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Book Review - The Theory of Options
The Theory of Options
by Sean Gould, 2001
Review by Anthony Dickinson, Ph.D.
Feb 6th 2002

Gould’s Theory of Options is put forward to bridge explanations of human behavior to those of human evolution. The major claim is that the human species have become motivated to maximize their options along a ‘fitness pathway’. Though supportive of Darwinian notions of structural adaptation, Gould extends the evolutionary argument to address the ontological as well as phylogenetic aspects of individual growth and development. We thus read here of the evolutionary significance and import of more culturally determined values such as may be observed in expressions of human love, morality an ethics. Throughout the book’s five main chapters, we read that structural complexity and larger brains increase options (no surprises there), but so also have the development of morals and a flexible psychology served to maximize options. Indeed, the purpose of our knowledge acquisition processes is to increase our options.

Much is made of the idea that purposeful human behavior is born of the motivation to increase one’s behavioral options, but I would argue that this is not so much an end in itself. I would rather have seen the argument framed such that increasing one’s behavioral options supplies a solution to the problem of coping with unpredictable, uncertain future circumstances. Gould is quite at liberty to introduce his notion of the ‘personal geodesic’ as pictorial metaphor for distinguishing ontogenetic from phylogenetic developmental/evolutionary processes, but if the take home message is that increasing one’s options affords a greater repertoire of behaviors from which to select in the face of novel circumstances (and thus scaffolding increasingly larger, if not more complex, extant adaptive behaviors), this might have been more succinctly stated.

Gould’s more notable contribution here, however, is his prompting discussion re the development of human moral reasoning. Although one rarely considers exactly what evolutionary pressure(s) might be brought to forbearance by its development, Gould proposes that morality evolved as a powerful inhibitor in the (modern) less-reflexive human brain “to ensure that the transfer process from reflex to learning works reliably” (p.105). This is not, however, either a novel, or surprising claim per se, given the recent interest and extensive literature on the topic of intelligent adaptive systems. [Unfortunately embedded in neither a form of Waddingtonian epigenetic landscape or even an autopoietic systems context, Gould’s reference group cited throughout the text comprises general readership volumes with no other key paper references provided (though a ‘further reading’ list is appended)].

But where Gould does provoke us, however, is with his claim that “humans enjoy maximum options when all constraints on behavior are moral ones” (p. 162). The key observation here is that a flexible, though largely inhibitory, moral psychology may be alterable at relatively high speed (in response to short-term behavioral challenges) without compromising gross morphological characteristics, the latter held sway under more coarse phylogenetic (Darwinian) check. For the ‘successful’ enculturated human animal able to afford the luxury of pondering ethical considerations (ethics in turn existing to resolve a certain type of action – ‘an unconstrained choice’ (p.160). Gould’s thesis is not derived from empirical study, but remains worthy of wider attention than this cursory summary might suggest. This volume provides a valuable discursive evolutionary explanation for the emergence of moral and ethical reasoning – a topic little, if ever, offered much space in the modern literature concerned with evolutionary psychology and adaptive intelligent systems.

© 2002 A. R. Dickinson.

Dr. A. R. Dickinson, Dept. of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Washington University School of Medicine