“To extend the actuarial analogy, individuals can be thought of as life-insurance 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.
But what a complicated calculation to expect a poor survival machine to do, especially in a hurry! Even the great mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane (in a paper of 1955 in which he anticipated Hamilton by postulating the spread of a gene for saving close relatives from drowning) remarked: ‘. . . on the two occasions when I have pulled possibly drowning people out of the water (at an infinitesimal risk to myself) I had no time to make such calculations.’ Fortunately, however, as Haldane well knew, it is not necessary to assume that survival machines do the sums consciously in their heads. Just as we may use a slide rule without appreciating that we are, in effect, using logarithms, so an animal may be pre-programmed in such a way that it behaves as if it had made a complicated calculation.
This is not so difficult to imagine as it appears. When a man throws a ball high in the air and catches it again, he behaves as if he had solved a set of differential equations in predicting the trajectory of the ball. He may neither know nor care what a differential equation is, but this does not affect his skill with the ball. At some subconscious level, something functionally equivalent to the mathematical calculations is going on. Similarly, when a man takes a difficult decision, after weighing up all the pros and cons, and all the consequences of the decision that he can imagine, he is doing the functional equivalent of a large ‘weighted sum’ calculation, such as a computer might perform.”
-Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd Edition, p 95