Under what conditions might organisms be capable of rapid adaptive evolution? We reviewed published studies documenting contemporary adaptations in natural populations and looked for general patterns in the population ecological causes. We found that studies of contemporary adaptation fall into two general settings: (1) colonization of new environments that established newly adapted populations, and (2) local adaptations within the context of a heterogeneous environments and metapopulation structure. Local ecological processes associated with colonizations and introductions included exposure to: (1) a novel host or food resource; (2) a new biophysical environment; (3) a new predator community; and (4) a new coexisting competitor. The new environments that were colonized often had depauperate communities, sometimes because of anthropogenic disturbance. Local adaptation in heterogeneous environments was also often associated with recent anthropogenic changes, such as insecticide and herbicide resistance, or industrial melanism. A common feature of many examples is the combination of directional selection with at least a short-term opportunity for population growth. We suggest that such opportunities for population growth may be a key factor that promotes rapid evolution, since directional selection might otherwise be expected to cause population decline and create the potential for local extinction, which is an ever-present alternative to local adaptation. We also address the large discrepancy between the rate of evolution observed in contemporary studies and the apparent rate of evolution seen in the fossil record.