I am sure we all remember High School Biology class where we all got to dissect a frog. For centuries, killing, dissecting and examining animal life has been one of the more unsavory aspects of scientific research.
While it can be controversial, and objectionable to Vegans and neo-terrorist groups like PETA, the truth is, every breakthrough we have made in biotical or medical science is littered with the corpses of dead animals.
But in a recent op-ed in Psychology Today, researcher and author Guy Harrison argues that in a future where we make contact with alien life, humans must be prepared to kill and perform similar experiments on aliens, in the name of science. As Harrison puts it in his article, “A student falls in love with the beauty, mystery, and complexity of a plant, animal, or microbial species. Then the student learns as much about it as possible, searches for it in the wild, finds it—and promptly kills it. The preferred term for these routine sacrifices is ‘voucher specimen.’ Labs and museums around the world contain millions of them.”
Collecting voucher specimens is a grisly fact of scientific inquiry. But it is controversial, and the bottom line is — it is still killing.
Which for Harrison raises a difficult question when it may come to encounters with E.T. At what point does scientific inquiry outweigh the value of life?
Should we encounter an extraterrestrial life form on Mars or perhaps on one of Saturn’s moons, what do we do? Will the astronauts, astrobiologists, and robot controllers of Earth be content to observe, take a few photographs, maybe grab a gentle swab of its exterior? Or will First Contact become First Murder?
Should We Be Morally Bound to Protect and Preserve an Extraterrestrial Species?
So, should humans be ethically bound to preserve any life discovered beyond our world? Harrison says that is a tough question because the idea of finally discovering life “out there” and then ending that life, probably feels wrong to many people.
But if killing newly discovered extraterrestrial life in the name of scientific research is wrong, then why is the routine carnage here on Earth for the same reason, okay? Is a bat or a gulper eel somehow less valuable to the universe or less worthy of survival than a microbe on Mars?
Harrison suggests guidelines that future biologists may find helpful. For instance, does the extraterrestrial life form appear to be abundant or rare? If it is potentially rare, let it live. Does the life form demonstrate any obvious signs of higher intelligence? If so, let it live. This is how most researchers operate on Earth now, of course. Killing an earthworm for study is not viewed as comparable to killing a dolphin or a chimp because of the relative cognitive contrast. So for seemingly intelligent life, maybe we should try to speak first, dissect later.
However, this may not be so easy to determine, as Harrison writes, “even here on Earth we do not yet understand intelligence fully or consistently recognize it. Making a sound life-and-death judgment could be challenging if not impossible because the new life form might think in ways that are outside of our experience and imagination.”
Another option earthbound scientists might consider is collecting individual aliens to store in a museum’s archive, instead of cutting open to study. Harrison admits that the issue is too complex and ambiguous to draw up any binding rules in advance.
Of course, this all assumes that we would even be able to kill an extraterrestrial. It’s possible that any life out there is vastly superior to humanity, making the whole debate moot.
“If we do find life out there somewhere,” Harrison writes, “maybe it will be contemplating the moral implications of killing us for further study.”
In fact, given the number of missing persons cases that have been associated with alien abductions and UFO activities, maybe they already have!