lizard-on-a-treeAdaptation is a concept in the theory of evolution. Under this theory, an adaptation is a trait in an organism that evolved through natural selection to serve a specific function. It can also be used colloquially to refer to healthy behavioral changes.

What is an Adaptation?

Evolution does not consciously guide the development of organisms, and nothing evolved for a specific purpose. Instead, evolution is random and determined by survival, producing mutations that result in a genetically varied population. In any given species, each animal may have slightly different genes or capabilities. When environmental pressures make one trait more useful than another, animals that have that genetic trait are more likely to survive. For example, the large, complex brains of humans could be an adaptation that allowed early people to travel, communicate, solve complex environmental problems, and develop settled civilizations.

An adaptive trait stands in contrast to a maladaptive trait—a trait that makes an organism less prepared to deal with its environment and more likely to die off.

Colloquial Usage

The term “adaptation” can also be used to describe behaviors that serve a person well. For example, a therapist might tell a client that good communication skills are an adaptive behavior. In this context, the term has a similar meaning to the biological use, because adaptive skills make life easier. The difference is that, in colloquial usage, people are not necessarily speaking about evolved traits when they mention adaptations. The term sometimes refers to deliberate changes in response to the environment. For example, a newly divorced person might go to therapy to help him or her adapt to a new way of life, with a new relationship status and new goals.


  1. Adaptation. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from
  2. Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., & Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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