Biology as Poetry: Evolutionary Biology

Bacteriophage Ecology Group

Adaptability

The ability to change in response to changing environmental conditions.

Adaptability can be an aspect of individual organisms, populations of organisms, communities or organisms, or even higher units of organization. The basic premise is one not so much as robustness to changing circumstances as an ability to change to accommodate changing circumstances. Such changes can be evolutionary or, instead, physiological. The difference is essentially equivalent to the contrast between evolutionary adaptation (i.e., evolution by natural selection) and physiological adaption (i.e., phenotypic change that occurs absent genotypic change). See also simply adaptation.

Note that in a manner the concept of canalization – failure to change phenotypically in response to environmental or internal change, that is, an ability to remain more or less constant in the face of change – is essentially a converse to adaptability, which instead is the ability to change in the face of change.

A population's fitness is a function of its genetic diversity with the more diversity the greater the Darwinian fitness (see Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection). Genetic diversity in turn is an important component of adaptability. Another important component is the degree to which members of a species are generalists versus specialists. In the short term it can be preferable to become better and better at doing specific things, but often that comes at the expense of one's ability to do other things, so-called antagonist pleiotropy (that is, to specialize). The world still has plenty of generalists, however, and this because generalists tend to be more resistant to extinction: If one thing isn't working, these organisms are able to try another thing.

The life lesson, for we humans, is that efficiency/short-term maximization of gain is not simultaneously the means by which we either avert or otherwise survive through disasters. Dynamic systems are inherently wasteful, but far better to be robust and wasteful than highly efficient but fragile.

"It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." — Charles Darwin

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