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Adaptationism – how to carry out an exaptationist program

  • Paul W. Andrews (a1), Steven W. Gangestad (a1) and Dan Matthews (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2002

The authors contributed equally to this paper. Order of authorship was determined alphabetically. Correspondence may be addressed to any of the authors.Adaptationism is a research strategy that seeks to identify adaptations and the specific selective forces that drove their evolution in past environments. Since the mid-1970s, paleontologist Stephen J. Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin have been critical of adaptationism, especially as applied toward understanding human behavior and cognition. Perhaps the most prominent criticism they made was that adaptationist explanations were analogous to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (outlandish explanations for questions such as how the elephant got its trunk). Since storytelling (through the generation of hypotheses and the making of inferences) is an inherent part of science, the criticism refers to the acceptance of stories without sufficient empirical evidence. In particular, Gould, Lewontin, and their colleagues argue that adaptationists often use inappropriate evidentiary standards for identifying adaptations and their functions, and that they often fail to consider alternative hypotheses to adaptation. Playing prominently in both of these criticisms are the concepts of constraint, spandrel, and exaptation. In this article we discuss the standards of evidence that could be used to identify adaptations and when and how they may be appropriately used. Moreover, building an empirical case that certain features of a trait are best explained by exaptation, spandrel, or constraint requires demonstrating that the trait's features cannot be better accounted for by adaptationist hypotheses. Thus, we argue that the testing of alternatives requires the consideration, testing, and systematic rejection of adaptationist hypotheses. Where possible, we illustrate our points with examples taken from human behavior and cognition.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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