The Actuarial Math of Altruism

I have talked in elemental terms of suicidal genes for saving the lives of particular numbers of kin of exactly known relatedness. Obviously, in real life, animals cannot be expected to count exactly how many relatives they are saving, nor to perform Hamilton's calculations in their heads even if they had some way of knowing exactly who their brothers and cousins were. In real life, certain suicide and absolute 'saving' of life must be replaced by statistical risks of death, one's own and other people's. Even a third cousin may be worth saving, if the risk to yourself is very small. Then again, both you and the relative you are thinking of saving are going to die one day in any case. Every individual has an 'expectation of life' which an actuary could calculate with a certain probability of error. To save the life of a relative who is soon going to die of old age has less of an impact on the gene pool of the future than to save the life of an equally close relative who has the bulk of his life ahead of him.

Our neat symmetrical calculations of relatedness have to be modified by messy actuarial weightings. Grandparents and grandchildren have, genetically speaking, equal reason to behave altruistically to each other, since they share 1/4 of each other's genes. But if the grandchildren have the greater expectation of life, genes for grandparent to grandchild altruism have a higher selective advantage than genes for grandchild to grandparent altruism. It is quite possible for the net benefit of assisting a young distant relative to exceed the net benefit of assisting an old close relative. (Incidentally, it is not, of course, necessarily the case that grandparents have a shorter expectation of life than grandchildren. In species with a high infant-mortality rate, the reverse may be true.)

To extend the actuarial analogy, individuals can be thought of as lifeinsurance underwriters. An individual can be expected to invest or risk a certain proportion of his own assets in the life of another individual. He takes into account his relatedness to the other individual, and also whether the individual is a 'good risk' in terms of his life expectancy compared with the insurer's own. Strictly we should say 'reproduction expectancy' rather than 'life expectancy', or to be even more strict, 'general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy'. Then in order for altruistic behaviour to evolve, the net risk to the altruist must be less than the net benefit to the recipient multiplied by the relatedness. Risks and benefits have to be calculated in the complex actuarial way I have outlined.


It's not just intra-species, but the closer the relative the more altruism. Also the potential to reproduce affects the relationship as well.

Folksonomies: evolution altruism hamilton

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 The Selfish Gene - First Edition
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins , Richad (1976), The Selfish Gene - First Edition, Oxford, Retrieved on 2007-01-09