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Exaptation—a Missing Term in the Science of Form

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2016

Stephen Jay Gould
Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Elisabeth S. Vrba
Transvaal Museum, Paul Kruger Street, P.O. Box 413, Pretoria, South Africa


Adaptation has been defined and recognized by two different criteria: historical genesis (features built by natural selection for their present role) and current utility (features now enhancing fitness no matter how they arose). Biologists have often failed to recognize the potential confusion between these different definitions because we have tended to view natural selection as so dominant among evolutionary mechanisms that historical process and current product become one. Yet if many features of organisms are non-adapted, but available for useful cooptation in descendants, then an important concept has no name in our lexicon (and unnamed ideas generally remain unconsidered): features that now enhance fitness but were not built by natural selection for their current role. We propose that such features be called exaptations and that adaptation be restricted, as Darwin suggested, to features built by selection for their current role. We present several examples of exaptation, indicating where a failure to conceptualize such an idea limited the range of hypotheses previously available. We explore several consequences of exaptation and propose a terminological solution to the problem of preadaptation.

Copyright © The Paleontological Society 

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