The Lab Hypothesis: Why haven’t aliens made contact yet, and are we being watched?
If you haven’t heard of the Fermi Paradox, here it is in a nutshell: given the high probability that extraterrestrial life exists (keeping in mind the vastness of space and the planets in the houses continue to be found), why has no one contacted yet? If there were so many other civilizations out there – perhaps far more advanced than us due to the span of the universe – surely at least one would be sending messages or probes, or desperately searching for signs of life. as we are?
Responses to the paradox range from optimistic to downright frightening. It could be that we simply haven’t searched long enough, or issued our own traceable signatures for the aliens to find us. It could be that no extraterrestrials can ever come into contact with other species, destroying themselves long before they get to the kind of technology needed to do so.
One of the more optimistic explanations is the zoo hypothesis. First presented by MIT scientist John Allen Ball, it suggests that extraterrestrials exist and know us, but quietly watch us, like you would observe animals in a zoo.
“Among currently popular ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence, the idea that ‘they’ are trying to talk to us has many adherents,” Ball wrote in his post. “This idea strikes me as unlikely to be correct, and the zoo hypothesis is in fact the antithesis of this idea.”
“I believe the only way to understand the apparent non-interaction between ‘them’ and us is to assume that they deliberately avoid interaction and have set aside the area we live in as a zoo.”
The theory is based on certain assumptions, such as the fact that few civilizations in our galaxy are at the same point of development as us. This might be a reasonable assumption, given the short time span over which human civilization developed. Instead, for the theory to work, there would be primitive life there, as well as advanced civilizations that have survived long enough to be at levels of development “perhaps comparable to what will be on earth in a few million years”.
“The analogy with civilizations on Earth indicates that most of those civilizations that lag behind in technological development would eventually be swallowed up and destroyed, tamed or perhaps assimilated,” he explains. “So generally speaking, we only need to consider the most technologically advanced civilizations because they will, in some sense, control the universe.”
Ball points out that even at our own level of technological advancement, we set aside areas for natural development (nature reserves for uncontacted peoples that we deliberately leave alone).
“The perfect zoo (or wilderness or sanctuary) would be one in which the wildlife within does not interact with and are unaware of its zookeepers.”
According to modifications made to the theory by later scientists (and science fiction writers, of course), extraterrestrials could allow our natural evolution to occur, much like the First Directive in star trek prevents the Federation from interfering with the natural progression of alien species.
It could be that hypothetical advanced civilizations are waiting for us to be ready to make contact (as in Contact) or until they have crossed some sort of technological or political threshold (e.g., they have stopped attempting to destroy themselves or other species).
Unfortunately, the only real way to know if the theory is (still maybe) correct is through the process of elimination.
“The zoo hypothesis predicts that we will never find them because they don’t want to be found and they have the technological capability to make sure of that,” Ball writes. “Thus, this hypothesis is falsifiable, but not, in principle, confirmable by future observations.”
He describes this as pessimistic and psychologically unpleasant, preferring to believe that aliens would in fact come into contact. Hidden in Ball’s paper on the zoo hypothesis is a small tweak he describes as “morbid and grotesque”: the laboratory hypothesis. In this version, the aliens don’t talk to us because we’re part of an experiment they’re conducting on us.
“We may be in an artificial laboratory situation,” he writes. “However, this hypothesis is outside the scope of science because it leads nowhere, it immediately challenges the premises on which it is based, and it makes no predictions.”
Instead, we could – and for a reasonably cheap price – at least attempt to contact our zookeepers, as physicist João Pedrode Magalhães proposed in 2016.
“I propose to send a message using television and radio channels to any extraterrestrial civilization that may be listening and invite them to respond,” the author wrote.
“While I accept that it is unlikely to succeed in the direction of a response from extraterrestrial intelligences, the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations watching us cannot be ruled out and my proposal is consistent with current scientific knowledge. Furthermore, issuing an invitation is technically feasible, cheap and safe, and few would deny the profound importance of establishing contact with one or more extraterrestrial intelligences.”