By "evolutionary agility" I mean how fast an organism can adapt to changes in the environment. I’d imagine that a population with more offspring and a shorter time between generations would be more “evolutionary agile”.


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Yes, there is a measurement laid out by Haldane (1949) called 'Darwins'. One Darwin is given an $e$ fold change in a trait over the period of 1 million years.

As to your second point, yes there are different variables which control the rate of adaptation within a population. The classic factor is genetic variation, as given by Fisher's (1958) fundamental theorem of natural selection, which states:

The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time

So broadly speaking, individuals with more additive genetic variation will adapt more rapidly.

Of course, there are many other factors such as generation time, effective population size and mutation rate will influence the response to selection. However, such as in the case of generation time, the relationship is not necessarily a simple one (Gandon and Mikalakis, 2002).


After re-reading your question, I think I perhaps misunderstood it.

I suppose the term you are looking for is 'evolutionary potential', which is defined by Steeves et al (2017) as:

The capacity of a population to evolve in response to environmental change.

There is a nice chapter in this book which gives a good overview of the topic. The chapter may perhaps be available for free on certain websites.


Haldane, John Burdon Sanderson. "Suggestions as to quantitative measurement of rates of evolution." Evolution (1949): 51-56.

Fisher, Ronald Aylmer. The genetical theory of natural selection. Рипол Классик, 1958.

Gandon, Sylvain, and Y. Michalakis. "Local adaptation, evolutionary potential and host–parasite coevolution: interactions between migration, mutation, population size and generation time." Journal of Evolutionary Biology 15.3 (2002): 451-462.

Steeves, Tammy E., Jeff A. Johnson, and Marie L. Hale. "Maximising evolutionary potential in functional proxies for extinct species: a conservation genetic perspective on de‐extinction." Functional Ecology 31.5 (2017): 1032-1040.

  • $\begingroup$ Even things like what form of reproduction it uses can be an influence, sexual selection can both speed up and slow down the spread of genes for instance. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 7, 2020 at 14:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Of course - this being biology there are an infinitude of variables which can influence the rate of adaptation - too many to include in a short post! $\endgroup$
    – user438383
    Aug 7, 2020 at 15:14

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