Host-parasite relations and random zero-sum games: the stabilizing effect of strategy diversification

J. E. Cohen, C. M. Newman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In many host-parasite relations, the parasite has numerous variants, antigenic strains, or types. The host also has many types of reactions and defenses. A simple phenomenological model shows how evolution by natural selection could explain this diversity, and why the diversity of a host roughly corresponds to the diversity of a parasite. At the level of species diversity of hosts and parasites, the model provides a theoretical basis for Eichler's rule. The model is based on a 2-player (host, parasite), zero-sum game. The model assumes that the elements of the payoff matrix are chosen at random, once and for all, and supposes that the host and parasite contend over changes in the parasite's net rate of reproduction. The model implies that it is to each player's advantage to diversify its strategies if the cost of additional strategies can be neglected. Analysis gives bounds on how quickly each player must diversify, relative to its opponent, to avoid any change in average net rate of reproduction (NRR). Within these bounds, the probability of a substantial change in average NRR for either player tends to zero as both players diversify. When the change in NRR for different strategies is generated by a random mechanism, which on the average does not favor either player, an antagonistic host-parasite relation will either evolve large numbers of parasite and host strategies or else become evolutionarily unstable. It is not necessary to invoke selective effects of multiple species of parasites and multiple species of hosts to explain this diversity of strategies. Even directly opposed interests can be stabilized by sufficient diversification of strategies on both sides. -from Authors

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)533-552
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1989

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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