I have been working on a research proposal to study whether and how constructs from Evolutionary Biology and Ecology might be useful in Evaluation. This is the second of two posts that come from the  introductory material in the first proposal. The first is: Evolutionary and Ecological Thinking – Escaping Disciplinary Boundaries.

The fields of Evolutionary Biology and Ecology contain vast literatures that touch on a plethora of theory, all built on a deep foundation of research. Choosing from this literature, I believe that a small number of constructs are particularly useful in Evaluation. These are presented in Table 1.

 Table 1: Constructs from Evolutionary Biology and Ecology that may be Useful in Evaluation
 Evolution Definition
Change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations
Implications for evaluation
Programs are not biological, but they do have characteristics that pass across implementations. Strictly speaking, this is akin to “soft inheritance”, i.e. the transmission of acquired characteristics across generations. The patterns and dynamics, however, are those of “evolution”. In evaluation terms, the concept may be useful for understanding program change across implementations and time, as in the Rogers sense of “reinvention” in innovation diffusion (Rogers, 2003).

Coevolution Definition
Scenarios in which two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.
Implications for evaluation
System views of evaluation are rich with discussion of interactions among programs. “Coevolution” provides a framework for observing and understanding these changes as the develop over time.

Mutation Definition
A sudden departure from the parent type in one or more heritable characteristics, caused by a change in a gene or a chromosome.
Implications for evaluation
Programs often seem to change for unknowable reasons, unrelated to any design or operational characteristics of program. These can be treated as random occurrences, much as genetic mutations are. As such, they can be studied with respect to number, frequency, and consequences (if any) for succeeding programs.

Fitness landscape Definition
A representation as altitude and steepness of “terrain” in which an organism is evolving, thus representing the consequences of smaller and larger changes in the organism’s ability to function.
Implications for evaluation
The consequences for a program of large or small changes can vary depending on the shape of the landscape on which the program “resides”.

Selection pressure Definition
The pressure exerted by the environment, through natural selection, on evolution
Implications for evaluation
This concept can be useful as a way to understand how an environment influences the pace and direction of change over time and across implementations of a program.

Birth and death rates Definition
Fate of individual organisms / programs does not matter. Rates for species do matter.
Implications for evaluation
Programs and types of programs continually come into existence and disappear. The rates of change may cover decades or years, but whatever the rate, that number can be instructive in understanding a program’ s (or group of programs’) viability.

Ecosystem Definition
A community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.
Implications for evaluation
In one sense this construct is similar to many systems perspectives in evaluation. The difference is that it provides a framework and an intellectual gateway for invoking the rest of the items in this table.

Agnosticism Evolution and its related constructs do not “care” about anything but a species’ viability. In this sense a program that has perverse consequences for the human condition may be every bit as successful as a program with desirable consequences for the human condition. We need to keep this in mind as we apply evolutionary and ecological thinking to our efforts to assess a program’s worth.


Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. NY: Free Press.

2 thoughts on “Evolutionary and Ecological Constructs that may be Useful in Evaluation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s