Colonization Prime Directive?

I support the idea of colonizing other worlds (e.g., Mars). But, suppose we do find other life – even if it is simple bacteria – then do you think we have the right to take over that world or should we leave that species alone and search for a lifeless world to work with? Perhaps few people would be bothered by disturbing bacterial life (although great scientific info would be lost), but this hypothetical problem becomes less clear if the other life is…more complex, perhaps sentient. Would plant life deserve the same consideration as animal life? Human history has been to just simply take over a new land regardless of what exists there.

We should colonize. Unless we found another intelligent species which had dibbs to a planet and could communicate with us. I don’t see why we don’t just start colonizing Mars already – who cares if there is primitive life there or not?

In the book “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson this issue is raised. One of the characters in the book (a geologist) takes the issue even further: should humans feel free to corrupt the natural environment of another planet? e.g. Are we justified in destroying the beauty of the Mars landscape for their own purposes?

I propose that the degree of “respect” afforded a living creature should be based on their degree of complexity and understanding of the world around them. I also have a bias about feeling more empathy for living creatures that are closer to me in the evolutionary path. For example I would have no great moral qualms about squashing an ant whereas I would never go shoot a chimpanzee or a dolphin for no reason. (And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why WWF has as its “mascot” a panda instead of a species of endangered sea slug - humans feel more empathy for another mammal.) Rarity would also enter into the scale, I would try to save the last member of a species and make extraordinary efforts to save it.

I would even agree with the character in the novel mentioned above that humans should make an effort to respect the geographical features of another planet, if nothing else than for scientific research and our own knowledge.

In my opinion, the best (most justifiable) solution would be for humans to only colonize lifeless planets. Even disregarding the moral aspets, leaving life on another planet to evolve undisturbed might very well be of incalculable scientific interest in the future.

As far as those that say “who cares about other life forms”, I say that if/when another life form that has a few tens of thousands of technological advance compared to earth comes to put earthlings in cages, you may very well change your opinion.

Orson Scott Card presents an interesting moral framework for this question in his Ender series:

(a fantastic set of books for anyone who hasn’t read them). In the series, the main character, Ender, must deal with with the moral questions of having wiped out an entire sentient alien species (except for one). Drawing upon some “ancient” scandanavian framework to describe foreigners, the book presents 4 categories of “other” life in the universe. Definitions are from

utlanning - A member of one’s own species from the same planet but another country

framling - A framling is a member of one’s own species that dwells on another planet.

raman - A member of a species of intelligent beings (different from your own) with whom one can achieve meaningful dialogue.

varelse - A species of beings with whom one cannot achieve meaningful dialogue

In Card’s books, varelse are the only critters with which war or other harm may be morally waged. This does not mean that the alien must speak the Queen’s english or else it’s toast, but rather that communication of some sort is possible, whether that be the language of mathematics, telepathy, or straight out language. Coommunication must only be conceivable. Of course, this places the fate of an entire species into the hands of humanity, which quite possibly would be too ignorant to think of a way to communicate, but it’s certainly better than what we’ve been doing so far.

Not saying this is the answer, but it is an interesting perspective.


Which raises the related question of terraforming a planet. Building a city is one thing, but altering the entire planet (and probably killing any indigenous life) is another matter. I can agree that terraforming would destroy lots of scientific info about the formation of the other world (as well as our own), but I see great benefit in bringing life to a lifeless world.

But I don’t know where to draw the line, particularly when other life is involved. But here’s my attempt for this moment…

Intelligent life - definitely their turf
Sentient life - probably their turf, but we may be able to co-exist
Simple life - ???
Lifeless, but geologically significant - probably ok to take over (on a case by case basis)
Lifeless rock - free for all

Nature preserves. Big, honking, nature preserves. Imagine: Olympus Mons National Park.

Olympus Mons Planetary Park?

I don’t think it is really possible for us to colonize or even visit a place (planet, island, whatever) without contaminating it to some degree. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series was great for pointing out the need to study places in depth before introducing major changes. The other thing that is clear though it that people carry bacteria - bacteria adapts fast to new environments - our bacteria will contaminate any new place we visit and any bacteria currently living there will contaminate us. The stuff found living near the undersea volcanic vents and blooming when a whale carcass hits bottom shows that bacteria of one sort or another can live just about anywhere under just about any conditions, so just because we think some given environment is sterile doesn’t mean it is.

I think what we really have to try for is to preserve significant areas for study and gain understanding of an environment before we institute major irreverable changes to the best degree we can.

Oh, and a Mons of Venus park would be much more interesting. Talk about recreational areas…

then there’s the “Dive Europa” bumperstickers

Engineer Don - I agree, we carry lots of other species with us, whether we mean to or not. I think lots of robotic study is first required. (it’s cheaper that way too)

I vote for humans first. I don’t believe the environment has some intrinsic value outside of how it can benefit us. That is the environment is valuable because it works for us not simply because it exist.

I don’t have a problem with taking land that isn’t occupied by any intelligent life. I think we’d have more to gain by studying these things then going out of our way to destroy them. But as I said humans first.


We don’t seem to have any problem wiping out any species that gets in our way here, so why should it be any different on another planet?

Oh, and jmullaney, I don’t think the main thing currently stopping us from colonizing Mars is worrying about possible life-forms. There are other problems involved, like, oh, the massive expense, danger, and lack of incentive.

Isn’t there some international treaty that nations cannot claim bodies out in space for their own? I wonder how long that will last once colonization does become a viable possibility.


I doubt that the UN can enforce this treaty once colonization becomes profitable. What will they do? Have trade embargos (sp?) on a multinational conglomerate? If anything, people will eventually have to expand into outer space to survive. Yes, there will be many changes with lower-gravity and artificial environments to people’s physiology but we humans are an adaptive bunch!

Yeah, and wasn’t there some treaty a while back that the European nations would divide the New World fairly amongst themselves? :smiley:

Your view is certainly not uncommon. The question that comes it mind is…what is best for humanity, to be selfish or compassionate? Both have merits. Personally, I see intrinsic value in other life for its own sake, but I’ll agree to disagree rather than argue that point. Anyway, I agree with you that studying rather than destroying other life can greatly benefit humans. Even a species wholly different than ours can teach us about how we evolved and may get us thinking in new directions (e.g., new technologies).

Yeah, I think there is. (certainly for the moon) I can’t imagine that some self-sufficient Mars colony would care what a beaurocrat millions of miles away thinks. Close ties will carry polical weight, but as colonies get more detached (distance, sustainability), so will the the other ties.

Which is the point of my OP. With this “fresh start”, do we continue with our old methods or should we change our approach? I see now as a chance to plan rather than to proceed blindly as we have in the past.