The Ethics of Interstellar Colonization

We science fiction fans have always assumed the destiny of mankind is expanding our habitat across the galaxy, exploring new worlds, conquering new frontiers, expanding our territory, because that’s the kind of species we are.  But what are the ethical issues involved.  Think of the Federation policies in Star Trek, and it’s rules about first contact.  It’s pretty obvious that we should leave emerging civilizations alone, to let them find their own way, but what are the right ethical conditions for us to land on a planet and start colonizing it?

If it’s a rocky world like Mars I would think there would be no problems at all, even though some people do advocate leaving Mars untouched.  I think we at least have to establish two ends of the spectrum.  On the left is a dead world, and the right is emerging intelligent life, somewhere in between is where we need to place our mark as the beginning point for not interfering.

Let’s say we landed on a planet that had life like in the Jurassic, tiny brains and big bodies, and no chance of intelligent life appearing for a hundred million years, would it be okay to stay there and setup a colony?  Ignoring the butterfly effect, it should be possible to colonize this world without misdirecting the path of its evolution.  Now we couldn’t utilize this world like we’ve done Earth, using up all the resources and killing off endless species, but it might be possible to coexist with the indigenous life without doing much harm or changing its evolutionary direction.

It would be unethical to use up the heavy metals and other minerals, so we should import them from off planet and make sure we didn’t produce significant waste.

So how close in time to an emerging self aware intelligence should we stay?  Could we live on a planet with a homo erectus type intelligence and just avoid contact with them?

What about bringing other species with us from Earth?

What if we found a planet with simple life in the ocean, and simple plant life on the land, maybe just grasses and fern type species.  Should we introduce fish, trees, vegetables and fruits, along with dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, sheep, cows and horses?  Or should we believe that given enough time complex life would emerge on this planet and the life forms we bring with us would keep them from emerging?

Should the ethnical rule be that only intelligent species should travel to other planets.  So for dogs to go to the stars they would have to evolve and build their own space ships.  But what if we find worlds that have no life on them whatsoever and we terraform them for life, can we bring our animal and plant friends with us?  I would think yes.

How dangerous is the bacteria in our bodies?

But what about all the bacteria and viruses that live inside of us, won’t those contaminate a world and harm its evolution?  we might could live without viruses, but I don’t know, but it’s doubtful we could live without our bacteria friends.  We have a symbiotic relationship with them.

Are we alone?

Are we alone because there’s no other intelligent species near us, or because it would be unethical to contact us?  Are there wise beings all around us waiting for us to grow up?  If we are alone, and humans are the miracle of the galaxy does that give us ethical clout to colonize like crazy?  Would the greatest ethical crime of all reality be the one where we destroy ourselves or let ourselves be destroyed?  Or what if humans go extinct, and other animals and life continue living on the Earth for millions of years without ever becoming self-aware like we are?  Does it matter?  If a self-aware being arises in reality and dies and there’s no other aware beings to notice, do we make a sound?  Do we have an ethical obligation to expand our territory to other worlds so our species can live as long as possible?

What if we don’t go to the stars?

What if we never go to the stars, either because our bodies can’t handle living in space, or we can’t conquer the physics to travel such distances, and just continue to live on Earth, maybe for millions of years.  What does that mean philosophically?  What if we become fish in an aquarium looking at the glass forever?  Is just existing a good enough ethical existence?  What if expanding our abilities, influence and habitats define our meaning in reality?  What if it’s unethical for us not to try to colonize space?

JWH – 4/17/11

24 thoughts on “The Ethics of Interstellar Colonization”

  1. There are several other tracks that impinge on your questions. For example – what about “uplift”?

    Suppose we find a world that has pre-sentient inhabitants. Surely by the time we are able to visit other solar systems, our technology will have given us the capability to manipulate genes (or their analogues) at will. Suppose further that after a lot of searching, we’ve only found pre-sentients. We’ll still be looking for “friends”, we’ll still have a need for “pets” – so why not make them?

    One sure-fire way to get down to an ethical discussion on the subject is to reverse the question: how would we want to be treated?

    The Fed’s non-interference policy was, I believe, a good one, but as we also learned from Star Trek, the galaxy is not monolithic: the Klingons had no such policy and were doing quite well, thank you.

    I believe that the reality will be that we will spend much time exploring and researching and little time colonizing. Our ethical decisions will surely be influenced by what we find.

    1. Now that’s an interesting ethical issue, uplifting. Right now I’m not sure how to approach that issue. If we assume the human race could continue to exist for millions of years wouldn’t we just wait and let nature take it’s course? Or would there be any unethical issues to speeding up the cooking process? What if we found a planet of Neanderthals and no Cro-Magnon. The Neanderthals were stuck in neutral. At some point I’d be tempted to give them a nudge.

  2. My opinion:

    1) We’re never going to the stars in any quantity, so no worries. Physics rules.
    2) If we did, the people who reached a distant star would have a lot different set of goals and ideas than we, here, today, do. They may be uninterested in those nasty, dirty planets in their way-too-deep gravity wells. Now a boatload of moons around a nice Saturn-sized gas giant … money!
    3) If they do want a planet (perhaps as a nice vacation resort), nothing short of an existing intelligent species would likely trump their own development desires. And I’d say rightly so. Neither nature nor history are forward looking in this respect.
    4) History implies not even an existing intelligent species will stop development, but I’m a moral optimist.

    Jack Tingle

    1. I certainly hope by the time we could reach other planets we’d be wiser and more moral than the Earth people in Avatar. To me Pandora would have been an obvious hands-off planet.

      I think the laws of physics will make interstellar travel so difficult it will preclude any profit motif, or distant vacation resorts. I tend to think interstellar journeys will be long and one-way. And we’d probably send robotic missions first to check out the real estate.

    2. If you have propulsion systems that can take you to the stars, planetary gravity wells are irrelevant. So, yes, you’ll still be looking for worlds where you can walk around in shirt sleeves.

  3. Interesting, Jim! My ethical views are quite simple on this, I think:

    1) No complex life – Go for it. Anything goes.

    2) Complex, but not sentient life – We have the duty to share any planet – and that includes the Earth – with the native species that evolved there. We can settle there, we can bring Earth species to other planets, and we can mine minerals, but we should try to ensure that other species survive as a species (not necessarily as individuals).

    Some species WILL go extinct, but we should do our best to minimize that. Sapient or not, other species have the right to their share of a planet, enough of a share that they can survive as a species. And as I say, this definitely includes the Earth.

    3) Sapient life – Hands off, at least until they become industrialized, maybe until they develop nuclear weapons or even limited spaceflight. At that point, contact should be good for both sides (assuming we’re moral enough to even worry about ethical concerns in the first place).

    Regarding uplift, I’m not sure. For our own benefit, we need contact with other civilizations eventually. That kind of thing might be dangerous, but it’s also enriching. If we don’t find any, should we uplift other species ourselves?

    As I say, I’m not sure, because I’m not sure how different such a species would be from us, if we were doing the designing. But by then, we’ll probably be genetically engineering ourselves, so we might not even need another species.

    Altogether, I doubt that any of this will happen, but I really do hope that we’ll eventually be able to communicate with another species, even if we’re separated by light-years.

    1. I’d give anything if we could make SETI contact in my lifetime. I’d really like to know if we’re alone or not. Astronomy might eventually get powerful enough to detect artificial molecules in the atmospheres of distant planets, and that might be an answer to the msytery too, but I’d really like a far out “Howdy!” from SETI.

  4. I think humanity has a duty to spread itself and our biosphere. Almost everything we need to exist is the product of some other species in our biosphere. We are bound to our biosphere. Where ever we go a large portion of our biosphere will need to follow. I believe sentience is something we have a duty to protect and should foster its growth. We have the dinosaurs as an example to show that only inhabiting the surface of the earth could be the end of us.

    I hope humanity can spread to other worlds before we destroy our native biosphere. I do not have much confidence that will happen. In my fantasy humanity settles elsewhere and can slowly abandon the earth. Allowing our biosphere to survive and continue the evolutionary process. Perhaps left alone it will generate another intelligent species. In addition to worlds (planets, moons asteroids, etc) we settle for our own use, we should also establish a few with as much of the earth’s biosphere as possible and allow evolution to continue there without us.

    We should never settle or modify a world where any kind of self-replicating life exists, no matter how simple. There will be so many lifeless worlds available to humanity that destroying the potential of life should be considered one of the worst crimes that a person could commit. I do not believe human nature is likely to become more altruistic than it is any time soon, but with an abundance of lifeless worlds we might find the common decency to not destroy when we have no reason to do so.

    Considering the abundance of metals and minerals in asteroids, comets and moons mining planets would rarely happen. In fact their large gravity-well might make such mining comparatively unprofitable except for local use if people settled on one. There would be little need to exploit worlds with life. James Cameron had to invent the rather stupidly named “unobtainium” to give a reason for humanity to kill the aliens in his movie.

    It is hard to say if we can expect to find sentient alien life. Earth-life has existed for 2 or 3 billion years and we are the only known sentient life it has produced. Meaning if life exists, sentience is not automatic.. Although we haven’t thoroughly investigated the solar system we have yet to find any place other than earth where life exists. Which indicates life is not common to every world, it might not even exist within each solar system.

    Our sun has only existed for about 5 billion of the 15+ billion years we believe the universe has existed. This means even with the 2 or 3 billion years of lead-time it took sentience to emerged on earth, sentient beings could have evolved over 12 billion years ago.

    Consider the changes between us a our primate ancestors 3 million years ago. How changed could a species be that has had multiple billions of years of sentience? If we came across such a being could we even recognize it? Would it have any interest in us?

    I think it is unlikely we would encounter any intelligent alien life forms that are not millions of years in advance of us. The idea of multiple species with comparable technology and psychology interacting together like the star wars or star trek universes is laughable.

    I do not believe there is any technical or biological reason we couldn’t build some sort of multi-generational ships that could settle beyond the solar system in the next hundred or two hundred years. The only question is whether or not there is the will to do so. I am rather pessimistic that people will do so before a natural or man-made cataclysm will make us extinct.

  5. There is no such thing as a “natural course of evolution” for a planet or its biosphere. If humans arrive on a planet they are part of nature.

      1. I don’t think there is anything natural about humans exterminating a species that is otherwise thriving. By natural I mean proceeding without human interference.

        I have no idea how to evaluate whether a biosphere is “likely” to produce a sentient species, certainly not in the lifetime of a human being. If a planet has a “sub-intelligent” species perhaps you could classify that as “likely”. Our planet would have failed that test for 99% of its history. Even worse, evolution is a random process, increasing intelligence is not automatic. What I object to is altering the independent development of a biosphere for no good reason.

        I believe any exo-biospheres found by humanity should be left to develop on their own. There will be so many lifeless worlds for humanity to exploit that exterminating or changing one with life would be a profoundly selfish act. One that ranks with war-crimes or genocide.

        I am glad that no ancient alien decided to “big-foot” us 2 billion years ago with the excuse, “this world is nothing but useless algae, I mean there are more advanced species under our spaceship’s toilet-bowl rim. We could make a fortune sterilizing this world and building condos and strip-malls!”

  6. Leave emerging civilizations alone? I wonder how the emerging civilization would feel about it? I’ll tell you how they’d feel about it. The leaders would likely love it so they could keep their power, but the rank and file would resent the heck out of it since it meant they would still be doomed to death by disease and starvation.

    I am always fascinated by this relatively recent aspect of Western thought that primitive civilizations and societies are somehow pure, noble, at peace and should be left alone, when the reality is that primitive civilizations are brutal and miserable places where life is grinding toil and you had large families because about half your children would die before the age of five.

    1. Yeah, but whenever a modern culture impacts a primative culture we’ve done a number on their heads that they don’t recover from. It’s sort of mind shattering to learn that everything you know is wrong.

    2. I have never shared the idea that primitive societies are noble. I agree that Western (and all other) civilization’s history is a litany of horror, oppression and misery. I don’t think it matters what citizens of more primitive species think of us. By definition their lower level of technology means they are unlikely to figure out we exist or if they somehow did they wouldn’t have any means to do anything about us. It would be as pointless as me worrying if the fire-ants in my backyard resent me. I do not think humanity should be in the business of imposing itself on less developed species in any way. Western civilization’s past history with colonialism and missionary work should convince anyone the folly and hubris of such things.

      Any species we might find are likely to be millions or billions of years in advance of us or behind us. That we’re going to find a planet with a species of a similar psychological makeup and a level of technology is highly unlikely. People tend to assume aliens might be similar to us, but why should they have any psychological drives we can relate to.

      Lets make some wild guesstimates, Estimates say there are about 100 billion stars in the galaxy, and lets assume the universe has had 12 billion years for species to develop (big bang about 15 billion years ago, minus 3 billion years for the universe to cool and start forming stars). Assume all stars were formed by 12 billions years ago and continue to exist (another source of huge over-estimation). Assume each star has 4 rocky planets or moons where life remotely similar to ours evolves (a huge over estimate for sure). And also assume that all 4 places per star produce intelligent life (also wildly optimistic). Multiplying this out an averaging means every 33 years somewhere in the galaxy an intelligent species evolves. I think its a fair assumption that any civilization 1000 years behind us is no threat or concern. Also any civilization 1000 years ahead of us would so utterly out-match us, that we would largely survive at their whim. That time-frame means in the entire galaxy there are about 60 species roughly near us in terms of technology. This also assumes none of these species destroy themselves.

      It would take 4.23 years to get to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, at light speed. That we could ever get anywhere close to that speed is unlikely, but lets assume. The Sun is about halfway out from the center of the galaxy, at light speed it would take 25,000 years to get there, 50,000 years to get to the opposite side of the galaxy. Lets also assume that the (wildly optimistic) estimate of 60 similar level civilizations are spread evenly over the galaxy (not in reality though, the stars in the galaxy are denser the closer you go to the center, but I don’t have the math skills to take that into account). The total volume of the galaxy is about 94 trillion cubic light years, that means on average each species would have about 1.5 trillion cubic-light years of space around them. Assuming that volume is a cube, you’d have to travel on average over 11,000 light-years to get from one of the 60 similar species to the next. That means it would take 11,000 years, at full light-speed. The fastest any human device has traveled in space is 1/18,000th of light-speed, at that speed it would take 72,000 years to make the 4.23 light-year trip to Proxima Centauri. Clearly the likelihood of actually finding an intelligent primitive we could trade with or “civilize” is a vanishingly small possibility. We are truly unlikely to ever have this dilemma.

      And because the assumptions above were so over optimistic the idea that there are any advanced aliens that would notice or care about us is also unlikely. Perhaps species that are as much as 100,000 years in advance of us would still need the same sort of resources that we would, which could lead to conflict. Real scientists (as opposed to me) speculate the total number of intelligent species in the galaxy to be between 361 and 38,000. Assuming 38,000 spread over the volume of the galaxy, means we’d have to travel over 1350 light-years to reach the nearest alien at any level of technology. I think it is safe to say space has enough “space” that we’d never face a war over resources against a species with 100K, million(s) or even billion(s) of years of technological lead on us. If we did, I doubt they’d give us any more thought than I give to the fire-ants when I spread weed-n-feed on my lawn.

      Without FTL travel my guess is people settling the galaxy are going to be in large, city-sized ships, parked in orbit around asteroids, moons, and planetesimals in the oort cloud. Eventually, spreading to dimly lit brown dwarfs and the trillions of lesser bodies not tied to any solar system to collect the resources they need to live. 99.99999999999999999999999% of these bodies utterly lifeless, no need to kill or conquer anyone. With practically an unlimited supply of such places these cities will move around at small fractions of the speed of light, slowly jumping from oort cloud to oort cloud. As technology advances the minimum size of such a colony would fall, perhaps someday, thousands of years from now, individuals or families would have their own space-ships cum house, farm, power-plant and automated factories. Enough to feed themselves and provide all their technological needs. Largely turn-key and at least semi-independent. Galactic Gypsies if you will.

      I think terra-forming planets would be hard and expensive work. People are certain to settle on planets, but I’m not convinced many such settlers would bother to transform the entire surface into a habitable biosphere. After centuries of living in their human-terrarium spaceships I don’t know if they’d even want to have open sky above them. They could easily build large domed habitats instead. I don’t see bulldozing an exo-biosphere and replacing it with ours would be any easier either considering how different the chemistry, temperature and pressure could be.

      1. Wow, I’m impressed with your comment Greg. I also agree with your skepticism. I think we’ll never travel anywhere close to the speed of light. I think it might be possible for humans to travel between the stars but it will be extremely difficult. I tend to think only machines will pursue interstellar travel. And machines might travel with a DNA construction kits that would allow them to build life on new planets when it’s practical.

      2. At our current maximum speed, humanity “could” get to the estimated (overly optimistic) nearest alien species with a similar or less level of technology in 209 MILLION years. At a quarter of the speed of light it would take 209 thousand years to get there. That would require us to improve our space engine speed by a factor of 720. By comparison the first car could travel 7mph, the worlds landspeed record is 763mph. An increase in speed by a factor of 109. It took us 112 years to make this increase in car speed. Going by this estimate of technological advancement, it will take us 739 years to increase space ship speed to 1/25th of the speed of light. 739 years of work means humanity gets to see the nearest species of a similar level of technology in 209 THOUSAND years. This is double the amount of time Homo sapien sapiens has existed as a species.

  7. sorry, head getting a little fuzzy this evening, make that 46,496 years to get to aliens at a quarter of the speed of light. Which is about half the time our species has existed. Either way that amount of time invested in such a quest would be insane, it would be like our species existed for no other reason to travel across space for tens of thousands of years to p0wn just one set of n00bs.

    1. This is why I’ve become skeptical of humans ever doing interstellar travel. It’s one thing for photons and sub-atomic particles to travel at near light speeds, but I just can’t imagine something as big as a battleship going so fast. And space seems to be less emptier every year – wouldn’t travelers have to worry about hitting stuff?

  8. ok i’m going to bed, all math skills are gone, I can’t be far from drooling at this point. i just noticed the 1/25th thing slipped into my speed factoring calculations too, so instead of needing an increase factor of 720, it would be 4500!

  9. You are right, at large fractions of the speed of light even tiny dust particles could do huge damage. There are so many obstacles it would take centuries of sustained effort to get people into outer-space. Even if we could go a quarter of the speed of light a trip to Proxima Centauri would take over 17 years just to get there. Imagine the size/mass impact of packing 16 years worth of food and water in your ship. Such ships would have to be able to grow all their food and recycle everything. A self sufficient fragment of the earth’s biosphere would have to go along. You’d also have to pack enough spare parts for everything! CPU’s, mattresses, faucets, underwear….Or have some means making literally everything, but even that requires raw materials. We’d have to develop technology to recycle every bit of plastic, metal etc far beyond what we can do today. You’d need a “technosphere”, just like you’d need a biosphere. To keep both sphere’s going you’d have to have an energy source that is self sufficient, you can’t get to Proxima Centauri on coal, clean or not. Which means any such ship would be more like a small city, the citizens of which probably wouldn’t be planning on coming back.

    Without that kind of technology interstellar travel just won’t be possible. Perhaps there will be a revolution in our understanding of physics that would allow FTL travel. But creating a biosphere and a “technosphere” though well beyond us now, are at least in the realm of the possible. Waiting on an FTL engine to be invented is more like praying than engineering.

    But if you think about it these self-sustaining technologies are really required for space travel within the solar system too. Otherwise you are dependent on a very long and very expensive supply train. Survey trips to the moon or even mars would be interesting, but unless we have the ability to sustain ourselves independent of the earth these will be like the trips the Vikings made to North America. Fascinating, but nothing will really come of it.

    The possibility of people being self-sufficient in space is a tantalizing idea. If city-sized spaceships can spread accross the solar system, they could make the trip from our oort cloud to proxima centauri’s oort cloud, and outward from there. There is no need for speed, literally its the journey not the destination. Just occasionally stop at some asteroid to pick up some raw materials.

    Its also an interesting in terms of politics. Such people would not really be subject to any central authority on Earth. Any dispute between such cities could be resolved by one leaving the other behind. There wouldn’t really be any authority beyond the city state, humanity hasn’t had freedom like that since before Homer.

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