Skip to main content


  • Living reference work entry
  • First Online:
Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science
  • 122 Accesses




An adaptation (in the evolutionary sense) is a feature/trait that serves a particular function in an organism’s environment and improves that organism’s ability to survive (i.e., its fitness).


Although the word adaptation is used in a number of different ways and its definition debated, most biological researchers agree that adaptations offer organisms higher fitness in their environments, thus enabling the organism to survive and reproduce (Kitano 2002). Adaptations arise as a result of evolutionary changes in the genetic constitution of a population of organisms (Zeigler 2014). Thus, an evolutionary adaptation may be considered as both a “process” impacting and organisms’ morphology, as well as a “feature” of the organism itself (Bock 1980).

Individual adaptations also referred to as adaptive traits/features are thus particular traits of the organism which enable species survival (O’Brien and Holland 1992). These adaptive traits are...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Institutional subscriptions


  • Allison, A. C. (1954). Protection afforded by sickle-cell trait against subtertian malareal infection. British Medical Journal, 4857, 290–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bock, W. J. (1980). The definition and recognition of biological adaptations. The American Zoologist, 20(1), 217–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boyd, R., & Silk, J. (2009). How humans evolved (5th ed.). New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Endler, J. A. (1986). Natural selection in the wild. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Galis, F. (2002). Why do almost all mammals have seven cervical vertebrae? Developmental constraints, Hox genes, and cancer. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 285(1), 19–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 205, 581–598.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kitano, H. (2002). Systems biology: A brief overview. Science, 295, 1662–1664.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Krasnow, M., & Truwax, D. (2017). The adaptationist program. In T. K. Shackelford & V. A. Weekes-Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of evolutionary psychological science. Cham: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Krimbas, C. B. (2004). On fitness. Biology and Philosophy, 19(2), 185–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morrissey, M. B., & Hadfield, J. D. (2012). Directional selection in temporally replicated studies is remarkably consistent. Evolution, 66, 435–442.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • O’Brien, M., & Holland, T. D. (1992). The role of adaptation in archeological explanation. American Antiquity, 57, 36–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tishkoff, S. A., et al. (2007). Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe. Nature Genetics, 39, 31–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tooby, J., & DeVore, I. (1987). The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modeling. In W. G. Kinzey (Ed.), The evolution of human behavior: Primate models (pp. 187–237). Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zeigler, D. (2014). Evolution: Components and mechanisms. Amsterdam and Boston (Massachusetts): Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Muhammad A. Spocter .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Section Editor information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2020 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this entry

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this entry

Spocter, M.A. (2020). Adaptation. In: Shackelford, T., Weekes-Shackelford, V. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-319-16999-6

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-319-16999-6

  • eBook Packages: Springer Reference Behavioral Science and PsychologyReference Module Humanities and Social SciencesReference Module Business, Economics and Social Sciences

Publish with us

Policies and ethics