The zoo hypothesis speculates on the assumed behavior and existence of technically advanced extraterrestrial life and the reasons they refrain from contacting Earth. It is one of many theoretical explanations for the Fermi paradox. The hypothesis is that alien life intentionally avoids communication with Earth, and one of its main interpretations is that it does so to allow for natural evolution and sociocultural development, avoiding interplanetary contamination, similarly to people observing animals at a zoo.
The hypothesis seeks to explain the apparent absence of extraterrestrial life despite its generally accepted plausibility and hence the reasonable expectation of its existence. A variant on the zoo hypothesis suggested by the former MIT Haystack Observatory scientist John Allen Ball is the laboratory hypothesis, where humanity is being subjected to experiments, with the Earth being a giant laboratory.
Aliens might, for example, choose to allow contact once the human species has passed certain technological, political, or ethical standards. They might withhold contact until humans force contact upon them, possibly by sending a spacecraft to planets they inhabit. Alternatively, a reluctance to initiate contact could reflect a sensible desire to minimize risk. An alien society with advanced remote-sensing technologies may conclude that direct contact with neighbors confers added risks to oneself without an added benefit.
In the related laboratory hypothesis, the zoo hypothesis is extended such that the ‘zoo keepers’ are subjecting humanity to experiments, a hypothesis which Ball describes as “morbid” and “grotesque”, overlooking the possibility that such experiments may be altruistic, designed to accelerate the pace of civilization to overcome a tendency for intelligent life to destroy itself, until a species is sufficiently developed to establish contact, as in the zoo hypothesis.