Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 459–479 | Cite as

The evolution of Wright’s (1932) adaptive field to contemporary interpretations and uses of fitness landscapes in the social sciences

  • Lasse GerritsEmail author
  • Peter Marks


The concepts of adaptation and fitness have such an appeal that they have been used in other scientific domains, including the social sciences. One particular aspect of this theory transfer concerns the so-called fitness landscape models. At first sight, fitness landscapes visualize how an agent, of any kind, relates to its environment, how its position is conditional because of the mutual interaction with other agents, and the potential routes towards improved fitness. The allure of fitness landscapes is first and foremost that it represents a complex story about adaptation and fitness in one coherent image. Different accounts of fitness landscapes in different domains in the social sciences suggest that the properties and functions of fitness landscapes are attributed rather freely. These differences are testimony of the model’s versatility. At the same time, one will notice that the different approaches can also create ambiguity about the exact meaning and role of fitness landscapes in the social sciences. This article presents an extensive literature survey of the diverging interpretations and uses of fitness landscapes in the social sciences and discusses the implications in terms of how these models inform scientific inquiry.


Fitness landscapes Theory transfer Scientific inquiry Social sciences 



The authors would like to thank information specialists Judith Gulpers and Gusta Drenthe of the university library of Erasmus University Rotterdam in helping us in making our literature search complete and comprehensive. We also would like thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful recommendations. This work was supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Veni grant no. 451-10-022.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public AdministrationErasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands

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