This idea is endlessly appealing. It’s also old. In 1973, MIT radio astronomer John Ball published a paper in which he suggested that the lack of success in uncovering cosmic company wasn’t due to a lack of aliens. It was because these otherworldly sentients have agreed to a hands-off policy.

They’ve kept their distance not because we’re imperfect, but because of our right to pursue our own destiny. Diversity is something that everyone in the cosmos is assumed to value, so life-bearing worlds should be left to their own evolutionary development.

It may occur to you that Ball’s idea sounds something like Star Trek’s famous “prime directive,” which forbade spacefaring members of the Federation from doing anything that might interfere with other cultures or civilizations, even if that interference was well intentioned. The MIT astronomer was proposing that we’ve failed to make contact with aliens not because we’re unworthy, but because we are worthy — the way endangered eels are.