Evolutionary approaches to knowledge

This page, for technically-minded readers, goes into detail on how evolutionary ideas can help Crime Scientists and advanced practitioners to think differently – and hopefully to be stimulated to generate a greater variety of research possibilities, and proposals and designs for action.

Two perspectives are introduced, representing the two branches of ‘evolutionary epistemology‘:

  • The evolutionary epistemology of theories – giving a new angle on the What Works/ Evidence-Based Policing movement
  • The evolutionary epistemology of cognitive mechanisms – the evolution of rationality

Evolutionary epistemology

  • In the first role, trial and error learning and the evolution of scientific theories are themselves construed as selection processes. Donald Campbell (e.g. 1974) developed this approach, drawing on Popper. According to Campbell, only those theories which best fit the empirical data and/or are used to create practical things that work, survive and continue to evolve as part of a cultural lineage; those that fail to meet these criteria, do not.
  • In the second role, natural selection concerns the generation and maintenance of the reliability of our senses and cognitive mechanisms, as well as the adaptive fit between those mechanisms and the world.

Evolutionary epistemology of theories – what works

Evolutionary epistemology of cognitive mechanisms – Evolution of rationality

  • What are the particular triggers in the social and/or physical environment that might precipitate criminal behaviour, and once the criminal is ready to offend? How might they affect criminal decision-making? How might this differ for hot versus cool decision-processes?
  • How are risk, effort and reward preferences primed? What is risky, what effortful and what rewarding, as a function of evolutionary history as opposed to other more recent, developmental, influences? How flexible is that priming during development and maturity?
  • How has the very capacity for assessing risk, effort and reward, and for integrating these through decisions, evolved in, say, foraging behaviour? Has evolutionary history left its imprint on these? Does it make a difference whether inherited massive modularity, heuristics or general-purpose rationality underlie decision-making?
  • How far can we continue to treat the risk, effort and reward columns of the 25 Techniques of situational crime prevention as universals rigidly applicable across all crime situations, or differing contextually by their triggering stimuli and/or their perception/estimation processes as these have evolved biologically, culturally or through individual-level learning?
  • Should we be investigating team reasoning in co-offending and organised crime?
  • Should we consider imitation as an alternative/complementary source for criminal behaviour to rational choice?
  • What factors influence the development and the shape of rationality in individuals, especially but not exclusively during adolescence? Are any of these sensitivity factors evolutionarily-informed? Do they relate differently to strategic versus tactical criminal decisions?
  • Does (criminal) rationality differ between small- and large-world decisions, and do the latter inform studies of criminal innovation?
  • Are there wider evolutionary influences we should consider on the performance of the executive control system? What implications do these have for crimes usually committed under low self-control versus high self-control?
  • Should we look further into whether the concepts of niche construction and its mirror image adaptive preference can be applied to Crime Science, e.g. on corruption, our understanding of opportunity and (non)displacement?