The capacity to adapt is a critical element of the process of adaptation: it is the vector of resources that represent the asset base from which adaptation actions can be made. Adaptive capacity can in theory be identified and measured at various scales, from the individual to the nation. The assessment of uncertainty within such measures comes from the contested knowledge domain and theories surrounding the nature of the determinants of adaptive capacity and the human action of adaptation. While generic adaptive capacity at the national level, for example, is often postulated as being dependent on health, governance and political rights, and literacy, and economic well-being, the determinants of these variables at national levels are not widely understood. We outline the nature of this uncertainty for the major elements of adaptive capacity and illustrate these issues with the example of a social vulnerability index for countries in Africa.