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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Adaptation
  • History
  • Genetics of Adaptation
  • Rates of Adaptation
  • Adaptive Radiation
  • Exaptation
  • Constraints
  • Alternatives to Adaptation

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

Evolutionary Biology Adaptation
Jonathan B. Losos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0001


Adaptation—the fit of organisms to their environments—has been a central focus in scientific research for centuries, predating even the rise of evolutionary biology. At its core, the study of adaptation is the study of natural selection—how is it that populations become so well suited to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they occur? Nonetheless, the topic of adaptation has many wrinkles and nuances. Even the definition of adaptation is not agreed on by all. The manner in which adaptations evolve (or fail to evolve) and the consequences they have for the evolutionary history of a lineage have been the subjects of considerable scientific research and discussion for more than a century.

General Overviews

There are number of solid, general overviews on adaptation available to researchers, ranging from some presented in general terms to a broad audience, such as the Scientific American article, Lewontin 1978, and others more technically couched for students in the field of evolutionary biology, such as Larson 2009. General overviews are provided in Ridley 2002 and Travis and Reznick 2009; multiple contributions in the Rose and Lauder 1996 and Losos, et al. 2013 volumes deal with the concept of adaptation from a variety of perspectives.

  • Larson, Allan. 2009. Adaptation. In The Princeton guide to ecology. Edited by Levin Simon, 93–100. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    An overview taking a more historical vantage point than others, Larson observes that calling a trait an adaptation implies that it evolved by natural selection in the past and suggests particular testable hypotheses. In this context, Larson concisely discusses historical and present-day approaches to studying adaptation.

  • Lewontin, Richard. 1978. Adaptation. Scientific American 239:212–228.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0978-212

    An authoritative, but generally accessible, overview of what constitutes an adaptation, how adaptations are studied, and what sometimes prevents adaptive evolution from occurring.

  • Losos, Jonathan, et al., eds. 2013. Princeton guide to evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Multiple contributions in this one-hundred-chapter compendium explore all aspects of adaptive evolution, focusing on empirical and theoretical issues of how adaptation occurs (section 3, “Selection and Adaptation”) and the implications it has for macroevolution (section 6, “Speciation and Macroevolution”).

  • Ridley, Mark. 2002. Adaptation. In Encyclopedia of evolution. Vol. 1. Edited by Mark Pagel. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise overview covering all of the major topics involved in the study of adaptation: definitions, approaches to its study, and biological issues involved in adaptive evolution.

  • Rose, Michael, and George Lauder, eds. 1996. Adaptation. New York: Academic Press.

    Perhaps the most comprehensive starting point for anyone who wants to delve deeply into the topic, this multiauthored, fourteen-chapter compendium covers the breadth and depth of issues relevant to the study of adaptation, from history and definitions to methodological approaches and advanced conceptual issues.

  • Travis, Joseph, and David N. Reznick. 2009. Adaptation. In Evolution: The first four billion years. Edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    More extensive than other comparable treatments, this review not only covers the basics of adaptation as a concept and topic of study, but also provides detailed case studies and discusses controversial topics related to the study of adaptation.

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