Bowdoin’s Willi Lempert on the Risks of Discovering Alien Life

By Tom Porter
Should humans be successful in their search for extraterrestrial life, the result could be catastrophic if we don’t learn from history, warns Assistant Professor of Anthropology Willi Lempert.
willi lempert portrait
Willi Lempert

Lempert, along with colleagues from two other universities, coauthored a recent article for The Conversation exploring the possible ramifications of “first contact” being made with life forms from other planets.

“We’re only halfway through 2023, and it feels already like the year of alien contact,” they said, referring to President Biden’s orders earlier this year to shoot down three unidentified aerial phenomena, leaked footage from a navy pilot showing a possible UFO, a whistleblower’s report suggesting a US government cover-up of UFO activity, and a report published in June suggesting that “UFOs might have been collected by a clandestine agency of the US government." 

“If any actual evidence of extraterrestrial life emerges, whether from whistleblower testimony or an admission of a cover-up, humans would face a historic paradigm shift,” warned Lempert and his colleagues. They are part of an Indigenous studies working group, made up of social science and humanities scholars, asked to contribute their expertise to the work being done by scientists at the Berkeley SETI Research Center—a California-based nonprofit research group that employs radio telescopes and listening devices to search for signs of life beyond our planet (SETI stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”).

This working group was recruited to offer guidance on the ethics of listening for alien life and how to proceed should any contact be made. There are lessons to be learned from history, we are told, about what happens when one alien culture “discovers” another. Consider, for example, how Captain Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery to Polynesia in the eighteenth century led to years of colonization and repression of native populations. (And then, of course, there’s also the possibility that we may encounter aliens who want to colonize us!) Read more on Lempert’s work at SETI.

Lempert et al.’s article in The Conversation was picked up by numerous other outlets, nationally and globally, including Yahoo News , Salon, and Haaretz.