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The Intrinsic Rights Of Martian Bugs

The intrinsic value of any potential ancient Martian fossils is not disputed, but what about living bugs that could seriously curtail human activity on Mars.
The Spacefaring Web 3.14 by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Aug 01, 2003
Recent evidence of vast amounts of water ice on Mars supports the possibility of indigenous life. At the same time, that water could enable human settlement and massive environmental engineering, or terraforming. A moral conflict could face us soon, pitting Terrestrial life against the Martian. The course of action we choose should be informed by broad debate: the ethics, as much as the biology, of Mars deserves full exploration.

Should intelligent extra-terrestrial life be discovered, presumably through a deep-space signal, the scientific community has a well-developed set of protocols for determining its response. No such protocols exist for responding to a discovery of microbial life (through there is a proposal to formulate them). Oddly, the prospect of primitive life is the more controversial: our concept of the appropriate response is shaped by our views on environmental ethics, where profound disagreements on basic assumptions divide us in our daily lives as much as in our views of a future on Mars.

There are three broad positions in environmental ethics (drawn from Randolph, Race & McKay, "Reconsidering the Theological and Ethical Implications of Extraterrestrail Life,"):

  1. Preservation is the belief that humans should minimize their actions in nature. In Terrestrial environmentalism, this belief is often accompanied by the views that humans stand apart from nature, and are negative and destructive agents. But another familiar formulation of this view is Star Trek's Prime Directive, holding that non-interference with primitive alien life is the highest wisdom. A preservationist view would have us leave Mars alone, certainly if there is life, and also even if there is not - "all we could do is screw it up" is a sentiment commonly heard.

  2. Stewardship is a human-centered, utilitarian approach. Stewardship sees humans as the only moral objects, with nature as resources and objects rather than as moral agents with their own rights. Often founded in Biblical concepts of man's dominion over nature, the only constraints on human actions that stewardship recognizes are against the illogic of waste and the self-demeaning effects of wanton cruelty or destruction. Stewardship would support our propagation on Mars unless indigenous life represented some uniquely valuable resources, e.g. as a source of pharmaceuticals (as in Paul McAuley's novel The Secret of Life).

  3. Intrinsic Worth holds that humans are not the only things with rights and moral standing, that others are equal to humans in the eyes of moral law. Those others could include all sentient beings, all life, or all of nature including the inanimate as well. Depending on how broadly the net of rights is cast, this position could either have us preserving Mars out of respect for the rights of the inanimate, leaving it to its indigenous organisms, or terraforming it in the name of sentience.

These positions are well-developed in general application. Environmental ethics is a vibrant field which has seen both outstanding scholarly work and a broad exchange of ideas and values among the academic community, professionals and activists, and the general public.

Through that interchange, all of the positions have matured in recent decades: Preservation is no longer only the ideologically reflexive anti-humanism of environmentalist extremists. At its best it manifests as an informed humility in the face of unintended consequences.

Stewardship has drawn from economics and utilitarianism to inquire into the best balance between short-term gains and long-term interests, transcending its roots at the intersection of Christian fundamentalism and paper-mill PR. Intrinsic Worth has built beyond its basis in Western philosophical inquiry to include the rich literature of Buddhist ethics and the inspired creations of artists and poets in close contact with nature.

Each of these positions deserves better than to be embraced or condemned lightly, in unthinking ideological response. All the more so, applying them to the problem of Martian microbial life requires careful re-consideration.

All of environmental ethics to date, with the exception of a handful of essays on the ethics of astrobiology, assumes that life and nature are coexistent, that both humanity and the rest of the biotic community are relatively powerful and resilient entities. Interconnection and interdependency now cannot be denied, though the various positions see relatively more or less of them.

Not necessarily so on Mars, where any indigenous life might occupy only the smallest toeholds, susceptible to the powerful technologies of humanity, where most all of Martian nature is utterly inorganic. The calculus of strength and value for humans, indigenous life and inanimate nature formed in the rich Terrestrial environment will have to be determined afresh.

Would Martian microbial mats be morally equivalent to human settlements? To Native American nomadic bands faced with European conquest? To redwood forests faced with the chainsaw? Or would planetary ecocide be, as some of the tackier Mars Society leadership has put it, no different from "cleaning a toilet?" As with polar field teams, terrestrial analogies are highly instructive - up to a point.

Another unique consideration in the extra-terrestrial context is the issue of a "Second Genesis." If there is life on Mars, did it evolve independently, or is it related to Terrestrial organisms through meteoric transfer of organic compounds? For some, including Chris McKay of NASA/Ames Research Center, the question of a Second Genesis lies at the core of ethical decisionmaking.

In this view, if any Martian life is related to Terrestrial extremophiles, while interesting, it would claim no greater rights than similar lifeforms on Earth. However important one holds primitive bacteria on Earth, one should regard their Martian counterparts the same. For most people, that "cleaning a toilet" analogy might apply, short of extinction and allowing preserves for scientific study.

Yet if Martian life represents a Second Genesis, those bacteria hold the same moral weight as all the uncountable species and rich diversity of Earth, and altering its environment to make way for ourselves would be as great a crime as aliens scouring our continents down to bedrock to make Earth safe for methane-breathing lizards.

Indeed, McKay sees a Second Genesis as imposing on us an affirmative moral obligation, not just to avoid contamination through "biologically reversible exploration," the subject of his presentation at the upcoming Mars Society conference, but to engage in "restoration ecology:" actively transforming the Martian environment to encourage the spread and diversification of indigenous lifeforms.

This notion is an astounding one, as breathtaking in its uncompromising idealism as in its technological daring. Terraforming, the process of creating conditions on Mars capable of supporting human and other oxygen-breathing life, is a familiar concept both in science fiction (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy) and in technical literature.

Restoration ecology, sometimes called ecopoiesis, would use those same massive technologies to turn Mars into a CO2-rich utopia for plants and anaerobic bacteria. "Mars for the Martians" is its supporters' slogan, countered by the scornful "Mars for the Microbes" of terraforming advocates.

Even in the absence of indigenous Martian life, the environmental-ethics dilemma remains acute. Many of us with a powerful affinity for Mars first felt its pull from the Viking panoramas of the beautiful, sere red desert, of Mars as it is. The call of Preservation, of living on and glorying in that Mars-as-it-is, can be a powerful and sympathetic voice.

An extraordinary number of old Mars hands have chosen to live in the Great American Desert between Boulder and Tucson, Death Valley and White Sands, drawn in part by an affinity with the red world. Much of Terry Tempest Williams's Red, a tribute to the heart of that region, could have been written of Mars.

When Frederic Turner writes in his epic poem of terraforming, Genesis, that "the unwritten poem is the barren planet, and the composition of the poem its cultivation by living organisms," it is not hard to echo Williams's cry before Congress, "We are talking about the body of the beloved, not about real estate." What Robinson called the "Red" view is a coherent, attractive moral stand.

Yet Turner's voice resonates as well, in the sacred duty of life to expand, and in our moral role as the agent of vitality in a dead cosmos. As he later writes, "We are the bees by which the living world/Will fertilize itself across the voids." Turning lifeless rock into a living garden, ensuring the safety and continuation of Terrestrial species in a second home - what greater or more righteous calling could be envisioned?

And how could Mars be any less unique or glorious with water flowing in its valleys, with its cliffs become fjords on the shores of a Boreal Ocean? Even on a fully terraformed Mars, some future Williams could write, "where we live, red is endemic, finding its way into every opening, large or small, seeping into each pore of the skin, staining fingers and toes.

At night, red dirt colors our dreams as we rub our eyes, scratch our eyes, sneeze, cough, as each red particle of sand works its way into the nucleus of every living, breathing, multiplying cell." How much better, then, a Mars still every bit the red world but full of life?

Last week I put these questions to an audience at ComicCon, the World Comic Book Convention, as a guest of The Mars Society/San Diego. The full spectrum of opinion was represented, though with many fewer and less fervent Preservationists than I expected.

There was a loose consensus around the "no Second Genesis" position - that any indigenous life should be treated with respect, but subordinate to settlement and the propagation of Terrestrial species. I intend to repeat this experiment to a broad variety of audiences, raising the issues, inviting debate and seeking consensus.

There are no easy answers here, no certain duty but to consider our options thoughtfully and respectfully. Indigenous life or no, as we proceed with exploration, we owe it to ourselves, and to Mars, to act with clear and considered intent.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2003 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation (http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/Spacefaring ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at [email protected]

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Berkeley To Explore The Elements Needed To Support Martian Life
Berkeley - Jul 08, 2003
Could life once have existed on planets other than Earth, perhaps on Mars? A team of researchers led by the University of California, Berkeley, has joined the quest to find the answer.

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