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Are the Aliens We Never See Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive?

The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions

Using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, astronomers recently scoured a part of the sky known to contain at least 10 million star systems for evidence of alien technology (“techno signatures”). And the result?

“With this dataset, we found no technosignatures — no sign of intelligent life.”

Professor Tingay said even though this was the broadest search yet, he was not shocked by the result.

“As Douglas Adams noted in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘space is big, really big’.”

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, “Australian telescope finds no signs of alien technology in 10 million star systems” at ScienceDaily

The paper is open access.

Various sources offer explanations for the absent aliens; the most popular is that we have not yet searched enough space:

These results are discouraging, but, to be fair, the search for aliens has only just begun. What’s more, the odds of us detecting aliens are exceptionally low, given the vastness of space and the narrow timescales involved (our own civilization, for example, has only been leaking radio signals for about 100 years). Research from earlier this year painted a very bleak picture for SETI enthusiasts, as scientists estimated the total number of contemporaneous Communicating Extraterrestrial Intelligent (CETI) civilizations in our galaxy at around 36, with the closest CETI no nearer than 17,000 light-years from Earth (assuming civilizations are spread out uniformly across the galaxy).

George Dvorsky, “Another Sweeping Search for Aliens Comes Up Short” at Gizmodo

The new Square Kilometer Array (pictured) in Western Australia “will provide an increased capability over existing infrastructure at the same frequencies, providing 25% better resolution and being 8 times more sensitive than LOFAR, the current best such instrument. Moreover, it will be able to scan the sky 135 times faster.” Dvorsky tells us that it will scan “billions of star systems.”

But, some ask, what if the aliens are avoiding us because they are following the Prime Directive, as in Star Trek?: “personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned.”

Science fiction writer Matt Williams addressed that possibility in his recent series at Universe Today on why we never find the aliens. There he calls it the Zoo Hypothesis: “aliens are keeping their distance to allow humans to evolve without interference.”

So now what about this Prime Directive? From Star Trek’s Fandom, we learn,

A star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.“– James T. Kirk2268 (“The Omega Glory“)”There’s a reason why it’s Starfleet’s General Order number 1.“– Harry Kim2371 (“Prime Factors“)

The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1, the Non-Interference Directive, or the principle of non-interference, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet‘s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew. (TOS: “Bread and Circuses“, “A Piece of the Action“; DIS: “The Vulcan Hello“; TAS: “The Magicks of Megas-Tu“, “Bem“; TNG: “Justice“, “Symbiosis“, “Who Watches The Watchers“, “Redemption“, “Homeward“; VOY: “Course: Oblivion“; Star Trek Into Darkness)

But, as with all good fiction, there is a catch, including this one:

There were, however, two circumstances in which the Prime Directive was suspended in its entirety. The first was when the Omega Directive applied. Due to issues of security, only Starfleet officers ranked captain and above were privy to knowledge of this directive. The existential threat to interstellar society of the dangerous Omega molecule, which destroyed subspace and rendered warp travel impossible if destabilized, outweighed the philosophical aspirations of the Prime Directive. As a result, during periods when the Omega Directive was operative the Prime Directive was fully suspended for the purpose of rendering harmless any Omega molecules and the ability to create them. (VOY: “The Omega Directive“) The second circumstance was General Order 24. That order permitted a starship captain, in certain circumstances, to destroy the entire surface of an inhabited planet and thereby eradicate any societies living there. (TOS: “A Taste of Armageddon“)

Uncyclopedia, a comedy site, mocks the concept gently:

In one Star Trek episode, a character quotes the Prime Directive to two other characters as a reminder. They, of course, have never heard it verbatim although all the viewers have. It goes like this:

“No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.”

But then

“No identification of self” is always problematic, especially since crew members (having no foreign cash, and most planets not being in the Eurozone), are usually faced with the need to steal clothing to replace their Starfleet uniforms, also hats and occasionally veils to cover up those nagging alien-species ears and foreheads, which typically puts them in direct contact with policemen, at which time, refusing to identify yourself and quoting a snippet of unknown law is not the best ice-breaker.

More to the point, we never find out why dozens of species spent tons of money building starships to contact alien civilizations, which might do some things better than we do, if we are prohibited from telling them that we do a couple things better than they do; nor why they would otherwise spill their technological beans for free.

Many of us would feel that the whole concept of “advanced civilizations” is a bit snobby. Are more fancy gadgets a better thing if they risk a variety of impending dooms? Just asking…

But Uncyclopedia surely has something right here: If extraterrestrials were really obeying a Prime Directive in not messing with us humans as we develop (or not), surely there would be some exceptions. And if they are not omnipotent, there would be some goofs as well—accidental disclosures that are apparent to everyone.

Here are some basics about the Prime Directive:

While the short piece above views the Prime Directive as a good thing, some sources argue that it is a bad one. For example:

The Prime Directive first surfaces in Return of the Archons:

and is more developed in Symbiosis:

Assuming the aliens exist, perhaps it’s just as well on the whole if they do want to leave us alone. Too often in fiction, the story has been that they land and announce that they have come to show us how to live.

But what if their ideas sound intolerable and they have invincible weapons? When the intolerable is paired with the invincible… we’d miss the Prime Directive when it was gone. 😉

Note: The image of the Square Kilometre Array above is an artist’s impression of the 5km diameter central core, courtesy SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions – SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions, CC BY 3.0.

You may also enjoy: Seven reasons (so far) why the aliens never show up. Some experts think they became AI, some that they were killed by their AI, and others say they never existed. Who’s most likely right? Science fiction writer Matt Williams delves into seven hypotheses into which scientists and science fiction writers have put a lot of thought.


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Are the Aliens We Never See Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive?