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Adaptation is a response to environmental conditions: the process of adjustment to given (outer) conditions. It refers to a any change in the structure or function of an entity (say, a biological organism or a software system) that allows it to act more effectively, efficiently and successfully in its environment. Originally, the term adapted meant "apt, or suited to, to, some particular purpose or other" (Keller and Lloyd, 1992).

In evolutionary systems, adaptation means the change of traits across generations which increase the fitness. It is the "characteristic of an organism whose form is the result of selection in a particular functional context" (Keller and Lloyd, 1992). In physiology, it means physiological adjustments and short-term cdhanges in response to environmental conditions. In anthropology, adaptation is usually defined as the gradual process organisms undergo to achieve a beneficial adjustment to a particular environment (Haviland et al, 2007).

In general it is the ability to learn from experience and describes the process of change and modification in a system that helps to adjust and fit the system to the conditions of the environment. Adaptation is the set of adjustments made by systems in respect of their environments. The adjustments are often controlled by experience and practice. The concept of a change in behavior or structure as a result of experience and practice is related to learning. Learning is a special form of adaptation for the behavior of intelligent systems.


Function, Purpose and Niche Occupation

Typical for adaptive systems is the existence of a function or purpose: they occupy a niche and play a role, specified by the context of the environment. A snowflake is a beautiful crystal with a complex structure, but it has no particular function or purpose. Biological organisms affected and shaped by evolution have nearly always a function in a larger ecosystem, even the organs of an organism have a particular function. The organs, especially the sense organis, can be adaptive itself. In physiology, adaptation is the responsive adjustment of a sense organ (as the eye) to varying conditions (as of light).

In Pyschology, adaptation describes the process of change in organisms or species to accommodate to a particular environment. It allows us to cope with change, because it is itself related to a change: it is the change of the behavior or strategy of an individual in order to increase the own performance. An example is the balance between exploitation and exploration for information processing in changing environments.

In evolutionary biology, adaptation is a physiological process or behavioral trait of an organism that has evolved over a period of time, because it increases the expected long-term reproductive success of the organism. A individual in an evolutionary system adapts to survive: it changes in order to persist. This is related to the Red Queen Effect: a situation in nature where individuals must adapt constantly to changing environments just to survive.

Basic Principles
Natural Selection
Red Queen Effect
Swarm Intelligence
Self-Organized Criticality
Butterfly Effect
Control Loop
Lever Point
Frozen Accidents
Path Dependence
Complexity, Simplicity
Edge of Chaos
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Adaptation occurs in evolution often through natural selection at the population level. It is the process of accommodation and adjustment to an ecological or economic niche. While adaptation is the process of being optimized for some function, exaptation is "meta-adaptation": the adaptation of an existing trait or property for a new function. Exaptation characterizes components, traits and properties which arose as the result of adaptation for one function, and which have later been used for a new function. Though developed for a particular purpose, an organism may eventually use a structure or attribute for a different, or exaptive, purpose.

Optimization of Fitness

Individuals try to occupy their niche in an optimal way, or a driven by evolutionary forces and natural selection to do it. The optimal occupation of a niche is at the maximum (or minimum) of the fitness function. Since optimization means maximization (or minimization) of a certain function, adaptation in evolution is therefore nothing else but optimization of fitness, and optimal occupation of the corresponding niche. Optimization methods are besides Evolutionary Algorithms for example Gradient Descent (used in artificial neural networks and "back propagation"), Tabu Search and Simulated Annealing.


A necessary condition for adaptation is flexibility or the ability for reconfiguration. Only a system with a flexible structure is able to evolve into something new. Decentralized and distributed systems with high redundancy and scalability (the ability to growth) are usually more flexible than centralized systems.

The law of indispensable or requisite variety from William Ross Ashby states simply that only variety in a system itself can successfully counter a variety of disturbances in the environment: a wide variety of available responses and actions is indispensable in order to ensure that a system which aims to maintain itself in a certain state can actually adapt itself satisfactorily if it is confronted with a wide variety of pertubations from the outside.

This may seem obvious, because a flexible system with many options is of course better able to cope with change and changing conditions. In other words, "the larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate" see [1].

It is also clear that sufficient "requisite variety" is already available in systems with a small numbers of elements, as soon as those elements can interact in arbitrary ways we get a combinatorial explosion. Thus the law might say nothing, but nevertheless there is some truth in it.

Types and Forms

There are various types and forms of adaptations. In biology, the most common form is the adaptation of the physical body by modification of the genetic blueprint. In cultural and military systems, the appearance and the behavior can be modified by other forces as well. In general, deceiving by using camouflage techniques is an adaptation to the expectations of the observer. Lying – deceiving by using words – and acting – pretending by using actions – are a similar adaptation as well, they are all methods to produce what the observer expects to perceive. Camouflage means showing what the observer wants to see, Lying means saying what the listener wants to hear, Acting means doing what the director or screenwriter wants to see:

  • Camouflage is an adaptation of appearance
  • Acting is an adaptation of behavior
  • Lying is an adaptation of facts


Adaptation is typical for biological and biologically inspired systems such as neural networks. It is a property of many intelligent systems. Intelligent agents, neural networks and adaptive systems are examples of adaptive systems: intelligent agents adapt their behavior, neural networks their connections and weights, and complex adaptive systems in general their components, relations and schemes. As Pattie Maes mentions in [Maes (1994)], "Adaptive means that the agent improves its goal-achieving competence over time."

The time-scale of adaptation can vary massively: in nervous systems and neural networks from seconds to hours, in the immune system hours to days, in business firms months to years, in species days to centuries, and in ecosystems years to millennia (see Holland's Book Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity).

A number of physiological, psychological and sociological phenomena can be considered as adaptation:

  • Intelligence as Adaptation to change (i.e. to fast changing environments with unusual, novel or complex challenges, where a small number of fixed responses and rigid reflexes is no longer useful)
  • Stress as Adaptation to terror (i.e. to uncertain and disruptive environments where large peaceful periods are sometimes disrupted by extremely dangerous threats which require immediate reaction)
  • Shame as Adaptation to social punishment (i.e. to societies and situations which impose high costs on defectors)
  • Corruption as Adaptation to institutional weakness (i.e. to societies where the courts and the police are not working well, where the general income of officials is low, the potential gain of disloyal behavior high, and the expected penalty low)
  • Terror as Adaptation to imperial behavior and imperialism (i.e. to the global dominance of a selfish superpower).
  • Depression as Adaptation to desperate and hopeless situations (i.e. to situations and environments where continued effort to pursue a certain goal will result in either danger or loss of valuable resources.)


Adaptation is related to homeostasis, the process of maintaining a system at a constant, stable state in a changing and instable environment. It allows a system to maintain consistent and suitable behavior despite clearly visible variations and differences in different operating contexts and environments. Homeostasis is based on regulatory and feedback mechanisms, whereas adaptation is more related to structural adjustments of the system.

The process of adaptation is often connected to an increase in complexity and acquisition of information from the environment or in other words to learning, but also to specialization and differentiation.

Adaptation is also related to optimization, since an organism adapted to a certain (ecological) niche is optimal suited to fulfil the corresponding task most efficiently.



  • Lashon Booker (Editor), Perspectives on Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems, (Proceedings Volume in the Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity), Oxford Univ Press (2005) ISBN 0195162935
  • John H. Holland, Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1996, ISBN 0201442302
  • John H. Holland, Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems: An Introductory Analysis with Applications to Biology, Control, and Artificial Intelligence, The MIT Press, 1992, ISBN 0262581116
  • Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A. Lloyd, "Keywords in Evolutionary Biology", Harvard University Press, 1992
  • William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Bunny McBride, Dana Walrat, "Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge", Wadsworth Publishing, 2007


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