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Earth May Be an Alien Zoo and We’re All Just an Exhibition

Where is everybody?

As the massive alien-searching telescope opened last month in China and probes and rovers look for evidence of life on Mars, the Fermi paradox continues to taunt us: If there are billions of Sun-like stars in the galaxy with billions of Earth-line planets possibly billions of years older, the probabilities are high that there are more advanced civilizations out there than us. Where are they? Enrico Fermi asked it and many continue to ponder, “Where is everybody?”

Scientist, TV host and former Irish rock star Brian Cox (D:Ream) recently proposed the pessimistic view that we haven’t seen them because they’ve all killed themselves using advanced technology as weapons rather than for space travel. Recently, an equally pessimistic theory has come back in response. Another rock star sings about it:

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

The Zoo Hypothesis was proposed in 1973 by MIT radio astronomer John Ball. His idea was that alien life exists and is so far ahead of us that it doesn’t want to affect us or influence us, so it is leaving us alone and just observing the planet from a hidden location. This is actually more of a ‘wildlife preserve’ hypothesis than a zoo, since it implies we’re not captured and placed in enclosures but just left in our own natural habitat for their viewing pleasure (apparently they’ve advance beyond television). Let’s hope they’ve truly advanced to the point where we’re in a wildlife preserve and not a ‘game preserve’ for their hunting pleasure.


That idea opens up a hole in the Zoo Hypothesis. It makes sense if you assume that the advanced alien civilization is benevolent and the only one with these capabilities, but what if there’s more than one? To keep all of these alien civilizations hidden while observing Earth would require either cooperation between them – possibly directed by a controlling or leader civilization – or a convergent evolution where they all independently evolved to the same benevolent ‘let’s watch but not interfere’ state. That’s asking a lot from evolution.

While controversial and not highly regarded in scientific circles, the Zoo Hypothesis shows up in many forms in science fiction and other areas. Arthur C. Clarke used it in his novel, Childhood’s End, where the alien watchers reveal themselves when humans are about to develop space travel. And Star Trek has its “Prime Directive” which places humans as the advanced civilization, as Captain Picard pointed out.

History has proved 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.

Is this a violation of the Prime Directive?

Is this a violation of the Prime Directive?

The great philosopher Calvin from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip appears to have also considered the Zoo Hypothesis.

Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.

Are Calvin, John Ball and others who support the Zoo Hypothesis on the right track? Perhaps the only way to find out is to become advanced ourselves. What are the chances of THAT happening?


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  • Tom Ruffles

    Worth pointing out that far from being an Irish rock star, Brian Cox was born in Oldham, part of Greater Manchester.

  • Turnstone’s Lament

    The Calvin & Hobbes cartoon says it all.

    Fermi’s Paradox is fundamentally flawed because it presupposes “civilization” as the summit of a linear, universal trajectory of cultural evolution.

    Just because we “progressed” from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists to agrarians to empire-builders to planetary parasites doesn’t mean every other potential race of intelligent beings in the universe will make the same mistake. I mean, the main driving force behind our claim to planetary dominion has been the literal interpretation of the Bible. We have created a global heat engine, an extractive civilization, and anyone who isn’t blinded by dogma, ignorance, or cognitive dissonance can see that it cannot be sustained much longer.

    Fermi’s promoters need to stop projecting humanity’s failure as a species into outer space. If there is a truly intelligent race of aliens out there, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to build civilizations.

  • St Kos

    That is assuming that humans are the only intelligent race on the planet. What about Cetaceans? They are obviously intelligent, they communicate and they haven’t destroyed their environment. Hmmmm…. They sound somewhat smarter than us.