• Adaptation;
  • coevolution;
  • epidemiology;
  • Fisher's fundamental theorem;
  • host-parasite

The mean fitness of a population, often equal to its growth rate, measures its level of adaptation to particular environmental conditions. A better understanding of the evolution of mean fitness could thus provide a natural link between evolution and demography. Yet, after the seminal work of Fisher and its renowned “fundamental theorem of natural selection,” the dynamics of mean fitness has attracted little attention, and mostly from theoretical population geneticists. Here we analyze the dynamics of mean fitness in the context of host-parasite interactions. We illustrate the potential relevance of this analysis under different scenarios ranging from a simple situation in which a parasite evolves in a homogeneous host population to a more complex one with host-parasite coevolution. In each case, we contrast the effects of natural selection, recurrent mutations, and the change of the biotic environment, on the dynamics of adaptation. Decoupling these three components helps elucidate the interplay between evolutionary and ecological dynamics. In particular, it offers new perspectives on situations leading to evolutionary suicide. As mean fitness is an easily measurable quantity in microbial systems, this analysis provides new ways to track the dynamics of adaptation in experimental evolution and coevolution studies.