building new empires and colonising other planets.
"So it’s not just a metaphor. It’s actually happening in the world and off the world.
"SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like civilization’ and intelligence’ – concepts that have been used to enact real physical harm on Earth."
Rebecca said the sovereignty of any discovered alien cultures should be preserved and their wishes respected.
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"SETI concerns listening to alien civilisations, ideally, but we also have to get better at listening to Earthlings," she said.
"There are members of the SETI community, myself included, who are very interested in listening to marginalised and historically excluded perspectives."
She said some ET-hunters were simply interested in finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations’.
But she said to pursue that without considering the ethics of the search and its cultural implications’ would be a huge mistake’.
These ideas are tightly bound with the histories of racism, genocide and imperialism, and to use them haphazardly can be harmful," she told Scientific American magazine.
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Rebecca said native Americans have a "unique perspective on the impact of contact" which could help Earthlings respect alien life – even if it was discovered in the form of microbes.
We might perceive microbes as non-intelligent life," she said.
"Does that life have a right to exist without us bothering it?
"Or is it just germs—just bugs that we are going to just bring back and study and pick apart?
"We may not be able to recognise intelligence when we see it and we may not respect or honour things we don’t perceive to be intelligent.
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"That is what we did in many colonial interactions.
"Certain countries in Europe made first contact with indigenous peoples, perceived them to be non-intelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity.
"And that is troubling to me.
"What’s going to be different next time?
"I think we would be foolish to not think carefully when we project our troubled concepts of intelligence and civilisation onto the universe.
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"Being mindful of the histories and language we’re invoking is the bare minimum of what we can do.
"This is why including indigenous voices is so critical.
"It is not enough to just want to contact aliens and hope interaction will be friendly.
"We must critically examine our own history and words and stop assuming our good intentions will not result in harm.
"Not only are we being inclusive and trying to distance ourselves from historically oppressive behaviours—which I think is worth doing on its own—but we also may benefit SETI and other sciences because we can’t be hurt by expanding our ideas of what a civilization or culture might look like.
"It just makes sense—if you want to listen to, and understand, alien cultures, you might as well start with your own species and planet first."
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