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  Derived from Darwinian and evolutionary theory (cf. Darwinism; Lamarckism), adaptation is an enormously influential metaphor for thinking about the relations between populations (human and nonhuman) and their environment (Sayer, 1979). It is a concept with a long and robust life in the biological and social sciences. Adaptation is rooted in the question of survival, and specifically of populations in relation to the biological environments which they inhabit (Holling, 1975). Adaptation refers to the changes in gene frequencies that confer reproductive advantage to a population in specific environments, and to physiological and sociocultural changes that enhance individual fitness and well-being. The means by which populations survive and reproduce speaks to processes of adaptation and their mechanisms to the existence of adaptive structure.

Adaptation has a currency in the social sciences through the organic analogy — the idea that social systems are forms of living systems in which processes of adaptation inhere (Slobodkin and Rappaport, 1974). In geography, cultural and human ecology drew heavily on biological and adaptive thinking by seeing social development in terms of human niches, adaptive radiation and human ecological succession (see Watts, 1983). Some of the more sophisticated work in cultural ecology (Nietschmann, 1973) drew upon the work of Rappaport (1979), Wilden (1972) and Bateson (1972) who employed systems theory (cf. systems analysis), cybernetics and ecosystems modelling as a way of describing the structure of adaptation in peasant and tribal societies. Here adaptation refers to the \'processes by which living systems maintain homeostasis in the face of short-term environmental fluctuations and by transforming their own structures through long-term non-reversing changes in the composition and structure of their environments as well\' (Rappaport, 1979, p. 145). Cultural ecology and ecological anthropology focused especially on rural societies in the Third World to demonstrate that various aspects of their cultural and religious life fulfilled adaptive functions. Adaptation has also been employed however by sociologists, geographers and ethnographers in contemporary urban settings as a way of describing how individuals, households and communities respond to and cope with new experiences (migration, poverty, violence) and settings (the city, the prison). In the human sciences, the term adaptation has however always been saddled with the baggage of structural functionalism on the one hand and of biological reductionism on the other (Watts, 1983). (MW)

References Bateson, G. 1972: Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine. Holling, C. 1973: Resilience and stability in eco logical systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1-23. Nietschmann, B. 1973: Between land and water. New York: Academic. Rappaport, R. 1979: Ecology, meaning and religion. Richmond: North Atlantic Books. Sayer, A. 1979: Epistemology and conceptions of people and nature in geography. Geoforum 10: 19-43. Slobodkin, A. and Rappaport, R. 1974: An optimal strategy of evolution, Quarterly Review of Biology 49: 181-200. Watts, M. 1983: The poverty of theory. In K. Hewitt, ed., Interpretations of calamity. London: Allen and Unwin, 231-6 3. Wilden, A. 1972: System and structure. London: Tavistock.



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