“I think the discomfort that some people feel in going to the monkey cages at the zoo is a warning sign” – Carl Sagan
The Fermi Paradox, or the contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for such civilizations, has us scratching our heads. We’ve come up with a lot of explanations for the apparent absence of alien critters from the inevitable self-destructiveness of advanced life, to the notion that the universe is young and we just happen to be the first in the neighborhood, to the fact that our anthropocentric version of sentience means we wouldn’t recognize them if they contacted us, to the possibility that life-sterilizing gamma ray bursts are a popular astronomical event that periodically wipes out civilizations before they can get their colonization on. I like to think of our current constellation of hypotheses for the abject loneliness of human existence as largely “outward-facing”. That is to say, our response to the possibility that we weren’t invited to the galactic party (perhaps it’s just our personal hygiene) results from the fact that there is no party, when in fact, a little self-examination would suggest that we’re not on the guest list because we’re likely to get drunk, hit on the hostess, and wear the lampshade as a hat. We tend to valorize the role of the “party animal”, conveniently forgetting that at least 50% of that oeuvre is “animal”. It might have been fun for a little while, when aliens wanted to play Jenga with pyramids, but after a while it just gets embarrassing. After all, monkeys are fun to dress up and play with around the house for a short time, but eventually they start throwing feces and biting people’s faces off. That’s why one of the under-appreciated suggestions for why extraterrestrials aren’t landing on the White House lawn is the Zoo Hypothesis.
The Zoo Hypothesis is pretty straightforward. The universe is held to be teeming with intelligent life that deliberately hides its existence from us and quietly observes our antics from a safe distance. Perhaps they occasionally check in to make sure we’re healthy and drop a bowl of tasty treats without explanation, leaving us to invent a substantial body of folklore and mythology in an attempt to understand this deliberate obscurity, or as Richard Singleton said, “You have to think if we’ve been visited by extraterrestrial life it was like a zookeeper walking into the chimp enclosure: He looks around, takes some pictures, then leaves without interacting significantly with the environment. Meanwhile the chimps have no idea what the fuck just happened.” Given the possibility that the isolation of our species may be practical (if we got into the cage next door, we might eat the antelope), our externalized explanations for the apparent lack of intelligent life in what increasingly seems like a depressingly empty universe seem inclined to ignore the evidence that is right in front of us. Ourselves. Well, our ill manners and bad behavior as a species at any rate. If hypothetical representatives of technologically advanced interstellar civilizations are hell bent on disproving their own existence, it’s unlikely we would be able to pierce that veil, except by accident (the llama enclosure must seem to be a serene little space to the llamas, until a lonely zookeeper and human resources problem with a wool fetish starts getting unsavory ideas). Therefore, if we want to know whether we are part of a galactic zoo, perhaps we might consider the evolution of human behavior.
Zoologist Desmond Morris’ The Human Zoo had absolutely nothing to say about extraterrestrials, but nonetheless had many salient points that could be applied. He suggested that human civilization, particularly its impetus towards urbanization and the consequent dense confinement of large numbers of folks in small, well-defined spaces, would explain a lot of deviant behavior. Now, one can certainly debate his criteria for defining various specific acts as “deviant”, but his larger point is well taken. “Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair bonds [note: except maybe penguins], or commit murder. Among human city dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this then reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions” (Morris, 1996, p7). Extrapolate our general lack of manners and bizarre behaviors on a global scale, and the Zoo Hypothesis, in moments of quiet self-reflection seems a lot more plausible.
We like to think that human screwiness is a natural outgrowth of our biological inheritance, and that the evolution from hunting-gathering to factory work and app design is the inevitable consequence of intellectual and societal development, yet there remains the possibility that we’re simply pacing back and forth obsessively in our cages for the amusement of the crowds. The more generous theorists and science fiction writers will suggest that benevolent extraterrestrials are merely allowing us to develop at a natural pace and have only our best interests at heart, but as Pete Singer said, “It was wrong to capture wild animals and confine them in captivity for people to go and gawk at them. And that’s basically how zoos got started. But once you do that, and once you have animals that have been bred in captivity, you’re really stuck with them in some sense. You can’t return them to the wild”. I could expound on the arrogance and unfairness of sentient alien species locking us up into a galactic “Human House”, but it’s almost feeding time and rumor is they’ll be installing a new tire swing.
Morris, Desmond. The Human Zoo. New York, NY: Kodansha America, 1996.
I like this. A lot of good points are in this post. If I was an alien, I would not want to have much to do with humans, either, except maybe to kick their asses and whip them into shape.
Without undermining his overall viewpoint, nor your very cogent commentary on this matter, Morris’ statement that animals in the wild don’t have long-term homosexual pair-bonds is thoroughly false. Something like 90% of “higher mammal” and bird species that we know any sexual data on at all have homoerotic behaviors, including pair-bonding.
Fair enough. His definition of “deviance” was definitely a function of the time he wrote in (the 1960’s), and folks had not yet started pointing out that homosexuality was observable in the wild if anyone chose to look.
Great post. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
If I remember right, that Snowden fellow who released all those top secret files and is now holed up somewhere had a virtual conference with that astrophysicist who did the Cosmos remake. Apparently that Snowden fellow believes that there is a possibility that most interstellar communication are encrypted to protect the broadcasters.
It’s probably feeding instructions.
There is another version of your possibility. Irregardless of our over-developed self-esteem and high opinion or ourselves as a species, we are not the crown of creation on this planet. That crown rests with another species that extraterrestrials contact regularly since they are far more akin than we are. They see us as a pesky minor annoyance, like flies at a picnic.
There’s a large body of “channeled” communications from aliens that claims that we are in quarantine and everyone out there is waiting and watching to see what we do with ourselves..
http://www.lawofone.info/ is where it is, if you care. I found this in my perennial search for religious meaning, and, if one assumes it’s true, which I do NOT assume, I can’t decide if it would be a main stem of meaning about our existence or just an interesting distant branch of what’s going on. Personally, I’m coming to the conclusion that what happens in this life is relatively minor in the whole scenario and that this type of question is interesting, but not really the Main Show. I only present this info because it is possible data and relates to the question.
Another Kurt Vonnegut similarity is Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. If you remember, he was regularly transported to a zoo on another planet, where the beings liked to watch him have sex with an Earth movie star.
Also, David Icke’s Tales from the Time Loop. Here we have inter-dimensional beings sapping psychic energy from humans to feed the energy grid on their home planet.
My favorite reason that aliens do not want anything to do with homo sapiens comes from Stanton Friedman. We are nothing but “angry apes with guns.”