Todd L. VanPool
The 1996 edition of Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language provides three general definitions of the term adaptation that are of interest here. The first, and arguably most common meaning in the context of the social sciences is “a slow, usually unconscious modification of individual and social activity in adjustment to social surroundings.” The other definitions, more particular to Darwinian evolution, are (1) any alteration in the structure or function of an organism or any of its parts that results from natural selection, and (2) the act of adapting.
The importance of the term “adaptation” in archaeology and more generally anthropology is easily recognized, especially in the common definition of culture as “the extrasomatic means of adaptation” (Binford 1962:22; White 1959:8) and the use of terms such as “adaptive milieu, ” “adaptive systems, ” and “adaptive strategies” (e.g., Binford 1964:426; Kirch 1980:108). Despite the extensive use of the term, there is substantive disagreement among archaeologists concerning what the concept of adaptation really is, and by extension, what the term itself should mean (e.g., Dunnell 1980:77-82; Kantner 1999; Kirch 1980; O'Brien and Holland 1992). All three of the general definitions presented above are used in archaeological approaches that claim to be evolutionary. The unacknowledged nature of these different meanings has even led to contentious debates (e.g., Dunnell and Wenke 1980; Yoffee 1979, 1980). More specifically, two