Altruism is an investment to increase an individual’s chances of survival at the expenses of another and of ourselves

Parental investment (P.I.) is defined as ‘any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring’s chance of surviving (and hence reproductive success) at the cost of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring’. The beauty of Trivers’s parental investment is that it is measured in units very close to the units that really matter.

When a child uses up some of its mother’s milk, the amount of milk consumed is measured not in pints, not in calories, but in units of detriment to other children of the same mother. For instance, if a mother has two babies, X and Y, and X drinks one pint of milk, a major part of the P.I. that this pint represents is measured in units of increased probability that Y will die because he did not drink that pint. P.I. is measured in units of decrease in life expectancy of other children, born or yet to be born.

Parental investment is not quite an ideal measure, because it overemphasizes the importance of parentage, as against other genetic relationships. Ideally we should use a generalized altruism investment measure.

Individual A may be said to invest in individual B, when A increases B’s chance of surviving, at the cost of A’s ability to invest in other individuals including herself, all costs being weighted by the appropriate relatedness. Thus a parent’s investment in any one child should ideally be measured in terms of detriment to life expectancy not only of other children, but also of nephews, nieces, herself, etc.


This is one of the many passages and charts I find in books and articles on a daily basis. They span many disciplines, including:

I occasionally add a personal note to them.

The whole collection is available here.