The Zoo Hypothesis

Yesterday, I wrote an article about the Fermi Paradox, but there were a few omissions to possible solutions. One glaring one was the Zoo Hypothesis, which I find so interesting that it deserves its own article.

For a quick recap, the Fermi Paradox, posed by Enrico Fermi, is the question of, as the Universe is so vast, and should be home to so many habitable planets, why haven’t we seen any evidence of alien life?

The Zoo Hypothesis poses that alien civilisations hide themselves from us because we are too primitive, but observe us until we reach a point of progression when they feel that they can reveal themselves to us.

The problem with this theory is that, if humans are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that so many alien races could all stay in agreement, or that there would be no rogues and there hasn’t already been an accidental reveal.

But the theory throws up some interesting ideas, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. Deal with it.

The Zoo Hypothesis has been the subject of many sci-fi works, perhaps most notably in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s less clear in the film, but Arthur C. Clarke’s novels (of which 2001 has three sequels (2010, 2061 and 3001)) go into more depth on it. In the story a superior alien race stimulates the change in intelligence that allows apes to evolve into humans. Humans are unaware of this until they colonise the Moon and dig up a monolith – this is the first sign of alien life. The monolith was left buried on the Moon so that humans would not discover it until they could successfully leave their home planet.

This could be true; when we as a species can prove ourselves capable of navigating space frequently, perhaps we will find something left behind, like a clue, that reveals alien life to us.

This theory suggests that alien life has at least been aware of our presence for longer than recorded history, and possibly had a hand in developing us, maybe even starting life on Earth.

If so, why? This would be an incredible moment for humanity, because it would mean we had a purpose, but, sadly, that purpose served a race superior to ours. Even if it is as innocent as a lonely alien race wanting friends, we as humans are still circumscribed into a certain role; which makes me feel oddly ineffectual, rather than empowered to have a purpose.

On a side note, that’s why I don’t like theistic religions – I’m happier to make my own destiny… Buddhism, keep it, you’re leading the pack!

But, ethics aside, what point would we have to reach to be deemed worthy by alien civilisations? Maybe we have to reach a level on the Kardashev scale. That scale is a way of categorising the progression of a species.

A Type 0 civilisation is unable to harness energy on its own planet. A Type I civilisation can harness all of the energy of its home planet. A Type II civilisation can harness all of the energy of its home solar system, or at least its home star. A Type III civilisation can control the energy of its entire home galaxy.

We’re some way off Type I. Most of the solar energy that reaches Earth is not harnessed by us, and we do not have full control of kinetic energies such as wind or hydro-electric, nor full access to geo-thermal energy. We also rely on burning fuel, which a Type I civilisation would not need to do. Fuel resources are finite, whereas the other energies are, as far as human civilisation is concerned, virtually infinite.

So perhaps, when we get to Type I, aliens will reveal themselves to us. Having such access to energy would descale, if not end, most conflicts in the world, as energy would become practically free. Maybe at this point, aliens would be less scared to contact us.

Maybe aliens are too far away to see that, though, and we need to become a Type II or III for them to notice us. When we can build a Dyson Sphere to harness the Sun’s energy, or many to harness many suns, that would have a far more noticeable effect to outsiders.

Maybe Clarke was more on the money, and we need to reach a certain distance, or be in control of enough foreign worlds to discover other civilisations.

Maybe it’s to do with ethics. You don’t climb into a cage and try to engage a lion, because it will eat you. Maybe aliens consider us similarly. A civilisation that treats each other with such contempt might be considered too dangerous to engage with. Maybe at the point when we abolish our economic systems and stop enslaving each other, killing each other, or even simply fearing each other, they will want to talk to us. Maybe at the point when we have full nuclear disarmament, aliens will consider us safe. No matter how advanced you are, nukes will still harm you.

Maybe it’s far more banal. It could be that superior civilisations communicate in a far more efficient way than using radio waves. Perhaps, once we discover such a means of communications, aliens will decide it’s worth talking to us.

But if the cosmic phone rings, do we want to answer it? There’s the potential that superior civilisations are waiting for us to reach a point when we become useful. You don’t put a baby in a sweatshop as it will be more of a hindrance. You personally don’t, as you’re probably not an unscrupulous and dangerous psychopath.

It’s most likely, though, that aliens aren’t just sitting there waiting for the right moment to talk to us. As far as we can say for certain right now, we are on our own. However, I find it a useful exercise to think upon these ideas.

Ask yourself what kind of civilisation you want us to be, in the same way you ask yourself what kind of person you want to be. Once you’ve made up your mind, decide how we can reach that point, and if you can help, how can you? The more of us that try to pull humanity from the dirt, the closer to reality that pipe dream will become.

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