Fermi's Paradox and the 'Prime Directive'?

I have to tell you, I often do wonder about things like Fermi’s Paradox and its possible solutions.

I know in the fictional Star Trek universe, they have this thing called the Prime Directive. That they will not interfere in developing civilizations, the key word being ‘developing’. Is that the consensus among scientists, the primary likely candidate for solution to the question? Or if not that, then what?

Also, I am not necessarily making it part of this thread. But I did want to say. I do think Roswell, Area 51, and flying saucers is a bunch of nonsense. I am just as rational as anyone else on these boards after all. But I do wonder about Ancient Astronaut Theory. It does seem at least partly plausible. And seems to me at times, scientists are often too skeptical. They just think because the nut crowd says something, it has to be false. But you know, even a broken clock is correct twice a day. I think scientists should at least study this one. I’m serious.

Oh, and back to Fermi’s Paradox. I know some of you will say it is because faster-than-light speed (FTL) is not possible. But I again refer back to Star Trek. Even now there are some clever shortcuts. Any good wormhole would be of assistance. Or like Star Trek, if you can’t traverse space fast, why not just warp it? I’m serious.

I patiently await your replies :slight_smile: .

There’s no evidence for any of the things you propose, and lots of evidence against them. Especially the Ancient Astronaut idea, which is at its base the racist idea that non-Western peoples couldn’t possibly be so smart.

Star Trek isn’t a documentary. The Prime Directive isn’t needed to answer Fermi’s Paradox when there are plenty of valid reasons why we haven’t identified other civilization.

You seem to be contradicting yourself, if I understand your argument-- first you say maybe Fermi’s Paradox can be explained by aliens following their version of the Prime Directive, staying away now so they don’t influence our developing civilization. But then you bring up ‘Ancient Astronaut Theory’ which posits that aliens influenced our technology and such in ancient times, and say you think it’s plausible.

Anyway, when it comes to the Star Trek version of the Prime Directive, didn’t Kirk and co. violate that like every single time they came across a more primitive alien civilization? It was a joke, like our equivalent to jaywalking being a crime.

It’s not impossible, but I tend to believe a simpler solution. Life is rare, intelligent life rarer, and the technology needed to be detected rarer still. Even if faster than light travel is possible, there’s likely still limitations in speed, meaning anyone stopping by would need to be somewhat local (as space is REALLY BIG) And if faster than light “radio” is possible, we don’t know how to receive the signals yet. Given the age of the universe and all those variables it just may not be densely enough populated for us to have had any contact.

As for ancient astronauts–it’s not impossible, but we lack any real evidence for them. Sure, in your theory, that would be by design, since the Prime Directive says they shouldn’t leave traces. But, if we can’t detect it, then it’s not really relevant to us right now, so we might as well behave as if it didn’t happen.

In short, we’re better off looking for signs of life in general right now than wondering if there might be sapient life that is avoiding us.

I don’t think it’s possible to be “too skeptical”. Either evidence exists, or it doesn’t.

Just for the record, I wasn’t aware of any racist overtones in the theory. I have seen numerous programs on the History Channel, and they never mention racism. (BTW, I strongly recommend seeing those History Channel series on the topic. You don’t have to believe. You only have to hear a different perspective.)

@solost I don’t think I am contradicting myself. Ancient Astronaut theory still allows for the possibility they have not had formal contact with us yet.


The first two sentences from your Wikipedia link say:

“Ancient astronauts” (or “ancient aliens”) refers to the pseudoscientific[1] idea that intelligent extraterrestrial beings visited Earth and made contact with humans in antiquity and prehistoric times.[2] Proponents suggest that this contact influenced the development of modern cultures, technologies, religions, and human biology.

I don’t see the ancient aliens theory as racist. I think it just a modern version of: “Well, if it’s too complicated for me to figure out. God must have done it.”

Only except instead of “god” they use aliens.

One thing to factor in is Intelligent species probably don’t last that long if we use humanity as an indicator. I think a 100K years would be laughably optimistic. Which is just a flash in the pan relatively speaking.

And to find two flashes in the pan happening at the same time in close proximity to each other would be even more rare.

I’ve heard it described as more of a soft bigotry than outright racism. “How could those ancient peoples have built giant pyramids and fitted multi-ton stones together so tightly you can’t fit a sheet of paper between them, using primitive tools? Clearly, it must have been aliens with laser cutting tools and anti-grav moving devices!”. Not that ancient people were just as clever and resourceful as us.

they perpetuate and give air to the racist notion that only Europeans – white people – ever were and ever will be capable of such architectural feats.

You’ll notice that the Ancient Astronaut theory only applies to structures built by non-European cultures. Has anyone ever suggested that aliens helped build the Colosseum? It was built before many of the Mayan pyramids if I have my dates correct.

You do. The Roman Colosseum was built approximately 1300 years before (for example) the tallest pyramid in the Americas, Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala.

No self-contradiction required. “That was then and this is now.”

The thing to appreciate about the Fermi paradox, is that it is not solved by thinking of some plausible reason why we don’t see evidence of aliens. There are lots of plausible reasons. Simplest of all would be to posit that abiogenesis is so rare, it only happened once in the universe.
The point of the paradox is, we don’t yet know which, if any, of the explanations suggested so far is the right one.

Among scientists it is called the Zoo hypothesis.
Generally-speaking, solutions to the Fermi paradox that rely upon psychology or social reasons aren’t considered very plausible, as you would need every individual of every species through their entire history to always share the same view. As soon as a single individual breaks, they can potential leave evidence.

Aliens are such jerks.
Travelling across interstellar space, using technologies that we still are not even capable of dreaming of, and only teaching us how to build big stone structures, something humans have demonstrably learned to do many times over. Thanks for nothing.

Some people indeed say that, but the universe is so ancient, that even travelling at sub-lightspeed there has been plenty of time for a civilization to litter a galaxy with evidence. Hence why the paradox remains compelling.

Well, for just a quick review of the Fermi Paradox on Wikipedia…

Hitting the main points from the article on reasons why it hasn’t seemed to play out includes 23 separate (some related possible explanations, too many to list here. IMHO, it probably boils down to assumptions in the original theory - that an appreciable number of aliens would both develop an industrial technology and be expansionist.
We have multiple cultures on earth that have historically put very limited value on innovation and expansion. From the POV of maintaining a stable culture and/or government, these are counterproductive in many cases. I am trying very hard to ignore my own western cultural bias where science and technology tend to be seen, in the main, as ‘good’ or ‘positive’ things, but to point out this is a value seen in human culture and history, and aliens may well be ‘alien’ in outlook as well.
This applies to the OP’s theory as well, that a Prime Directive prevents the existing alien civilizations from contacting us as we’re unready. We are putting very, very human motivations and ethics unto what would be a civilization that would have had to put immense effort into reaching us at all. The ‘clever shortcuts’ referenced in the OP are . . . more clever that shortcuts. My wife is a PhD candidate in Physics (no, not astrophysics) and she’s occasionally looked into the more clever ones in the hard scifi we watch together.
In short, most of them are all lovely on the theoretical level, because they require some huge assumptions, like manufacturing singularity levels of materials that have negative mass. Or that we have a level of energy to input greater than that from using the entire surface level of a dyson sphere. Yes, they are clever, but none of the ones I’ve seen are more than a thought experiment, which would leave you exploring the nearby regions at a tiny fraction of C.
So anyway, papers can and have been written about why it’s the assumptions involved in Fermi’s thought experiment are likely off, and the reasons are insanely varied. There are related columns on the classic Straightdope and other threads here that address it as well, all of which are fun reads.

Direct visits and signals are not the only things we’re looking for though. We are also looking for evidence of megastructures, replicating probes or any detectable changes to stars or other cosmic phenomena. It seems that no-one is doing any of those things.

They violated it virtually every time, plus it doesn’t make sense to begin with. It’s just a plot contrivance to allow for them to visit a planet of hats and

  1. Not have that planet “corrupted” by being aware of how unusual their social set up is, or having the choice to leave or whatever.
  2. Not have the option of the Enterprise magic tech-ing their problems, but Kirk et al needing to sneak in and do something more heroic and relatable for the audience.

disclaimer: I love star trek

I was noodling about this thread while running errands, and I think I have a better fictional work to discuss for the thread rather than Star Trek.

Stargate! (mostly the movie, although the Stargate Extended Universe has a lot of bearing as well)

So here we have an earlier, spacefaring civilization, why they would encounter earth, why they would not keep up contact, and for full points, ancient aliens!

Okay, so here we go. We have an alien race, for whom space travel is possible, although from context it would seem to be C-fractional or low C multiples. Therefore, their civilization predominantly uses one of those clever work arounds, some form of wormhole based instantaneous transportation. So why go to the extent of exploring and encountering earth?
Here we have the motivation, continued life. While probably not an assumption I’d be willing to make for 100% of life in the universe, for an intelligent being, knowing that your life can end and wanting to avoid it would likely be one of the more common motivations. If you have sufficient other resources, expending a large amount on this objective would be at least understandable.
So they encounter earth, and find that it is useful for extending life! Happiness, and limited colonization ensues. But Earth apparently has no resources that are particularly rare, unlike the 2nd planet of the series, which has the crystalline materials apparently key to that civilization. So when the rebellion breaks out and the gate is closed, the aliens have what they need (other humans) and otherwise the planet is too far away and too hard to get too, so screw 'em.
Regarding my bonus points for ancient aliens, in this example, the reasons we don’t have evidence is the were geographically isolated, and our very smart ancestors did all they could to wipe out or hide the evidence for damn good reasons!

So there you have it, no need for a prime directive at all. We are boring, low value ball of mud on the fringes of the galaxy, who wants it!

First, the ancient astronaut idea is bunk. If anyone ever visited, we have no record of it. I read Chariots of the Gods when it came out - it was junk then and it is junk now.

The Star Trek Prime Directive is nonsense also. A real one would restrict all contact with younger civilizations. Just the existence of other beings would affect a culture plenty. Just think of what contact would do to ours.
A real prime directive is a plausible explanation if there is ftl travel, but there are plenty of better ones including a short life span for civilizations which would mean that though there are plenty of them, they never are close to one another at the same time.

This all falls apart when you realize that it doesn’t need an appreciable number, it just needs one.

All realistic solutions to the Fermi Paradox either imply that something about the Earth is unique, or that our civilization is doomed.

If it is that other civilizations are not technological and expansionistic, then why are we the only civilization that is?

The point is not that they were trying to reach us, but just that, over time, any civilization that has the capability and the will to expand will do so, and quite quickly, in astronomical terms, fill the entire galaxy.

Once again, it may very well be that most aliens do not see things in such terms, but the reasoning needs to explain why no aliens see things in such terms. Why we are the only ones that do.

The only assumptions put forth by Fermi were that we had not encountered any signs of alien technology, and isn’t that odd in a universe as old as ours?

As to the “Prime Directive” or the Zoo Hypothesis, I find it quite unlikely. However, in the case that it is true, the most likely, IMHO, reason for it is that creativity is valued, and that an independent culture creates unique things that a culture that has galactic contact no longer does. Maybe even that, in the time of first contact is an explosion of creativity when the newly contacted culture combines its unique perspective with the knowledge and experience of the galactic civilization, so that time is carefully evaluated, to determine when a culture is “ripe” so to speak.

This would at least explain a motivation for not only not contacting us, but also preventing other civilizations from doing so.

Personally, I think that the simplest answer is that we are the first technological species within several billion light years, or at least that’s the more optimistic view. The less optimistic view is that we are one more in a very long line of failed civilizations, destined to destroy ourselves before we get a foothold in space.

It doesn’t even required life to be rare, or civilizations to be uncommon. Ecosystems could exist on the Jovian and Saturnian water- or hydrocarbon-bearing moons below the ice or in the thick frosting of Titan’s atmosphere and we would not be able to detect it from space. The Milky Way galaxy alone is large enough to support tens of thousands of technological civilizations at our current level of development which, if evenly separated, would be out of range of detection of each other based upon our current means of radio astronomy. Trying to estimate the upper bound on live or existing civilizations from what we can currently observe is like evaluating the quality of Parisian cuisine by ordering room service from your hotel.

There is the common assumption that some really advanced civilization would radiate huge energies or build “megastructures” that would be visible for tens of thousands of lightyears distance by their spectral effects but the notion of a “Kardashev scale” is fundamentally based on the assumption that such a civilization would use make use of radio transmissions and would maximize the capture of energy from its central star; a really advanced technological civilization with a grasp of physics beyond our own may well have dispensed with the electromagnetic spectrum for communications, favoring instead high frequency gravitational waves or controlled decay of mesons accelerated to velocities near c, or some other means unknowable to us, and may be able to draw energy from other sources entirely.

It is, indeed. Many of the supposed artifacts and constructions that it and other books by Erich von Däniken and his successors promoted as being evidence of alien visitation are readily explained as the works of pre-modern societies. If there were anything to “Ancient Astronaut Theory” to study then archeologists would be studying it because there would be no greater prize in that field than uncovering an entirely unexpected influence upon prehistoric civilizations, and yet, despite the great technological advances in the field no such plausible evidence has been uncovered.

The “Prime Directive” hypothesis assumes some kind of human morality about an alien civilization toward protective non-interference. Not only is there no reason to believe this would exist, as it has been pointed out even the writers of Star Trek did not hew to it whenever it interfered with the plot. If there is no interference with less advanced civilizations it is likely because a technologically developed alien civilization has no interest or need in doing so any more than you would attempt to communicate with an ant colony, or even more plausibly that it simply isn’t worth the time any effort to transit interstellar space to do so. Humans tend to be overly impressed with themselves, previously setting human civilization as the center of the universe and even the reason of its creation, but all available evidence indicates that we are probably nothing special (being primarily created of six of the most common reactive chemicals in the universe) and are located in the relative hinterlands of our own galaxy, which itself is only one of many billions in the observable universe. And our civilization is (hopefully) not at its technological apex, nor can we predict what advancements will bring beyond that they will probably be beyond our wildest imaginings, and certainly beyond the imagination of screenwriters who have people beaming around space in colored onesies zapping each other.

This is statistically unlikely; we are a relatively high metallicity system but not uncommonly so among stars in our spectral class (and adjacent classes), and it has taken approximately five billion years to go from formation of the planetary system to the rise of technological civilization. Of course, we have no data whatsoever on how often technological civilizations can arise, but the statistical “Law of No Small Numbers” applies here; of the approximately 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone, even a tiny fraction of a percentage change per time increment results in a distribution of large number of potential civilizations arising nearly continuously. However, the odds that two will arise simultaneously at relatively comparable levels within communications distance of one another (e.g. within a few hundred lightyears) may be very unlikely, and even a few thousand years of development may render one civilization so far beyond the other that no worthwhile communication can be made.

If there were a civilization “several billion light years” away, we would almost certainly never know about it and would not be able to make any communications before expansion of the universe carried it beyond our cosmic event horizon regardless. For the purposes of discussion we should confine the observation and communication with an alien civilization as occurring within the observable portions of our galaxy, which is still sufficient in quantity of stars to apply a lower bound the relative probability of the rise of such civilizations, and that bound is still potentially high enough to be far greater than assuming that human civilization is the exclusive occupant of the Milky Way galaxy.


If an advanced civilization has human morality, we’re in big trouble.
But given the increasing amount of destructive power even our primitive selves have produced, it is reasonable to conclude that any advanced civilization is also advanced ethically. Otherwise they have probably killed themselves off, which is one solution to the paradox. If so, they would behave to thinking entities better than we do to ant colonies. And not just kids kicking the hell out of them. Scientists studying them probably distort them also.