A conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology

The concept of adaptation is employed in many fields such as biology, psychology, cognitive sciences, robotics, social sciences, even literacy and art,1 and its meaning varies quite evidently according to the particular research context in which it is applied. We expect to find a particularly rich catalogue of meanings within evolutionary biology, where adaptation has held a particularly central role since Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) throughout important epistemological shifts and scientific findings that enriched and diversified the concept. Accordingly, a conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology may help to disambiguate it. Interdisciplinary researches focused on adaptation would benefit from such a result. In the present work we recognize and define seven different meanings of adaptation: (1) individual fitness; (2) adaptation of a population; (3) adaptation as the process of natural selection; (4) adaptive traits; (5) molecular adaptation; (6) adaptation as structural tinkering; (7) plasticity. For convenience here, we refer to them as W-, P-, NS-, T-, M-, S- and PL-ADAPTATION. We present the seven meanings in some detail, hinting at their respective origins and conceptual developments in the history of evolutionary thought (references are offered for further deepening). However, it is important to point out that evolution researchers seldom if ever refer to a single meaning purified from the others. This applies also to the authors we cite as representatives of one of the seven meanings. In Discussion and Conclusion draw from our work some future perspectives for adaptation within evolutionary biology.


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Serrelli E, Rossi FM (2009). A conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology. doi 10.13140/2.1.4366.7209