Are we hardwired for allowing poverty and hunger to persist?

by Julien Carriere

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By John R. Butterly and Jack Shepherd
Published by Dartmouth College Press, $29.95

Recently I reviewed the Atlas of World Hunger (NCR, Sept. 29). This book gets down to that same issue from a different perspective and asks the provocative question, “Are we hardwired to let others starve?”

How else can we explain chronic hunger, the leading cause of death worldwide, responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths every year in a world of plenty?

This new look at hunger examines politics and biology in the context of evolution to determine what role they play in world famine. Three principal case studies inform the investigation: Ethiopia (1973-74 and 1982-86), Ireland (1845-50) and Malawi (2001-2002).

Butterly and Shepherd frame their study around an exhaustive social science and biological investigation. They believe that the details of macronutrient and micronutrient nutrition, how our bodies transform food into energy, are critical to understanding how chronic hunger affects the poor. From the physical pain of hunger to the eventual mental toll, the authors track the progression of severe malnutrition that leaves its victims vulnerable to opportunistic diseases.

Some readers may be surprised to discover that very few people die directly of starvation. Rather, it is preventable, usually minor illnesses like diarrhea to which their weakened bodies often succumb.

The political perspective is preceded by a fascinating discussion of evidence that indicates our minds have been shaped by the same evolutionary forces as our bodies. The authors argue convincingly that the seemingly opposite behaviors of aggression and bond-forming (or love) are two sides of the same coin that evolved together as successful survival strategies long before the dawn of civilization. Humans are able to cooperate and protect one another from the dangers of the world and other humans as long as we can differentiate “us” from “them.”

While this was certainly a successful strategy millennia ago, the authors argue that just as our technology has advanced to the point that we have essentially reversed Darwinism -- we modify our environment to meet our own needs and not the other way around -- our capacity for moral behavior has also advanced beyond the need for a dichotomy based on the “other.” What emerges from this study is the compelling argument that our biological processes are inextricably linked with our social and political behavior. This perspective, the authors argue, can help us answer the question, “Why does hunger persist despite advances in technology and the combined efforts of so many people and organizations worldwide?”

We formally recognized an obligation to fight world hunger more than 60 years ago with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Since then, modern farming techniques that make use of irrigation, crop rotation and advanced implements have dramatically increased agricultural production. Today, satellites, global positioning systems and the internet tell us with great precision what areas of the planet suffer drought and are at risk of crop failure. We have the shipping capacity to move armies around the world at a moment’s notice. And yet, in spite of knowing where there is famine, having surplus food and the means to deliver it, we still have not solved the problem of world hunger.

On the contrary, the problem is getting worse. Could it be that we are attempting to solve a moral problem with technological solutions?

Butterly and Shepherd point the way forward by challenging readers to break the pattern and acceptance of world hunger that afflicts the bottom 2 billion. Food security and self-sufficiency, improved education, and the spread of democracy are all worthy goals. Tighter controls on conventional weapons sales to developing countries along with regional cooperation and a reappraisal of the concept of “aid” that takes into account the legacy of colonialism are likewise effective ways to combat famine. In the end a very simple yet fundamental question remains: “Will poverty and disease persist because we cannot prevent them or because we will not prevent them?”

[Julien Carriere is assistant professor of French and Italian at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.]

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