“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.