Recent years have seen a debate over various methods that could objectively prioritize conservation value below the species level. Most prominent among these has been the evolutionarily significant unit (ESU). We reviewed ESU concepts with the aim of proposing a more unified concept that would reconcile opposing views. Like species concepts, conflicting ESU concepts are all essentially aiming to define the same thing: segments of species whose divergence can be measured or evaluated by putting differential emphasis on the role of evolutionary forces at varied temporal scales. Thus, differences between ESU concepts lie more in the criteria used to define the ESUs themselves rather than in their fundamental essence. We provide a context-based framework for delineating ESUs which circumvents much of this situation. Rather than embroil in a befuddled debate over an optimal criterion, the key to a solution is accepting that differing criteria will work more dynamically than others and can be used alone or in combination depending on the situation. These assertions constitute the impetus behind adaptive evolutionary conservation.