Parasitic exploitation occurs within and between a wide variety of taxa in a plethora of diverse contexts. Theoretical and empirical analyses indicate that parasitic exploitation can generate substantial genetic and phenotypic polymorphism within species. Under some circumstances, parasitic exploitation may also be an important factor causing reproductive isolation and promoting speciation. Here we review research relevant to the relationship between parasitic exploitation, within species-polymorphism, and speciation in some of the major arenas in which such exploitation has been studied. This includes research on the vertebrate major histocompatibility loci, plant-pathogen interactions, the evolution of sexual reproduction, intragenomic conflict, sexual conflict, kin mimicry and social parasitism, tropical forest diversity and the evolution of language. We conclude by discussing some of the issues raised by comparing the effect of parasitic exploitation on polymorphism and speciation in different contexts. © Cambridge Philosophical Society.