Adaptionism is a school of thought in evolutionary and behavioral science which proposes that animal features and behaviors have developed in the same way that physical traits evolve. For example, adaptionism purports that birds sing because the singing attracts mates and can be used as a rudimentary means of communication. Those birds which had the vocal capacity to sing were able to attract mates, and therefore produced more offspring, ergo greater genetic representation. Additionally, birds in the forest have deeper calls than birds in the desert due to the fact that deeper sounds travel better through trees than do high-pitched sounds.
Another, much more controversial example of the applications of adaptionism is the Aquatic Ape Theory, which basically proposes that, on the path to becoming Homo Sapiens, that particular lineage of primate went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic phase. This theory demonstrates perfectly the one shortcoming of adaptionism: its inability to thoroughly test some hypotheses. Though there are a great number of human features and instincts that this theory would explain, no one has been able to produce a sufficient body of evidence to support or refute it.
"Panglossianism" is a subcategory which seeks to explain absolutely every aspect of behavior with adaptionistic principles. It is named after the character Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide; Pangloss, who incidentally was created largely as a caricature of Gottfried Leibniz, was an optimistic philosopher who believed that everything was created for a purpose, and that this purpose would lead to ultimate happiness for everyone. Panglossianism is generally rejected by most evolutionary biologists, although they tend to recognize the value in the broad array of ideas that comes from adaptionism.
I recently had the honor of hearing an Adaptionist animal behaviorist speak (I say honor because it is not often that competent professors will spend their time lecturing at a high school). He has a particular method for the application of Adaptionist ideas, which goes as follows:
The Adaptionist Method:
- Be observant, ask questions. Note any odd or intriguing behaviors that you encounter.
- Be inventive, propose hypotheses. These can be extremely mundane, extremely obscure, or anywhere in between. Remember that the "truth" may not be within the view of the scientific mainstream.
- Be inventive, generate predictions. Brainstorm other traits or behaviors (or aspects of behaviors) that you should see if your hypothesis is correct.
- Be industrious, test predictions. Thoroughly observe your subjects. Try to create situations in which you can test your predictions from Step 3.
- Be critical, make conclusions. If your hypothesis doesn't fit the data, reject it. If it does fit the data, then continue testing it even more rigorously.
A lecture by Dr. Stephen M. Yezerinac