(Author's note: Be sure to at least scroll down to the video at the end of this post!)
Anyone who has ever watched the Star Trek television series should have at one time or the other heard one of the characters make reference to something called the “Prime Directive.” Without devolving into any of my usual uber-geekness, in short the Prime Directive is one of the central tenets the fictional members of Starfleet have to live by as they explore the galaxy. It prohibits any member from interfering in the cultural, scientific, or technological development of an alien civilization below a certain level of achievement. As far as the series are concerned, there are two main reasons why such a philosophy was implemented.
First, this prevents starship crews from imposing any values or ideas on alien cultures for whom such actions would threaten the stability of their societies and possibly their very existence. Yes, this might mean any number of barbaric practices like slavery would continue on a primitive world but the general idea behind the Prime Directive is that such archaic societies should mature at a natural rate without outside interference. Real human history is replete with examples of how more advanced civilizations totally destroyed or massively altered more primitive cultures for the worse. Think the Spanish Conquest of the native American cultures from Mexico to Peru. Also, Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan in 1853 led to the overthrow of the two centuries old Tokugawa Shogunate opening that country to the rest of the world. This in turn led Japan to start acting like the other imperial powers and develop an empire of their own which eventually led to one of the factors bringing about the Second World War.
The second but equally important reason is to prevent primitive societies from having access to technology that they simply do not have the wisdom to use wisely. As far as this point is concerned, you don't have to look hard at all to see examples of how current technology in use now is destroying the planet. Just imagine if some lost interstellar traveler happened upon Earth and decided to sell some of his technology related to weapons. It wouldn't matter if he/she/it sold super lasers or photon torpedoes to a single country or to everyone with the right amount of cash. The result would still throw the geopolitical balance of power totally out of balance.
More to the point, the best example is the book alternate history author Harry Turtledove wrote back in the1990's describing the repercussions of time traveling South Africans giving AK-47 assault rifles and ammo to Confederate troops during the American Civil War. In short, the South won the war but the ripples of such an interference expanded to the point that once the Union government got their hands on the weapons they were able to copy them and eventually move on to conquer Canada. Long story short, the interference resulted in more wars, death, destruction, and hate among the nations involved.
You might be thinking how this fictional Prime Directive means anything in the real world? Well, curiously enough there is a real-world counterpart called the “Zoo hypothesis” used to explain why our planet hasn't seen any alien starships orbiting Earth. Conceived of in the face of the equally unsettling Fermi Paradox which asks the questions that given a marginally ambitious alien species with the ability to launch starships to just ten percent the speed of light they should be able to visit and/or colonize the entire galaxy in a couple of million years. The fact that we haven't detected the radio signals of any alien civilization much less found any derelict space probes or abandoned starships floating around our solar system led the famous Enrico Fermi to ask just where in the Hell is everyone.
Now the Zoo hypothesis makes a number of quite large assumptions, never a good thing when trying to form a working idea of how galactic affairs are done but just humor me for a minute. The first assumption being that there is either a powerful benevolent alien civilization, or a large number of them, that have a great reverence for the natural and independent development of younger intelligent species. That premature contact would reduce the diversity of these new civilization. Essentially the idea is that these more advanced civilization wouldn't want to inflict of the same cultural damage the powerful nations here on Earth did to all the local indigenous human cultures in places like the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia for the last four hundred years.
Another possible reason for advanced alien civilizations to avoid contact with us is to protect themselves. Humans are a rapacious species that destroys far more than it creates. An advanced and peaceful alien civilization wouldn't be wrong to assume that if we knew there was a way to circumvent the Einsteinian restrictions on interstellar travel they might soon find themselves facing the business end of a fifty-terawatt particle beam cannon mounted on a starship full of humans. Given our species usual behaviors, keeping quiet while watching us from some vantage point like one of those snowballs in the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto would definitely be a good idea. That also brings up the disturbing idea that if these hypothetical aliens saw us getting ready to make the jump to manned interstellar travel while still blood thirty killers out to do nothing but conquer that they might feel compelled to take a can of Raid bug spray to Earth and any other planet or moon we might inhabit.
Someone as esteemed as Dr. Stephen Hawking has even said it might be best if humanity didn't actively seek contact with extraterrestrial species due to our horrible record with primitive cultures. In fact, others have gone as far to speculate that the danger to our civilization from contact with another civilization might not just be from culture shock. That, while extremely small to the point the idea is more laughable than a real threat, there exists the possibility that some aliens- or their machine intelligence descendants actively seek out and destroy every new species they discover.
As with some other far out concepts, Star Trek's Prime Directive isn't just another piece of crazy science fiction gobbledygook. There are legitimate reasons why an intelligent alien species might not want to go broadcasting its existence across the cosmos. However, there is new research that speculates that intelligent extraterrestrial life not only isn't as prevalent in the universe as we might hope but that these civilization might have long since gone extinct.
Published recent in Astrology, authors A, Frank and W.T. Sullivan use new data to adapt the time honored Drake equation to set a lower limit to the number of possible alien civilizations that HAVE existed.
The Drake Equation, created by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961 is a probabilistic argument used to arrive at an estimate of the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that might now exist. The parameters of this equation include the rate of stars forming that would be suitable for the development of intelligent life; the fraction of those stars that develop planetary systems; the number of planets in a solar system suitable for life; the fraction of those planet where life appears; the fraction of those planets where intelligence evolves; the fraction of civilizations that develop technology; and lifetime of those civilizations.
What Frank and Sullivan set out to do was adjust the Drake Equation to determine the number of civilizations that have existed, or as they call it, the “cosmic archaeological question.” Their results, if I read it correctly, suggests that one star in every million in our galaxy might hope to host a technological species. Furthermore, that over the lifetime of the Milky Way galaxy 20,000 technical alien civilizations might have existed before our arrival.
This of course brings back that irritating thing called the Fermi Paradox, in that if 20,000 civilizations have existed just where are they now? While the excerpt I read didn't delve into the details, the assumption I believe is that they have all gone extinct. The issue limiting the longevity of alien civilizations is one concerning sustainability given the limitations of resources. Whether or not such things as the development of asteroid mining, a subject under intensive research and development here on Earth even now, or any other possible technology that would extend the lifetime of a technical civilization was considered I have no idea.
Even though humanity has only been seriously scanning the skies for other intelligent life for a few decades, the great silence has unnerved many not directly understanding of the scope or nature of the task. Nonetheless, Fermi's paradox remains the 800 pound gorilla sitting the corner of the room smiling at those of us who dream of the day a news report begins with some breathless broadcaster saying personnel at several radio telescope sites are about to make an announcement that will rock the world. That gorilla being the possibility that technical civilizations are like us, woefully shortsighted and lacking the required intelligence not to destroy themselves.
The problem I have with the idea that most technical alien civilizations have short lives succumbing to ignorance, superstition, tribal conflict, or greed is that somewhere one of them has to be smart enough to avoid those fatal mistakes. While in general people are a barbaric and limited group subject to behavior boiled down to the grossest lower common denominator some don't follow that pattern. Some humans actually endeavor to lift themselves and others out of the cesspool made up of both our worst behaviors and bloody history. It isn't that great a leap of faith or imagination to think there has to be alien species that is smart enough to make it through the difficult years of technological and societal adolescence.
For those few species that reach maturity only to find scores of failed and dead predecessors scattered about the stars of our galaxy, maybe they should follow a completely different Prime Directive. Instead of keeping silent and watching younger species struggle to overcome their primitive natures while dealing with the uncertainties that it is even possible, maybe more advanced species should broadcast their presence to the universe through radio, lasers, or gravity waves. For these advanced and mature species such a project would have no immediate benefit to them. But to a young species dealing with problems that seem all but insurmountable along with apathy and doubt, confirmation that not only are they not alone in the universe but that there is more to existence than the perpetual struggle to survive could be enough to help themselves make it as well.