In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Adaptability

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Book Series
  • Journals
  • History
  • Thermoregulation
  • Adaptation to Solar Radiation and High-Altitude Hypoxia
  • Nutrition and Energetics
  • Infectious Disease
  • Growth and Development

Anthropology Human Adaptability
Daniel E. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0047


The field of human adaptability is a subdiscipline within the broader field of biological anthropology. Human adaptability focuses on the flexibility with which humans, both as individuals and as populations, cope with environmental challenges, through both biological and behavioral/cultural means. Researchers in this field take a biocultural perspective on human ecology, attempting to integrate approaches used in human biology with those more common in cultural and social anthropology. Because of the complexity of the subject, many studies within human adaptability have focused on a single environmental challenge, such as extreme temperatures, low oxygen pressures at high altitude, or exposure to infectious diseases. However, humans are often exposed to a multitude of challenges simultaneously, thus necessitating moving beyond a view of single challenges to a more comprehensive approach to the various stressors confronting individuals or populations. Research in human adaptability takes account of the nature of the stressors in the environment, including their intensity, duration, frequency, and predictability. Also, the characteristics of responses by humans are studied, including time to engage, strength, duration, frequency, and reversibility. Moreover, research must account for whether responses are made by individuals or are joint responses requiring cooperation from others within, or outside, the population. Responses may be evaluated in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, or riskiness.

General Overviews

There are several books that give an overview of the field of human adaptability, written variously for undergraduates, graduate students, or the general public. Textbooks that cover the field include Kormondy and Brown 1998, Moran 2008, and Stini 1975, a classic short volume. Frisancho 1993 has long served as a basis for graduate studies in human adaptability, and more recently the multiauthored text Stinson, et al. 2000 and edited volume Muehlenbein 2010 cover many topics of importance to the field. The festschrift to Paul Baker (Little and Haas 1989) presents the state of the field at the time, as represented by the work of Baker’s many students. Roberts, et al. 1992 examines how the study of population isolates and migrants provides vital information for understanding the scope of human adaptability, while Rosetta and Mascie-Taylor 2009 focuses on what is necessary for successful reproduction, including adaptation to the environment.

  • Frisancho, A. Roberto. 1993. Human adaptation and accommodation. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    This volume covers the entire field of human adaptability, focusing on adaptation to physical stressors and malnutrition. It is a graduate-level textbook that remains an important source of information about the field.

  • Kormondy, Edward J., and Daniel E. Brown. 1998. Fundamentals of human ecology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    A textbook intended for midlevel undergraduates, the book covers environmental anthropology, with an emphasis on human adaptability.

  • Little, Michael A., and Jere D. Haas, eds. 1989. Human population biology: A transdisciplinary science. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book is a festschrift for Paul Baker, with articles on major topics in human adaptability authored by Baker’s former students. Topics include demography, genetic epidemiology, physiological adaptations, human biology and the life cycle, and transdisciplinary approaches to studies of human population biology.

  • Moran, Emilio F. 2008. Human adaptability: An introduction to ecological anthropology. 3d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    An undergraduate textbook that covers all of ecological anthropology, including human adaptability. The book is organized by major biomes, and how cultural groups in those biomes adapt to the environment.

  • Muehlenbein, Michael P., ed. 2010. Human evolutionary biology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511781193

    A collection of excellent reviews, covering all major areas of human adaptability.

  • Roberts, D. F., N. Fujiki, and K. Torizuka, eds. 1992. Isolation, migration and health. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A collection of chapters examining the genetic and epidemiological effects of isolation and migration on human groups. The “natural experiments” due to isolation or migration permit human biologists to unravel some of the complexity involved with human population biology.

  • Rosetta, Lyliane, and C. G. Nicholas Mascie-Taylor, eds. 2009. Variability in human fertility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Discusses the great variability among women in reproductive biology, as well as the changes that occur within individuals over the life span. Consideration is given to the effects of age and health on fecundity, and thus on successful reproduction.

  • Stini, William A. 1975. Ecology and human adaptation. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.

    A concise overview of human adaptability, including a major chapter on “the human capacity to adjust”; the book provides a brief but fairly comprehensive introduction to the field.

  • Stinson, Sara, Barry Bogin, Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, and Dennis O’Rourke, eds. 2000. Human biology: An evolutionary and biocultural perspective. New York: Wiley.

    This edited volume provides a broad overview of human population biology for students who are upper-level undergraduates or graduate students. Several chapters cover topics in human adaptability, including adaptation to climate, infectious disease, nutritional evolution, energetics, and demography.

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