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
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, evolutionary epistemology is a naturalistic approach to epistemology which emphasises the importance of natural selection in two distinct roles.
- 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.
The first, theory-oriented, role was a formative influence on Paul Ekblom’s first serious venture into evolutionary epistemological thinking on crime and security – the 2002 chapter ‘From the Source to the Mainstream is Uphill‘, which covered both knowledge and evaluation. The second, cognitive-mechanism, role connects with his interest in causal mechanisms (e.g. Ekblom 2018b), including those relating to rationality.
These roles are discussed in turn below.
Evolutionary epistemology of theories – what works
The whole ‘what works’ movement in evaluation (as in the Campbell Collaboration and the Society of Evidence-Based Policing) is essentially an exercise in applying particular selection pressures on theories and practices.
Theories and theory-based principles are central to intelligent, context-sensitive replication of success stories, as discussed in Source to Mainstream. In evolutionary-developmental terms, this equates to the process of ‘constructive development’ (e.g. see Laland et al. 2015; Charbonneau 2016 for a cultural take).
Thinking along similar lines, but at a ‘meta’ level, Louise Grove (now Nicholas) in her PhD thesis presented an interesting and original approach to comparing and contrasting conventional systematic reviews with those undertaken using a Scientific Realist approach. Her thesis abstract explains:
‘The thesis is framed in the context of evolutionary epistemology, which is the philosophy underpinning both approaches to meta-evaluation addressed herein. The thesis starts, with an examination of: firstly, how the evaluation methods in question have evolved, and the background to their scientific worth; and secondly, how situational crime prevention measures have evolved over time. The thesis then examines the two competing approaches for their contribution to the evaluation ecosystem by using both to assess repeat victimisation prevention interventions. Finally, the last section poses the question of whether it is survival of the fittest, or whether co-existence or adaptation could be the key to survival for these two meta-evaluative methodologies.‘
Evolutionary epistemology of cognitive mechanisms – Evolution of rationality
The evolution of rationality is a central aspect of the evolution of cognitive mechanisms – how progressively more sophisticated ways of knowing and interacting with the world emerge through evolutionary processes covering, principally, perception and cognition.
Following this theme, the Evolution of rationality is explored, in a chapter (Ekblom 2017a) for a handbook on offender decision-making. This offers a rather different take on the evolutionary psychology of crime, from the approach of Ekblom et al (2016) described here. According to the abstract:
‘This chapter seeks to enrich and extend thinking about the Rational Choice perspective to offender decision-making and its pivotal application in Situational Crime Prevention, by taking an evolutionary approach, still uncommon in crime science and criminology. It begins by introducing basic concepts of evolution, covering the brain and behaviour, levels and types of explanation, the strained relationship with social science and the evidencing of evolutionary processes.
‘The focus then shifts to rationality, covering decision-making itself; the wider suite of processes needed to understand rationality in action; and specific discussions of cooperation, humans’ wider ‘socio-cognitive niche’, and development. While evolutionary issues are addressed throughout, the penultimate section covers how things have unfolded over evolutionary history; and the significant connection between maximisation of utility in contemporary rational choice, and maximisation/ optimisation of fitness in evolution. The conclusion raises practical, empirical and theoretical questions for crime science.‘
The questions for Crime Science included:
- 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?