Another error in the traditional view is the assumption that evo- lution is a slow process not only on a time scale of generations, but also in absolute time. Such a belief arises from a failure to appreciate the capacity for rapid evolution of any parasite that will go through hundreds or thousands of generations in one host’s lifetime. If the
virulence of the amoeba that causes dysentery is too low or too high for maximizing its fitness, the virulence can be expected to evolve quickly toward whatever level is currently ideal. We should not expect the present virulence of any pathogen to be in transit from one level to another unless conditions have changed recently. By “recently,” we mean last week or last month, not the last ice age, which is what an evolutionary biologist often means by “recently.”
Yet another flaw in the conventional wisdom is its neglect of selec- tion among different parasites within hosts, as we just implied in our discussion of HIV. What good would it do a liver fluke to restrain itself so as not to harm the host if that host is about to die of shigel- losis? The fluke and the Shigella are competing for the same pool of resources within the host, and the one that most ruthlessly exploits that pool will be the winner. Likewise, if there is more than one Shigella strain, the one that most effectively converts the host’s resources to its own use will disperse the most progeny before the host dies. As a rule, all else being equal, such within-host selection favors increased virulence, while between-host selection acts to decrease it. A recent comparative study of eleven species of fig wasps and their parasites confirmed that increased opportunities for parasite trans- mission are associated with increased parasite virulence.
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