Contaminate! Contaminate!


Early warnings on planetary contamination.  Published by Oxford University Press 1962.  Cover photo shows the 250-ft radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, by permission of the Daily Mail.

Early warnings on planetary contamination. Published by Oxford University Press 1962. Cover photo shows the 250-ft radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, by permission of the Daily Mail.

Destroying the Cassini spacecraft by plunging it into the cloud-covered surface of Saturn in September seemed a rather dramatic way of ending such a productive mission – perhaps a little like the ending of a grand Wagnerian opera – but it made good sense. The risk of a dead or dying probe careering around the Saturnian system and possibly crashing into one of the moons, and maybe contaminating a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life such as Enceladus or Titan, was too high.

The idea of inadvertent contamination of another world has been taken seriously ever since space exploration began. In his essay Some Reflections on Ethics and the Cosmos, which appears in his 1962 book The Exploration of Outer Space, the great radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell made some observations on the dangers even before the space programmes of America and the Soviet Union had really got under way. When considering the prospects for life to exist on other planets, and even to develop advanced intelligence, he expressed concerns about the way things were going.

At the time, he had in mind the more immediate likelihood of impacts of probes on Mars or Venus, much as the Soviet Luna II had then recently crashed into the Moon. He felt it could be “a scientific disaster because the rocket could carry to the planet earthly organisms and thereby severely handicap future biological work.” But perhaps even more significantly, he observed that it would be “a moral disaster because man will have presumed the right to inject his own contaminated material into an extraterrestrial environment where organic evolution may well be in progress.”

We now know that indigenous life-forms show no signs of having evolved on Mars or Venus. Well, probably not. But it was a serious consideration at the time. In his 1961 short story Before Eden, which was written before Mariner 2 gave the first indications of the truly inhospitable nature of the surface of Venus in 1962, Arthur C Clarke described a fictional expedition to that planet. Explorers find strange life-forms, but are unaware of the consequences of the contamination they are causing.

But there may be more insidious, possibly unintentional, forms of contamination of any intelligent alien species. The concept of cultural imperialism – the imposition of the culture of a more powerful civilization over a weaker one – has been explained by the philosopher Michel Foucault and others, though it may be traced back to the work of Niccolò Machiavelli in the early sixteenth century. It may even be achieved deliberately through military, political or economic means, and there have been plenty of examples throughout history of how societies have been crushed by it.

It may be seen as continuing today. In his 2006 book Failed States, the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky provides a critique of how the USA has re-shaped other nations over the years. Some might see this as its right as the most powerful nation on Earth, though Professor Chomsky asks whether it is creating an increasing danger not only to other cultures, but also to America itself.

And so we might ask whether cultural imperialism could equally pose a danger to extraterrestrial civilizations to whom we may send messages. John W Traphagan discusses this in Do No Harm? Cultural Imperialism and the Ethics of Active SETI (JBIS, May 2017), where he argues that attempts to contact alien intelligences by means of messaging might have precisely that outcome. METI could inadvertently threaten another species, and one thing of which we can be quite certain is that our own species has never been backward in aggressively asserting its superiority, real or otherwise.

Needless to say, that same threat could equally exist the other way around. So maybe, just maybe, that’s why all those intelligent extraterrestrials out there aren’t talking to us.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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