Should we adopt the Prime Directive? and other thoughts on Star Trek

As I mentioned in previous entries, I have been watching Star Trek the Next Generation and have nearly completed the series.  I have found it to be a fun and thought provoking series, but there are some odd things about it, I felt like discussing here.  I am sure much of this is discussed at length elsewhere, but I figured I share my own thoughts on these aspects of the Star Trek Universe.

Humanoid Aliens

I understand the reason why the vast majority of alien life forms are merely humans with strange though fairly minor modifications, like pointy ears, ridged foreheads, and mind reading abilities.  Cast members have acknowledged, that this stems from a lack of non-humanoid actors to play the various types of alien races.  But the idea, that species arising on different planets, not only can be so similar, but also able to interbreed, is a biological absurdity.   This is true even if we take the notion that some form, ancestral to all the races was planted on all these planets.  I acknowledge it is fiction, so it does not have to make sense.

It does however, make me think of some passage in Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he discusses how after centuries of space travel, and the terraforming and colonization of distant planets, the resulting isolated human populations will start developing their own distinct traits and eventually reach the point where they are distinct species no longer able to interbreed with us.  Such populations could possibly develop physiological features like some of the aliens races in Star Trek, since many of these are just minor modifications of the basic human template.  This strikes me as potentially a great idea for a similar science fiction series: one where humans from earth travel the galaxy and document different species of humans that have arisen on distant planets, as a result of human exploration and the time it takes to travel those great distances.

Political Economy of The Federation

As many of my past posts indicate, my ideal version of the future, would be an extremely anti-authoritarian one.  I would ideally like to see most people cooperating on projects as equals, on purely voluntary terms with little or no government needed to oversee it.  I think much of this could be made possible as we enter the post-scarcity phase of our history.  Simply put the things we need and want are becoming more and more plentiful, with less work needed to meet the demands of all people.  Currently, in the developed world we seem to be in this awkward transition between an economy based on scarcity to a post-scarcity economy where we have more people who need work, than we actually have things for them to do (but that may be a post for a latter point).

In  Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have fully achieved the post-scarcity economy.  Federation members have access to replicators that can provide the material needs of any individuals.  This technology is so widely available that one can assume, it works at negligible cost.  Any meal or any other physical object one could want, can be materialized out of nothing.  There seems to be no concern about whether the objects replicated are patented or copyrighted, and no need for any sort of money.  For these reasons I have heard the post-scarcity economy in Star Trek described as a form of social anarchism or libertarian communism.

I question how true this is though, because the people in Star Trek have not achieved a society that is free of Government or hierarchical authority.  Indeed, the crew of the enterprise (and by extension the rest of Star Fleet), is extremely hierarchical and indeed militaristic.  They have a strict system of ranks and an order of commands (Though admittedly this seems to be based on personal attainment and not some arbitrary criteria).  I also do not recall seeing Captain Picard, severely punishing anyone above threatening to have them court-marshaled, but it is strongly implied that he could.  I would just assume live in a future where people explore space together on more egalitarian terms.  But, I recognize the military structure, makes it accessible to American audiences.  It gets worse though, as apparently the underlying authoritarianism goes beyond this.  To be specific, we are told that all the members of the Federation of Planets have world governments.  The notion that a world government would exist in anything but a dystopian vision of the future makes me a bit uneasy, but apparently we are supposed to believe it is some sort of ultra-enlightened world system, that is part of an ultra-enlighted federation.

The Prime Directive

Then there is the Prime Directive, which is the foundational principle of the Federation of Planets.  Simply put, the federation is forbidden from intervening in the internal development of Alien cultures.  This apparently applies mostly to cultures that have not developed warp capabilities.  The cultures are to be left in the dark about the existence of extraterrestrial life, enlightened values systems and advanced technology (though federation crew members can observe and even disguise themselves as members of these cultures to move among them).  Often the Prime Directive is used as a plot device, to put the show’s characters in complicated moral dilemmas.

I have mixes feelings about the concept.  There is a part of me that recognizes that if more past cultures had practiced this sort of non-interference, the world would be a better place.  I especially in the case of the European cultures that for centuries killed, enslaved, and stole from and colonized the populations of the rest of world.  If these cultures had a notion like the prime directive in values system, a great deal of pain and suffering could have been avoided.  Indeed, knowing of these parts of our history leads me to sympathize with Picard’s claim that “history has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

I often think something like the prime directive should be adopted by my own country, the United States, which has a history of wanting to act as the world’s police man, getting involved international quagmires and supporting fascist dictatorships and murderous death squads in the name of pursuing its own self-interest.  The are cases where non-interference would have been a step in the right direction.

There is of course a downside to the prime directive.  For one thing, it has led to federation members simply allowing populations to die they otherwise could of saved, and as prevented the proliferation of life saving technologies like medicines, from reaching peoples that could really use them.  In other cases, its application meant allowing alien races to kill some of the shows main characters.  It is also inconsistently applied. Fans have noted incidents where it should have been brought up but was not, or when it was applied to civilizations with warp capabilities, or was simply ignored in order to achieve a federation objective or save the lives of crew members.  In the various star trek series it is almost always brought up in situations where it is a source of difficulty.

Overall, I think the prime directive makes sense if it is applied to governments, and individuals acting in an official government capacity, but I think it makes less when it is applied to individuals acting on there own behalf.  In general individuals should be free to peacefully interact with whoever they like and go where they please.  This is true of individuals to extent that is not true of governing bodies.



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