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Want climate-change adaptation? Evolutionary theory can help

Jones, J.H., Ready, E., & Pisor, A.C. (2021)

American Journal of Human Biology

The idea of adaptation, in which an organism or population becomes better suited to its environment, is used in a variety of disciplines. Originating in evolutionary biology, adaptation has been a central theme in biological anthropology and human ecology. More recently, the study of adaptation in the context of climate change has become an important topic of research in the social sciences. While there are clearly commonalities in the different uses of the concept of adaptation in these fields, there are also substantial differences. We describe these differences and suggest that the study of climate-change adaptation could benefit from a re-integration with biological and evolutionary conceptions of human adaptation. This integration would allow us to employ the substantial theoretical tools of evolutionary biology and anthropology to understand what promotes or impedes adaptation. The evolutionary perspective on adaptation focuses on diversity because diversity drives adaptive evolution. Population structures are also critical in facilitating or preventing adaptation to local environmental conditions. This suggests that climate-change adaptation should focus on the sources of innovation and social structures that nurture innovations and allow them to spread. Truly innovative ideas are likely to arise on the periphery of cohesive social groups and spread inward. The evolutionary perspective also suggests that we pay careful attention to correlated traits which can distort adaptive trajectories, as well as to the importance of risk management in adaptations to variable or uncertain environments. Finally, we suggest that climate-change adaptation could benefit from a broader study of how local groups adapt to their dynamic environments, a process we call “autochthonous adaptation.”