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The Prime Directive – A Real World Case

Trying to observe but not harm another civilization can be tricky business, as Michael Michaud explains in the article below. While Star Trek gave us a model for non-interference when new cultures are encountered, even its fictional world was rife with departures from its stated principles. We can see the problem in microcosm in ongoing events in Peru, where a tribal culture coming into contact with its modern counterparts raises deeply ambiguous questions about its intentions. Michaud, author of Contact with Alien Civilizations (Copernicus, 2007), draws on his lengthy career in the U.S. Foreign Service to frame the issue of disruptive cultural encounter.

By Michael A.G. Michaud


Science fiction fans all know of the Prime Directive, usually described as avoiding contact with a less technologically advanced civilization to prevent disruption of that society’s development. In a 1968 Star Trek episode, the directive was explicitly defined: “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.” Another version of the Prime Directive forbade introducing superior knowledge or technology to a society that is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.

Commentators have pointed out many violations of the directive in the Star Trek series (and in other science fiction programs). The Enterprise crew sometimes intervened to prevent tragedy or promote positive outcomes. De facto, observance of the Prime Directive was scenario-dependent.

Star Fleet personnel sometimes used hidden observation posts or disguises to watch or interact with natives. In one episode, Captain Kirk left behind a team of sociologists to help restore an alien society to a “human form.” At the other extreme, the Prime Directive was interpreted as allowing an alien civilization to die.

Star Trek was not the first source of a prime directive. In Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, superior beings take great care to keep their existence hidden from “pre-utopian” primitives so that the less advanced beings will not lose their independence of mind.

A recent article in Science reminds us that the practical application of such a principle in a real contact situation on Earth is riddled with complications and uncertainties. The government of Peru has been debating whether or not to make formal contact with a tribal people living in the Peruvian Amazon, sighted frequently over the past year.

Peruvian policy has been to avoid contact with isolated tribes and to protect them from intruders in their reserves. In practice, this policy has been difficult to enforce. Tour operators sell tickets for “human safaris;” some tribespeople loiter on the river bank, letting themselves be seen. One anthropologist said that they were deliberately seeking to interact with people on the river.

There is a dark side to tribal behavior. Some of the tribals raided a nearby village for supplies, killing two villagers.

The tribespeoples’ conflicting actions have left their desires unclear. Though some have sought goods, shooting arrows at Peruvians suggests that they do not want contact.

Peru’s government wants to train local people to avoid isolated tribes unless those tribes make the first move. The plan is to increase patrols, discourage raids, and make contact with the tribespeople only if they show a willingness for conversation.

This is termed “controlled contact.” Two anthropologists proposed in a Science editorial that “a well-designed contact can be quite safe,” but another group accused them of advocating a dangerous and misleading idea.

One of the proposed explanations for our non-detection of alien intelligences is the Zoo Hypothesis, which claims that more advanced civilizations deliberately avoid making themselves known to us so as not to disturb humankind’s autonomous development. Others suggest practical reasons for such apparently altruistic behavior. As Robert Rood put it, the only thing we could offer them is new ideas. Their intervention would stop our development.

Much of this debate has been driven by guilt over the impact of Western colonial powers on other Earthly societies. Star Trek and other science fiction treatments used interactions with aliens as allegories for our own world.

Some argue that external cultural influences can be positive. What we call Western Civilization was the product of many forces that came from outside. Europe’s major religions came from the Middle East. Others see Westernization as a threat that must be resisted, notably in the Islamic world.

If we ever find ourselves in contact with an alien civilization, one of the parties is likely to be more scientifically and technologically advanced than the other. Will the more powerful intelligences observe some sort of Prime Directive? That may be more complicated than many humans believe.



Andrew Lawler, “Mashco Piro tribe emerges from isolation in Peru,” Science 349 (14 August 2015), 679.

“Prime Directive,” Wikipedia, accessed 21 August 2015.

Michael A.G. Michaud, Contact with Alien Civilizations, Copernicus (Springer), 2007, 237.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joe August 28, 2015, 10:31

    I suggest that if there was a Prime Directive in place, then it has already been broken. Clearly they know of the existence of the “outside” world. This knowledge has probably impacted their society. The question is what do we do about it.

    Michael, you left out one aspect of why superior civilizations have eta be careful in contact with less advanced ones. We see it in the history of the European conquest of the Americas. Cortez and Pizarro didn’t because of superior weaponry. They one because of the germs they carried. It’s estimated that 90% of the native population were killed by European introduced diseases. How many of know about the Mississippian culture that disappeared almost entirely because of disease? This may also be an issue in first contact between space-going civilization, though differences in biology may preclude cross-infection.

  • Jer August 28, 2015, 10:36

    I would suggest that this will be a very controversial subject. Hopefully, some insightful knowledge/experience on the negative effects of poorly-considered contact will come to light. I am all ears.
    Unfortunately, at this time, I take a very hyper-rational view. I believe that contact, intervention, and interference is almost always warranted. Keeping something ‘as is’ when there is almost no risk of actual destruction due to contact is a very sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic view. We must never be this way short of near-term and temporary emotional well-being support. I would suggest that, for example, contact with the Lost Tribes is essential. As a society, we have established minimum standards for human rights, health, and welfare. No sentient society (i am not sure whether any of the non-human primates rate on this scale), no matter how ‘academically interesting’ should be excepted. To allow a sentient (if I am using this concept correctly as being able to self-determine at the individual and community level) species, society, or other social entity to ‘develop’ naturally is a non-sensical concept. There is no natural – only a series of typical and atypical statistical events. That all being said, if we cannot stop their self-destruction due to being ‘enlightened’ about technology, etc., then a disarming or containment approach could be warranted. Of course, it is hard to imagine our response if the tables were turned. If, for example, an advanced alien race landed on our planet and declared that all typical sex, traditional family structures, and most foods were long term destructive to our society’s genes/ environment. That this was considered to contravene a ‘Sentient being’s basic rights’ to live free of emotional and physically risky toxins, meaning that we all had to live individually in toxin-free life pods for 300+ years… well, I would certainly like to hear all the pros and cons. (i certainly considered the deprivation of well-adjusted happiness as destructive) The point is that all norms and mores are fluid and typically develop along rational and technologically-inspired trajectories. We will eventually ‘see the light’. The successful future will always be more rich, opportunity-laden, and choice-positive, despite the notion that true freedom is often described as the right to make your own mistakes over and over when you want – more of an indication of mental frailty than cultural righteousness, if you ask me. Anyway, the answer likely leads down the path of having as much information on the circumstances as possible and trying to maintain a certain clinical (psychological and sociological as well as physiological) mindset.

  • Pasander August 28, 2015, 10:54

    Maybe we could “abduct” some of those remote tribal people and give them a tour of the technological world. What do you think they would tell their peers when they are returned to their jungle home..? (This is just a thought play, I’m not suggesting we should actually do this.)

    What comes to advanced alien technological civilizations, I’m beginning to think that there are currently none in existence. At least not in this galaxy.

  • ljk August 28, 2015, 13:14

    Speaking of Star Trek and the Prime Directive, there was one episode from the original series that really delved into the subject, with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all debating the merits and issues of whether or not they should “uplift” a tribe of aliens (humanoid, of course) who have lived in the same “primitive” yet peaceful state for thousands of years – all due, in fact, to a highly advanced ETI who left machinery in place to keep the native safe, peaceful, and yet undeveloped.


    Of course the chances are any ETI we may encounter will be so alien from us (unless Artilects do the exploring and contacting) that things could go in very unexpected directions (think Solaris or several other works by Stanislaw Lem) including the inability for either species to recognize each other as intelligent life forms (kinda like V’Ger in the first Star Trek film, which did not see humans, aka “carbon units” as true life forms).

    And this article on the real world Peru case from National Geographic:


    Will ETI have a “prime directive”? Is this why we have yet to find them? Or are we just waiting for a type of Borg to show up, who assimilate other species in part to “uplift” them and “improve the quality of [their] life.” Think Western missionaries who only wanted to save the souls of “lesser” races, whether they wanted to be saved or not.

  • Gregory Benford August 28, 2015, 13:32

    I’ve always thought this notion doesn’t square with human motives to explore. Our curiosity leads us to explore the stars, but we don’t knock on the alien door when we standing on the doorstep? Not plausible. Nor is it likely of any alien species that undertakes the vast challenge of interstellar flight.

    OTOH, this might explain why no SETI signals, even if they’ve picked up our old TV broadcasts etc. (Though my brother Jim has shown this is very unlikely.)

  • ljk August 28, 2015, 13:32

    Here are three articles with less than glowing opinions of the Prime Directive:




    Since we have yet to find any real ETI it will be hard to say how our future explorers from the Sol system should interact with such beings since they could take on so many forms in terms of body and mind.

    SETI and even METI as we currently practice it make things relatively easy as we are looking for species who will have to be at least at our level of technology and science knowledge if not more in order for SETI to be a success.

    METI might be problematic but keep in mind every message so far sent from Earth into the Milky Way galaxy has been in electromagnetic in form and will require large radio telescopes to detect, thus an advanced technological civilization who should not be shocked about the idea of alien life even if they too have yet to find any. And while there have been a handful of robotic space probes and rocket boosters sent beyond the Sol system, these will require a very sophisticated interstellar travel capability to detect and recover. The odds of them ever impacting a exoworld and surviving the impact are extremely low.

    Going back to the indigenous tribe in Peru, what do we do about them exactly? If they want to make contact can we ethically stop them? Shall we keep them in a nature preserve and deny them advanced medicine and tools if they want and need them?

    Part of the problem is that many Westerners think “going back to nature” is a wonderful, idyllic existence – perhaps until they’ve gone camping in a tent with limited supplies in a remote region for a week. And while we sit here in relative comfort and debate, the civilized world moves on and grows, with consequences for the Peru tribe and others like it who do not response “correctly” to the motivations of the larger human tribes around them. Think Avatar without the supposedly happy ending.

  • Joe August 28, 2015, 13:53

    If we make contact are you going to be able to inoculate every member of the tribe against every bug we have?

  • Paul Topping August 28, 2015, 13:53

    It should be mentioned that it is virtually impossible for these Peruvian tribes not to know about the existence of an outside world that is way more advanced than they are. They have undoubtedly seen cars and planes, if not guns. I suspect the same would be the case with off-earth civilizations. Unless they have advanced technology we can’t even imagine, it would be virtually impossible for us to not see some evidence of their existence.

    Of course, many Star Trek episodes had examples of life forms that the crew of the Enterprise didn’t know about. Until near the end of the show, of course. If we do spot some aliens someday, will it be the end our “show”?

  • ljk August 28, 2015, 14:33

    asander said on August 28, 2015 at 10:54:

    “Maybe we could “abduct” some of those remote tribal people and give them a tour of the technological world. What do you think they would tell their peers when they are returned to their jungle home..? (This is just a thought play, I’m not suggesting we should actually do this.)”

    Well, if any UFO alien abduction stories are true, the response from our tribe has ranged from largely ridicule from multiple quarters to cult belief, with not much in the way of productivity in terms of increased knowledge or technology (no warp drives yet, for example).

    Suppose an ETI showed up and while they showed us no hostility, they also denied us advanced technology and medicine because they felt we were not ready to handle such things and should discover them on our own. Should humanity agree with them or become angry and demanding at being treated like children? How about the Peruvian tribe we are trying to “protect”?

    Then asander said:

    “What comes to advanced alien technological civilizations, I’m beginning to think that there are currently none in existence. At least not in this galaxy.”

    Always a comforting thought to the tribe that has never really left its home world both physically and culturally, and still thinks of itself as the focal point of existence despite the growing evidence of the last few centuries. All those science fiction stories about conquering, hungry ETI don’t help, either, nor our histories of how bigger tribes with better weapons treated “lesser” tribes they encountered.


  • Andrew Palfreyman August 28, 2015, 15:39

    My recipe for the Peruvian problem would be to send in one anthropologist who is in a position to offer the tribe a visit out for one of their number – preferably one of the smartest. This person can then report back after having witnessed most aspects of modern life. After that, it’s up to them.

  • Andrew_W August 28, 2015, 21:37

    Ever increasing levels of contact with isolated tribes is inevitable, so far better it be with a few people trained to do the job than with nosy tourists or opportunists out to exploit the situation. The cost of contact without regard to the risks, obviously in terms of exposure to diseases, but in other respects, is likely to be murderous.

    In terms of interstellar contacts, either they’re not out there (at least in this galaxy), or we’re the wrong side of the technological singularity.

  • Eniac August 28, 2015, 22:49

    Andrew Palfreyman:

    After that, it’s up to them

    Up to who, exactly? As we have heard, some of the Peruvian natives tried to contact boats on the river. I doubt they asked their chief or tribe council or whomever for permission before they did that. Likewise, the tribe members who robbed and killed the villagers were likely not acting on behalf of any tribal government, either.

    If we let, as you suggest, one of them tour a modern town, most likely the stories she would tell back home would cause a stampede to the nearest village, just so people could see for themselves. Maybe to taste that heavenly “hamburger” food they heard about. Collective decisions will not play much of a role in it.

    If the tribe continues to be a source of thieves and murderers, the Peruvian police will have no choice but to go in and attempt to find and detain the bad actors. Surely we should not pay respect to tribal rites and customs that involve killing or torturing people.

    We like to be ashamed of the way our conquering ancestors subdued natives wherever they went. We never think that maybe, just maybe, those natives needed subduing, in their own and the greater ethical interest. Less slaughter would have been nice, but then again, slaughter begets slaughter in the typical manner of war. It is never quite clear who started it. Note that even the most civilized of us are still ready and willing to slaughter each other, and occasionally do.

  • Pasander August 29, 2015, 4:53

    @ljk “Always a comforting thought to the tribe that has never really left its home world both physically and culturally, and still thinks of itself as the focal point of existence despite the growing evidence of the last few centuries.”

    What I meant is that there is growing evidence that we are, in fact, alone. We might not be The First but at the moment there don’t seem to be others around. (I mean advanced technological civilizations.. alien pre-biotic/microbial life seems much more likely to me.)

    I don’t need “comforting thoughts”, I’m quite okay if there are no others, though I would be thrilled if there were!

  • kamal ali August 29, 2015, 5:30

    “What comes to advanced alien technological civilizations, I’m beginning to think that there are currently none in existence. At least not in this galaxy.”:

    if there was a carbon copy of our civilization at alpha centauri, my understanding is that we would not be able to detect them (the only radio we could detect are blasts from arecibo which was only a one off event) and thats even given that they are co-temporaneous. certainly if they were 1M years behind or ahead in technology, it would be a lot more problematic.

    we should also beware of taking too far analogies based on our experience with west-meets-american-indians: those experiences may only be helpful if the ETIs are within 100K of our development. if they are 1M, 10M, 100M behind/ahead : what can we discuss? it would be like talking with ants. even their smartest could not be useful. their fears/hopes/questions would not be our own. similarly, if they are machines, their motivations & interests may be quite different. we have to find not only a ETI but one that is within some boundary of commonality in terms of development.

  • ole burde August 29, 2015, 6:46

    The peruvian tribe is in a very different situation from a tribe , or less advanced culture in another starsystem .
    In the first case it can only be a matter of time before the tribal culture will have to go through the traumatic experience of joining the rest of humanity . In the second case such contact can at least theoreticly be avoided until this culture develops its own potential version of an interstellar culture . That’s why the ZOO theory makes some sense in the scenario where advanced extraterrestrials actually exist .
    If we go on searching without finding any signals , it boils down to two major families of scenarioes : Either there are no industrial civilisations out there for a long ,long way , or some variation of the Zoo -theory .
    One of the problems with the Zoo-theory is the grey area between the inmates and the keepers : how is an almost-developed civilsation like our own prevented from communicating to another almost -developed one ? They might exchange information destroying one of them , or perhaps they might together find a way to hack the information network of the Zoo-keepers.
    I still believe the most simple explanation is that life is very , very rare in our galaxy at least , and that multicellular life is MUCH more rare . It explains all known facts perfectly , and as such should be our working-hypothesis until proved otherwise .

  • Michael Spencer August 29, 2015, 7:46

    Mr. Benford imagines the USS Solar System encountering a similar planet earth and doubts that we would watch from afar, contravening our natural sensibilities to explore. But is that true in all cases?

    I wonder exactly where/when to expect the initial contact. Our own Earth would detect an incoming interstellar fairly early, I imagine, obviating the most important part of the handshake (the fact that company is here). But what about a planet populated by people in something similar to our middle ages? Or ancient Greeks?

    Forgetting for a moment that our ancestors would certainly notice a new light in the heavens: Do we land on a foreign moon, observing? Or do we barge in, placing ourselves in orbit with a big “Well, Hello, Neighbor!” attitude?

    The latter, I think. Jack McDevitt (one of my favorites) talks about an Earth-future, albeit populated with superluminals, knowledgable about just such a planet. The Noks are busy fighting amongst themselves and humanity sees very little benefit to an introduction.

    We could appear on a different doorstep, one populated by post-exploration beings who have worked out the urge to explore and instead settled down to a nice homey existence.

    Worst of all, we could discover an Earth parallel to our own, fractious, warlike, and quite dangerous.

  • Joe August 29, 2015, 8:23

    None of you are addressing a key question. Yes, you can send in a single anthropologist or a dozen. It won’t make a difference. If these Peruvians are truly a Lost Tribe with no contact with modern humans then you’re sentencing a good portion of that tribe to death. It’s believed one shipwrecked explorer wiped out large swaths of native Americans on the east coast of the US. You need to send in a doctor with a whole bunch of vaccines.

  • James Stilwell August 29, 2015, 9:48

    Star Trek is fiction…all of it an amusement…
    Spacefaring at sublight speeds is what we face today…
    500 years would be required to visit a world 50 light years away…
    Humanity will need a one world government in place first…
    And a post religious frame of mind…
    Artilects are the way of the future for now…
    How shall the Artilects behave meeting aliens…
    That school is called trial and error…
    Clarke may be right…Aliens will be visiting us…
    And if not we have much to rethink…
    Exploring FTL ideas must continue…

  • david lewis August 29, 2015, 14:02

    It’s not a matter of whether or not a more advanced civilization should interfere to aid a less advanced one, but a question if they have the wisdom to do so without making a disaster of the attempt. So far we humans have failed miserably at this. By the time we get around to launching star ships perhaps we will be a bit wiser. Hopefully.

  • Wociech J August 29, 2015, 20:49

    In both cases:Peruvian lost tribes and Star Trek, we are dealing with situation where the other side is behind technological progress by thousands of years.
    In real life, we would deal with different time spans measuring millions of years.
    A civilization that advanced would overwhelmingly crush our own technological and cultural progress.
    Would there be any benefit for it to do so?
    It might believe that it has reached a stagnation and is unable to create or discover new ways of thinking that a young individual culture is capable of doing.
    Perhaps we would be isolated to see what answers we come up with?

  • ijv August 30, 2015, 21:51

    The “Western guilt trip” about destroying less advanced societies is a very recent phenomenon, a large chunk of Western history (and Eastern for that matter) could be described as efforts to stop being destroyed by less advanced “barbarians”.

    I think that there is also a lot of gray area between the extremes of being destroyed or stultified by contact with an alien civilization and being a zoo inmate. Some societies like Japan coped extremely well with imposed Western contact for instance. Also, just seeing alien technologies, could give our civilization an enormous boost. For example just seeing an alien ship engage its warp drive or light up its fusion drive, would prove that such things are possible and if they can do it so can we.

  • Joy August 30, 2015, 22:26

    @James Stilwell
    “Humanity will need a one world government in place first …
    And a post religious frame of mind…”

    Ugh. Honestly, I would rather live a short and risky life post nuclear war than live under one world government (PC Totalitarianism with nowhere to run to, no freedom and no hope of freedom). As for post-religious … the people pushing that meme have more PC sacred cows to zealously protect than the worst religion.

    No, I am not joking, I am utterly serious. Death is inevitable, slavery is not.

  • Wojciech J August 31, 2015, 9:04

    “Also, just seeing alien technologies, could give our civilization an enormous boost”
    It would stop our development all together. Why invent something new, when proven methods already exist?
    For a billion year old civilization, there is no benefit in making a copy of itself.
    New ideas is probably the only thing it would thirst after.

  • Alex Tolley August 31, 2015, 11:28

    As ljk says, alien ETI is going to be very advanced from us and not at all like the Star Trek scenario. Lem’s “His Master’s Voice” or Strugatsky’s “Roadside Picnic” is a more likely scenario. We don’t worry about cultural impact of our zoos on the animals we keep, even though we are clearly disrupting the behaviors of the macro fauna. The gap between us and advanced ETI is going to be extremely hard to bridge intellectually. They may have to communicate with us in an analogous way to us trying to communicate with ants using pheromone signals. Some information transfer but with very limited scope.

    Unless we find a means to communicate at FTL speeds, any communication is going to be a monologue unless an alien probe is in our system.

    Similarly, as we explore the galaxy, most likely intelligences will be well below our level in organisms so different from us that we cannot relate at all. We might be better off trying to learn to communicate with animals on Earth.

  • Mark Zambelli August 31, 2015, 19:00

    I’m sorry to pose a question before adding to the discussion in a (hopefully) meaningful way but…

    Joy said…
    “As for post-religious … the people pushing that meme have more PC sacred cows to zealously protect than the worst religion.”

    I’ve read and re-read this statement but I can’t seem to ‘get my head around it’. As an atheist (to pigeon-hole myself into a currently accepted-by-religious-minded-people’s ‘label’) I personally regard religion as nothing but a temporary phase in a species development; a phase that is 100% negative (personal spirituality I can imagine is a plus… organised religion however is the worst of all negatives ( apologies for the abrupt turn of phrase … I’ve seen statements such as mine dismissed as arrogance too many times to want to pussy-foot around that issue anymore whether it’s PC (Poltically Correct) or not)). I’m of the mind I’ve mis-undertood Joy’s statement hence the request for clarification as I’m as a loss to parse ‘the people pushing that meme have more PC sacred cows to zealously protect than the worst religion.”

    As an aside… I love the irony that the actor Morgan Freeman, who went on to portray (G)od in two movies, had previously played a character whose line “(G)od is a fairy-tale for adults” seems to sum all that up succinctly. Growth comes after abandoning those fairytales methinks… growth that will enable us, not hinder us.

    Joy, did I mis-read completely?

  • ijv August 31, 2015, 21:01

    @ Wojciech J
    “It would stop our development all together. Why invent something new, when proven methods already exist?
    For a billion year old civilization, there is no benefit in making a copy of itself.
    New ideas is probably the only thing it would thirst after.”

    You are assuming that we get everything handed to us on a plate, something like the “We only want to serve Mankind” scenario :-). My point was that there is a lot of grey between being a zoo inmate and full contact for better or worse.

  • Matthew Barker September 1, 2015, 11:47

    I think it would be difficult at this moment in history to actually say ‘we are alone’, we’ve only had about a century of radio technology, previous to that we had no way of communicating long distance or detecting radio signals. It may take a century just for a signal to get to the closest alien civilization, and obviously another century to get the response. Even so the galaxy could have thousands of civilizations and we would not know it in our short lifespans due to distances. Eventually I believe we will encounter other civilizations but I really think it will be when the technology to travel to the local star systems is common place.

  • Matthew Barker September 1, 2015, 11:52

    Joy said, “Ugh. Honestly, I would rather live a short and risky life post nuclear war than live under one world government (PC Totalitarianism with nowhere to run to, no freedom and no hope of freedom)”

    Couldn’t agree more!

  • ljk September 1, 2015, 14:30

    We have only been conducting SETI in any serious form since 1960. For most of that time the efforts have remained in the radio end of the spectrum and of that most of those projects were tokenish and sporadic. Optical SETI did not get going in a serious manner until 1998, despite a recommendation by Charles Townsend, co-inventor of the laser, just one year after Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma.

    Until that rich Russian fellow infused SETI with some decent cash this year, most current SETI projects such as ATA were scrapping along on mostly donated funds, with little to no resources to analyze all the terabytes of data being reeled in from the stars.

    As for signals from humanity out into the Milky Way galaxy, real METI efforts have been even more sporadic and subject to debate. With the exception of a few deep space probes and their rocket boosters, most METI has also been confined to the radio realm.

    Most electromagnetic signals emanating from our technological civilization into space are confined to a bubble of electromagnetic radiation roughly 200 light years across and are relatively weak, since most of them are meant to stay around here. It would take an alien civilization with some serious radio observatories to detect those terrestrial signals. Planetary and military radars do make strong signals, but they are not aimed at any specific celestial targets beyond the Sol system.

    As for our robotic planetary exploration of neighbor worlds regarding alien life, few missions have actually searched for it and so far the findings have been nil. There are plenty of worlds in the Sol system which have yet to be examined in any serious way regarding life.

    So yes, it is way too early to know if we are alone or not in the Universe.

  • Alex Tolley September 1, 2015, 16:01

    @Matthew – The SETI assumption is that alien civs have been sending signals and that we can intercept them. Therefore there should be no time delay while we wait for our signals to reach them (if they ever do). For any civ wanting to communicate, it makes a lot of sense for them to send out signals and wait for a reply. Even better to send out probes to monitor worlds and have the probes signal home in order to maintain security. Clarke’s sentinel (“The Sentinel”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”) approach still seems like a good idea to me. I would certainly think that it might be worth spending some resources looking for one, rather than only for the older Bracewell “galactic club” approach.

  • Matthew Barker September 1, 2015, 19:19

    @Alex, They maybe signalling, but most likely not constantly and not omnidirectional due to enormous power requirements due to the inverse square law. So we need to be looking in the right direction and the right time and at the right wavelength to detect something. Then we have to know that a certain signal is really being sent from an intelligence. Then what if using the electromagnetic spectrum is just a for the early civilizations like our own? what if they use neutrinos? or some other particle like gravitons? Just possibly there are other civilizations that won’t even consider talking to us because we aren’t advanced enough to talk to them via other means. Hard to tell how an alien mind might think.

  • Alex Tolley September 1, 2015, 21:39

    @Matt – you are correct, although they could be sending out directed signals to each star. If each signal was 1/1000th of a second and they targeted 1 million nearby stars with life biosignatures, we might receive a blip every 17 minutes. With 1000 transmitters, they could either transmit to a billion stars, or that million stars every second. We could pick up such signals if we looked in the right direction, perhaps with a full sky receiver/imager.

    The Benfords have written papers on optimal economics of signaling (e.g. Messaging with Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beacons) as well as posting on CD.

    Bear in mind we are likely talking about highly advanced civilizations of likely KII level with a lot of energy to draw on. Imagine what we could do if in a few centuries we are talking about an interstellar world ship – the energy demands would be vast and could be used to signal instead.

    Alternatively we might send out probes, perhaps even replicators that could communicate locally, bypassing the time delay problem with c and using primitive technologies that low tech civs like us can master.

  • Joy September 2, 2015, 3:39

    @Mark Zambelli
    “Joy, did I mis-read completely?”

    Yes. I don’t want to hijack the thread. Some people get it, others don’t. The post-religious and one world government memes are two sides of the same coin, promoted by people with an agenda. Watch this 27 second video clip, if the penny doesn’t drop, you will never get it:

  • Mark Zambelli September 2, 2015, 14:07

    Ah, I see what you’ve done there. Ok, I’ll agree to disagree with the ‘post-religious’ world having anything to do with ‘totalitarian one world government’ as you suggest, but will gladly agree that a regime of that sort is nothing but a horrendous concept. I personally think the first will eventually happen without the second and the two ard unrelated; with Star Trek already being heavily mentioned I’ll use that fiction to resemble my ‘model’ rather than Mr Carpenters’ excellent film ‘They Live’, although I do appreciate where you’re coming from by using that as your basis and clearly, this thread is not the place to engage in a disection of why Carpenter used the metaphors he did to elucidate paranoid musing about ‘illuminati-like control’.

    Thankyou for the clarifying reply. (As an aside, have you heard the sad news re. Roddy Piper?… as a die-hard ‘They Live’ fan I was deeply saddened)

  • Mark Zambelli September 4, 2015, 10:59

    Is our current ideology clouding our thoughts? Is the notion of a ‘Prime Directive’ just a modern-day knee-jerk reaction to make up for what we acknowledge as years of harm caused by our ancestors; a way perhaps to alleviate any guilt on our part as we pat our backs saying, “look at what we’ve done in the past and what happened… we’re better now,” (but ‘better’ isn’t always ‘best’). Or will it stand up centuries hence and be recognized as a good mindset to have gotten our selves into… one that really can be used to acknowledge a sense of maturity on our part. We’ve been left alone to develop naturally but if the zoo-hypothesis isn’t at play then maybe that’s an aberation… maybe Brin’s Uplift is the natural way and contacting lesser civs is common to the other 90% of alien cultures in the galaxy. Contact would then seem ‘natural’ and struggling alone without a boost seem perverse. I wouldn’t like to be trusted with that level of responsibilty but then again, we humans are nowhere near that level yet.

    I love Star Trek and have grown up with the Prime Directive but maybe it’s not ideal for all cases; the current Peruvian case being an exception? Firstly we are of the same species with identical brain architecture so that removes many hurdles linked with communicating ideas. Secondly, the Peruvian tribe is already aware of a bigger picture beyond their horizon, as awe-inspiring as that may appear to them so a first-contact situation may just be for our benefit. Thirdly, we’re not that different to them. A lot of our superior technology is just a better version of what they already have… some examples being we can start fires more easily, our bows are better, our fully automatic weapons are just glorified blowguns, lights to dispell darkness etc. Some they will recognise… our aeroplanes are just metal birds for example. Other stuff will be alin to them… electricity, dvds, the LHC and networked computers. Even these will be in their grasp to undertand with minimal explanation. We are, after all, only a little further down the path, not millions of years.

    The thoughts outlined by most prior-posters to this thread raise good points. In terms of abduction, we can offer something that no alien-abductee has ever offerred… ever!*… evidence; as much as the tribal-elders want eg. photos, artifacts, materials etc (not weaponry obviously but maybe things like matches or a half-full lighter but only if they have a method of fire production).

    * I’m with Carl Sagan on that matter, that abduction stories tell us a lot more about human psychology than it ever can about whether aliens exist.

    It should be a slow and deliberate introduction by the Peruvian government’s team of anthroplogists with local guides as go-betweens to ease tensions. But what of any health issues. The new tribe have made this a moot point as they have attacked a nearby village… they’ve breathed their germs and I doubt any of the villagers die of the common cold whenever they go to the larger towns and cities so the health risks may only be associated with foreigners like us Europeans or North Americans barging in with our (sometimes uncalled-for ‘help and expertise’).

    I think it just boils down to ‘will we destroy a culture that showed promise in some area’ which would be a crime. In the rest of the world that’s been touched by ‘modern developed countries’, bushcrafts are still being passed down today, artwork is still practiced as it was so it maybe better to think of cultural dilution rather than eradication. What if the next Einstein is hidden in their genetic line a few decades down the road… a contact situation can give so many benefits and doesn’t have to destroy anything… yes the tribe’s mindest will be shaken and changed but I think it ought to be possible to do that in a minimal way without giving them Kurzweillien-Future-Shock.

    One thing is clear, we have told stories to each other since the invention of language and fire; stories that pray on our fears (campfire ghost stories) or aspirations (hero / heroine comes up trumps). After millenia we have improved that ability until today we have such formats as movies and books that reach around the world. Despite what Hollywood has shown us, we certainly will not be invading the Peruvian tribal home in search of their young to devour or their resources. One less thing they have to worry about when the time comes to initiate contact proper.

  • david lewis September 5, 2015, 11:31

    “We’ve been left alone to develop naturally ….”

    Perhaps, perhaps not. How would we know? For all we know many of the myths we have today came from interference. If aliens had visited us several thousand years ago, and gave us a few technological improvements, along with the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” meaning the limits of vengeance should no more than the harm done, then how would we know?

    Then a thousand years later they might’ve dropped by to see how we were doing, wondering why we hadn’t come to visit them, and found that we were still more interested in killing each other, and had turned a rule meant to limit the extent to which vengeance could be taken to mean it should be at least an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, if not a thousand eyes for an eye, and a thousand teeth for a tooth.

    They might then have given an example of a person who socialized with “sinners” along with the idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself. A thousand years after that they might’ve dropped by again, and found we’d decided killing our neighbors was still a wonderful thing to do, and had once again corrupted their wisdom to that purpose.

    *shrug* If we were being interfered with we wouldn’t necessarily know it. But if the above is the case, then I’m pretty sure they must be disappointed in us, assuming they can feel disappointment.

  • Mark Zambelli September 6, 2015, 5:28

    David, you could be right but, using Occam, it seems unlikely that ETIs have been visiting our many different cultures in the past to modify the many belief systems that we have come up with, when we are perfectly capable of creating those ourselves (if one then why not all?) and smacks of Eric Von Daniken. To sureptitiously meddle in our affairs but leave no evidence is not relevant to the Peruvian tribe as that opportunity has passed, and which now demands the definite ‘Contact’ scenario (cue stereotypical spacecraft on Whitehouse lawn).

    Perhaps Aboriginal Dreamtime, Mayan, Native American, Saxon, Mesopotamian, Norse… etc myths have been influenced from afar but I would expect some evidence to be apparent, somewhere. It’s simpler to assume otherwise; that human cultures do this by themselves. After all, a case can be made that the majority of human ‘troubles’ stem from our inability to parse others belief-systems… if ETIs have seeded our worldviews along such a disparate spectrum then they’ve set us up for a fall many times over and seems rather perverse. We could take that as a sign that we haven’t been contacted as that would seem incompetant on the ETIs side.

    The point you raise, however, deserves further musings, thankyou for raising it.

  • Alex Tolley September 6, 2015, 13:54


    if ETIs have seeded our worldviews along such a disparate spectrum then they’ve set us up for a fall many times over and seems rather perverse. We could take that as a sign that we haven’t been contacted as that would seem incompetant on the ETIs side.

    Your argument could be turned on its head. The aliens want to alter us to sow dissent so that we cannot become powerful enough to challenge them. In that case they would want to remain hidden. Basically very clever psywar.

    @david – you are assuming that they would want to “uplift” us. It is a popular idea, but it may be completely wrong.

    If aliens were meddling in human affairs, however intermittently, how could we detect it, especially if it was intangible rather than physical? We run into the same problem that believers have of proving the existence of a God [s] that intercede in human affairs.

    By all means look for evidence, but be aware of the danger of composing ever newer hypotheses that they exist if we just look harder. Witch trials ended up torturing people looking for the sign of the devil if ever more difficult parts to reach,such as beneath teeth. I don’t think SETI is there yet, but each pronouncement of failure results in looking even harder, across more spectrum, assuming different approaches (e.g. microbursts). When does SETI stop searching, is there any point at which it is best to stop the active search in favor of low cost, automated monitoring?

  • Mark Zambelli September 7, 2015, 6:29

    You’re correct to remind us these points can be turned on their heads… this particular meddling (although not as subtle) is something akin to what B5’s ‘Shadows’ have been doing; they wait until a particular ant’s nest (civ) gets big enough and then they go in with their size-thirteens and kick it back to the ground. The idea is mentioned in Sagan’s ‘Contact’ too though fortunately this view is opined by James Woods’ character (“…we build it and it blows us all to kingdom come.”). Perhaps they’re holding us back for another reason?

    The only logical (for me ;) ) rebuttal I can provide for that ETI mentality is a question… if we are destined to become a threat to them wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe us out, rather than risk keeping us around long enough for an altruistic ETI to uplift us and recruit us to their cause? (Lobbing a relativistic small rock our way would easily sort that out).

    I still think Radio SETI has its uses (providing ETIs purposefully use ‘ancient tech’ for all those newborn civs like us whom they wish to contact early on in their fledgling development) but I suspect we may need the new SETI searches, such as Optical to truly bag our first sure sign. We’ve just started down the road to using neutrino detectors such as ICE Cube… it may only be a matter of time before we start noticing possible spurious results in the data using that kind of setup. That may constitute a type of passive SETI.

    I’m ever hopeful that we can keep it up for the minimum time before we start thinking about null results, especially as we’ve only explored the tiniest sliver of the EM spectrum so far. I like your suggestion about automated monitoring, Alex, and I’m intrigued… I suspect with the weak signals that are potentially sloshing around out there we may have to wait for our technology to develop to the point where we have a chance but if you can imagine a way for us to start that tomorrow I’d love to hear your insights. Maybe an automated monitoring program would better detect any ETI’s METI attempts (especially given the numbers you provided earlier)

  • ljk September 11, 2015, 10:58

    Mark Zambelli said on September 7, 2015 at 6:29:

    “I still think Radio SETI has its uses (providing ETIs purposefully use ‘ancient tech’ for all those newborn civs like us whom they wish to contact early on in their fledgling development) but I suspect we may need the new SETI searches, such as Optical to truly bag our first sure sign.”

    The question that must be asked is: WHY would an advanced ETI want to converse with less sophisticated species? Even Carl Sagan thought higher alien societies would want to beam the equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Galactica across the Milky Way to “uplift” lesser civilizations with mere radio telescopes out of a sense of pure altruism.

    Who here goes around willingly broadcasting their vital information to total strangers with the hope of making new and smarter friends in this manner? Anybody? Anybody?

    The history of modern SETI is rife with technical folks who were far more intrigued with the mechanics of communicating with alien minds (and largely in one area of the electromagnetic spectrum, for that matter) than the possible biological and psychological forms of the beings these humans were supposedly trying to find and talk to. This is one big reason why modern SETI has yet to succeed.

    But don’t take my word for it, check out this article and especially look for the link to the deeply informative online book SETI: A Critical History:


    Perhaps the biggest misconception is that any aliens conducting their version of METI are also their own version of altruistic scientists. While I am not implying alien invaders here, I am saying look at who were the first visitors from Europe to North and South America and why/how they bothered to travel all that way across a dangerous ocean to unknown lands. The same goes for anyone who makes the effort even to signal across deep space. And remember, humanity’s Space Age was born from the weapons of a global war and elevated on global politics. Science was secondary despite what they were trying to promote.

  • ljk September 16, 2015, 17:03


    A direct communication proposal to test the Zoo Hypothesis

    Joao Pedro de Magalhaes

    (Submitted on 8 Sep 2015)

    Whether we are alone in the universe is one of the greatest mysteries facing humankind. Given the >100 billion stars in our galaxy, many have argued that it is statistically unlikely that life, including intelligent life, has not emerged anywhere else. The lack of any sign of extraterrestrial intelligence, even though on a cosmic timescale extraterrestrial civilizations would have enough time to cross the galaxy, is known as Fermi’s Paradox.

    One possible explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is the Zoo Hypothesis which states that one or more extraterrestrial civilizations know of our existence and can reach us, but have chosen not to disturb us or even make their existence known to us. I propose here a proactive test of the Zoo Hypothesis.

    Specifically, I propose to send a message using television and radio channels to any extraterrestrial civilization(s) that might be listening and inviting them to respond. Even though I accept this is unlikely to be successful in the sense of resulting in a response from extraterrestrial intelligences, the possibility that extraterrestrial civilizations are monitoring us cannot be dismissed and my proposal is consistent with current scientific knowledge.

    Besides, 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. A website has been set up (this http URL http://active-seti.info/ ) to encourage discussion of this proposal and for drafting the invitation message.

    Comments: 16 pages

    Subjects: Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

    Cite as: arXiv:1509.03652 [physics.pop-ph]
    (or arXiv:1509.03652v1 [physics.pop-ph] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Joao Pedro De Magalhaes [view email]

    [v1] Tue, 8 Sep 2015 10:06:43 GMT (70kb)


  • ljk September 16, 2015, 17:15

    The ants keep missing the picnics so they assume there are none:


    The astronomer involved said the following, which I find rather disappointing and once again merely proves there needs to be more than just astronomers studying the possibilities for alien minds:

    “… The original research at Penn State has already told us that such systems are very rare but the new analysis suggests that this is probably an understatement, and that advanced Kardashev Type III civilizations basically don’t exist in the local universe. In my view, it means we can all sleep safely in our beds tonight – an alien invasion doesn’t seem at all likely!”

    At least the rest of the article fairly redeemed itself in reply to such comments unbecoming of a professional scientist.

    The paper online here:


  • Hiram February 16, 2016, 19:01

    The West Violated the Prime Directive. It should have left the Middle
    East alone and never transfer much technology to the Islamic world, especially weaponry.