One of the memes of science fiction has been what might happen if an advanced alien civilization contacted the Earth. The scenario has appeared on film ranging from cerebral offerings such as “Arrival” and “Contact” to more action oriented alien invasion stories such as “Independence Day.” However, a recent article in Discover invites us to consider what may happen if Earth discovers a preindustrial civilization residing on another Earth-like planet. Then Earth will be the advanced aliens with some decisions to make about dealing with the primitives.

Establish first contact or not

The scenario goes something like this: Sometime in the next decade or so we discover an Earth-like world orbiting either Alpha Centauri or Proxima Centauri. By the middle of the century, an uncrewed probe such as envisioned by Project Star Shot visits the nearby solar system and discovers that the new Earth indeed harbors a pre-industrial civilization, say analogous to Earth in the Middle Ages. By the end of the century, Earth develops the ability to visit the new world, perhaps with the warp drive that the folks at NASA’s Eagleworks have been tinkering with. Then what do we do?

The one thing we would not do is to go in hard and try to conquer the primitive aliens.

The newly discovered civilization is not likely to have resources worth stealing that can’t be gotten at easier from comets, asteroids, and uninhabited moons. Besides, Earth civilization has advanced beyond the sort of 19th Century imperialism that justified occupying and controlling other countries for fun and profit, silly movies like "Avatar" aside.

Then the question arises, do we try to contact the newly discovered civilization? Such an act would have every potential for being highly disruptive, stunting and interfering with its natural growth. Fortunately, a good, working policy already exists and has for just over 50 years.

'Star Trek' provides the answer

In the TV Show “Star Trek” the future United Federation of Planets has a noninterference policy where it came to primitive cultures.

Star Fleet would avoid contact with such societies and would certainly not try to influence their development, even to the good. The policy would be to watch and observe until the civilization is advanced enough for the first contact. To be sure, Captain Kirk always found exceptions so that he violated this prime directive almost every episode, but it remains a sound policy.

So, we observe from orbit, perhaps sending in stealth drones to the surface for close in examinations. We do not establish contact. We do not interfere. The ability of big government to improve life on Earth has proven to be iffy in any case. Attempting to do the same for an alien civilization, say by introducing new technologies or cures for diseases, could just make matters worse. Eventually, the aliens build their own spacecraft and then go out and contact us, a day the will reverberate in the histories of both cultures.