Organisms face a succession of environmental challenges as they grow, and show adaptive plasticity as traits develop in response to the imposed conditions. This gives them resilience to varying environments.
Adaptation is an observable fact of life accepted by philosophers and natural historians from ancient times, independently of their views on evolution, but their explanations differed. Empedocles did not believe that adaptation required a final cause (~ purpose), but thought that it "came about naturally, since such things survived." Aristotle did believe in final causes, but assumed that species were fixed.
In natural theology, adaptation was interpreted as the work of a deity and as evidence for the existence of God. William Paley believed that organisms were perfectly adapted to the lives they led, an argument that shadowed Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who had argued that God had brought about "the best of all possible worlds." Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss is a parody of this optimistic idea, and David Hume also argued against design. The Bridgewater Treatises are a product of natural theology, though some of the authors managed to present their work in a fairly neutral manner. The series was lampooned by Robert Knox, who held quasi-evolutionary views, as the Bilgewater Treatises. Charles Darwin broke with the tradition by emphasising the flaws and limitations which occurred in the animal and plant worlds.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed a tendency for organisms to become more complex, moving up a ladder of progress, plus "the influence of circumstances," usually expressed as use and disuse. This second, subsidiary element of his theory is what is now called Lamarckism, a proto-evolutionary hypothesis of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, intended to explain adaptations by natural means.
Other natural historians, such as Buffon, accepted adaptation, and some also accepted evolution, without voicing their opinions as to the mechanism. This illustrates the real merit of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and secondary figures such as Henry Walter Bates, for putting forward a mechanism whose significance had only been glimpsed previously. A century later, experimental field studies and breeding experiments by people such as E. B. Ford and Theodosius Dobzhansky produced evidence that natural selection was not only the 'engine' behind adaptation, but was a much stronger force than had previously been thought.