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The Survival of Programs with "Fitness" - Evolution and Evaluation

The theory of evolution is one of the most important achievements in the history of science. Darwin's Origin of Species and his articulation of the theory of natural selection forms the foundation of virtually all of the life sciences and continues to have profound effects in the social sciences, arts, humanities and, as we all know, in the political and religious realms. The theory of evolution is essentially a systems theory in that it describes how different systems interact and develop over time. This systems theory has a profound effect on how we think about evaluation. To give you an idea of how different an evolutionary systems evaluation might be, consider how the basic idea of evolution sounds when framed in terms of programs and evaluation:

Every program can be viewed as an organism in a population of similar programs that constitutes its species. Program theories, whether stated explicitly or not, make up the essential instructions of the program. Programs have variations within each species of program. Programs have unique characteristics: the people who implement them, the activities that constitute them, the setting and assumptions that guide them, the participants who take part in them. This program variation is essential for their evolution.

Program variations are implemented, have consequences, and are selected for in subsequent program generations. Some programs and their characteristics and theories survive over time; most become extinct. Programs and program theories get selected and survive because of the fitness of their characteristics to a specific environmental or ecological niche. While most of us probably hope or believe that programs are selected for using rational criteria to yield specific desirable characteristics or outcomes, in many situations they probably survive because people like them, get used to them, or because there are institutional, political and economic forces that favor their survival.

Over time, programs and their theories evolve. This evolution is based on the same principle of natural selection that underlies all evolution in life. The process of consciously developing and evolving programs is a type of artificial selection, a special subtype of natural selection. Artificial selection is to natural selection as plant or animal breeding is to natural reproduction. Evaluation can play a key role in that artificial selection, both in encouraging and enhancing variability and in providing feedback and influencing selection. As in evolution generally, it's not clear where program evolution is heading or whether any adaptation can be said to constitute 'progress.' Slight program variations and adaptations can survive that subsequently make little apparent sense. Program features may exist today that were adaptive in the past but remain largely as residuals, long beyond their original adaptive genesis.

Just as with other organisms in nature, in addition to their participation in a broader species, each program has its own individual life (ontogeny), a unique life course that moves through various phases. Programs are born or initiated. They grow and change as they are implemented and revised. They mature and may reach a relatively stable state sometimes becoming routinized and standardized. And, they regenerate, die, are translated and disseminated, and so on, starting new cycles of program instances.

This is simply a restatement in terms of programs and program theory of the theory of evolution generally. It incorporates the ideas from evolution of the life-course of the individual organism (the ontogeny) and the tree-like descent of multiple generations of organisms from ancestors (phylogeny). Like the theory of evolution it is simple in conception and readily communicated. And, like that theory it has behind it a world of complexity and implications which have implications for evaluation practice.