To protect and preserve ET life? That is the question

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Credit: humboldt.edu

This past Sunday I served as a judge for the Eastern championship round of the NASA Astrobiology Debates. It turned out to be worth working on a weekend.#

So what are the NASA Astrobiology Debates? It’s a year-long program for middle school, high school, and university students who sign up to study and then debate a topic of interest to the astrobiology community.

The program is organized by the NASA Astrobiology Program and The George Washington University. The debate topic for this year is: “Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law.”

The Debates project is intended “to engage present and future leaders in dialogue on the implications of such a discovery.” Participating students are engaging in online speech competitions, public debates, and tournament competitions and conducting interviews with topic experts (see below).

This debate topic is of great interest to me. As readers of my blog will know, I think humans have no business tromping around on other planetary bodies – habitable or not – for numerous reasons, among them my belief in the value of preserving pristine environments for their own sake. So you can figure out how I would vote on this resolution.

That said, I can report that in the first debate round I judged, I found the team arguing the negative to be the winner. The panel of three judges voted 2-1 in favor of this team. In the final round (se below), I also voted for the team arguing the negative.

I am a student of rhetorical criticism and a practicing rhetorical analyst. I am not and never have been a debater. (I prefer dialogue to debate.) I don’t think my high school had a debate club, and my undergraduate university (1970-1974) was more focused on protesting the Vietnam war, advocating for gay rights, and exploring black power than engaging in more traditional academic pastimes.

Though I prefer dialogue to debate for a number of well-thought-out reasons, I have great respect for the discipline of formal debate (if only our political candidates knew how to debate properly…). After listening to debate teams in quarter-final, semi-final, and final rounds for seven hours straight, I felt like I’d been chugging espresso. I was charged, wired, invigorated. (I’m a big fan of auto racing – stock car, Indy car, sprint car, drag – it’s a similar kind of charge.)

Teams were debating about the intrinsic and instrumental value of microbial life, ethical obligations, moral duty, the effectiveness of international law, competing world views (anthropocentrism, ecocentrism…), the value of space development versus the value of space colonization, the multiple meanings of “overriding….” I kept thinking that the debaters had to attempt to make a topic colored by a million shades of gray appear to be black-and-white. All teams had to be prepared to argue for the affirmative and the negative.

The teams I judged came from Emory University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, and Morehouse College. (Other competitors included teams from France and Japan.) They were uniformly impressive. However, we judges were provided with guidelines for weighing one team’s performance against another’s. In the end, we had to decide who made the better argument.

By the final round, the two remaining teams were pretty much neck and neck. How could I pick a winner? In the end, it was during the second-cross examination when I noted a weakness on the part of the team arguing the affirmative. One of the debaters on the team arguing the negative made several statements that were arguable. I expected the affirmative team to rebut. It didn’t happen.

What were the arguable statements? First, a statement arguing that single footprint on the Moon could wipe out life caught my attention – the Moon has long been considered uninhabitable. Next, Tang and microwave ovens were cited as examples of the important benefits of space exploration and development. The debater could have used much more powerful, and relevant, examples of benefits – say, space-based communications, land remote sensing, a better understanding of Earth’s climate history and future. Third, The “negative” debater said the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is an example of “failed international law.” The treaty was intended to prevent war in space, and it has done so. Fourth, the “negative” debater stated that “an action isn’t ethical if it’s not effective.” I certainly disagree, and the “affirmative” team could have, too.

In the end, a panel of five judges – all from the space community – voted 3-2 in favor of the team arguing the negative. (I was one of the three, for the reasons stated above.)

After the debates, I took a look at some the interviews with topic experts that were recorded as research material for the debaters. Here are a few snippets from some of these interviews that I found interesting.

David Berube, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, had this to say about the challenge of determining whether and how legal protections need to be established for extraterrestrial life:

“I’ve had a strange lecture idea recently, which is to claim that the reason it was so hard to provide civil rights to African Americans living in the United States wasn’t because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but because we weren’t positioned well to do it. This is because we had already dehumanized them, then we had to re-humanize them so that we could provide them rights that had previously been reserved for white landowners. That was incredibly hard thing to do. What ended up happening was that it took a hell of a lot longer than it should have. You’ll likely see the same thing happening here, which is that it will take so long, and it will be so complicated to get the public to concede that a non-human species may have something to offer that may even be superior to the human species, that they will revert to a set of heuristics and biases that we’re talking about being incredibly long-term. There are some algorithms that attempt to deal with this by plotting out how many generations it will take us to develop philosophically to the point where we can have these moments of change.”

Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, offered these thoughts on the prospect of human colonization of other planets:

“Is there a process of colonization whereby the United States and other earthlings set up a colony or a place where microbial life on Mars or elsewhere simply becomes a fountain for their own uses? In other words, we assign value to it insofar as we find it useful for human existence or discovery or progress. And I think that what comes along with that isn’t just physical occupation but also the question of an epistemic or a methodological colonization. And what I mean by that is do we only know microbial life on Mars in so far as it extends to kind of taxonomies we have to know about nature here on earth. In other words, we’ve set up a cultural or philosophical view that places the human as the discoverer, a rational actor that seeks to go out, discover, colonize, name and categorize nature. And nature in many ways becomes oppositional to that. What’s external to the human is something that the human has power to act upon.”

And Brian Henning, a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University (who is, like me, an ecocentrist), had this to say about the topic:

“I would hope students will also discuss what we hope to accomplish by going out into the universe more broadly, the overall justification for our exploration….

“I would argue everything deserves some moral consideration for its own sake, so I probably have the most expansive definition of intrinsic value…. I would say all living things have moral standing because they have intrinsic value, even nonliving things have intrinsic value….

If we really had an adequate ethical perception of ourselves and our place in the world then when we went out in the universe we would end up doing less harm. We need to move from being the conqueror of biotic communities to being playing member/citizens.”

“One of the exciting part of astrobiology and astro-ethics is that it helps us to really complete the process that began with Darwin when we realized we are a part of and a product of processes on this planet and in the universe. It…gives us the opportunity to then help move away from anthropocentrism and a human- centered universe and transition us to seeing ourselves as a part of [the universe].”

Now, talk amongst yourselves….

# My work is funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

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