Adaptation and the Comparative Method

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Central of the interests of evolutionary biologists is the concept of adaptation. Indeed the task that Darwin had before him in writing the “Origin of Species” was to provide a scientific explanation for the origin and modification of adaptations; the concept of biological adaptation was appreciated by humans long before the beginnings of scientific inquiry. Thus, as evolutionary biologists, we are interested in the adaptive nature of features and in the mechanisms of adaptive evolutionary change. Before it is possible to inquire into the mode of adaptive evolution, or into the possible nonadaptive evolution of certain features, or the adaptive evolutionary history of new groups of organisms, it is necessary to determine the exact adaptive nature or significance of particular features. Thus we come at once to the questions: By what methods of analysis can a given feature be judged to be an adaptation? And do any of these methods possess limitations or even be valid?