By Leah Jones, Features Editor


The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that one in nine people, or 795 million people suffered from chronic undernourishment from 2014 to 2016. In 2013, 161 million children under five years old were estimated to have stunted growth due to malnutrition. According to UNICEF, half of all of these children lived in Asia and over one third lived in Africa.

Dr. John R. Butterly, M.D., a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, as well as a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, who teaches and conducts research as a Professor of Medicine at the Dartmouth Institute, spoke to University of Missouri – St. Louis faculty, staff, and students about this intersection of global hunger and race throughout the week. Butterly’s work as both a practicing physician and as an administrator in healthcare delivery programs has led him to the intersection of health, politics, and social injustice, which he addressed in his book “Hunger: The Biology and Politics of Starvation,” as well as in his upcoming book “Global Health and Society.”

Butterly spoke to six classes while he was at UMSL addressing this intersection of health and society, including a visit to an anthropology class, Introduction to Gender Studies, Careers in Medicine, and Gerontology. In addition, he also led a seminar on narrative medicine for a gerontology class on Friday. Between all of these classes, Butterly found the time to give an open lecture in the SGA Chambers from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on April 11, during which he spoke to the audience about how racism affects worldwide health. His visit was funded by a Visiting Scholar’s grant awarded by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Aaron Jones, junior, pre-social work, attended the evening’s lecture after hearing Butterly’s earlier lecture in one of Dr. Susan Brownell’s anthropology courses. “The topic is very interesting…and I have always been interested in the environment and people. That’s why I am [studying] social work.  So, I really don’t know what to expect, but I heard that I was in for a treat,” he said before the event.

Dr. Kathleen Butterly Nigro, associate teaching professor in sociology, gerontology, and gender, and director of gender studies at UMSL, introduced Butterly, who is her brother. However, she said that he is more than just her brother. “He is my hero, because of his abiding commitment to social justice and I think that you will hear that tonight,” she said.

The lecture entitled “Race, Racism, and Global Health: An Unexplained Variable in the Health (And Wealth) of Human Populations,” was sponsored by the department of sociology, gerontology, and gender, and demonstrated this abiding commitment to social justice. Butterly built his argument through research on the behavioral aspects of intra-species aggression. He cited Konrad Lorenz’s book, “On Aggression,” which posits that the stronger the social bond within a species, the more likely animals within that species are to commit violent acts against each other. Though this intra-species violence serves basic evolutionary functions within these groups, animals with strong social bonds, such as humans, must balance that tendency toward intra-species aggression with the competing evolutionary impetus to procreate. This, according to Butterly, engenders an “Us versus Them” mentality, which can be used to justify hurting others or hoarding resources for one’s own group. For these differences to justify violent racist practices, Butterly says that these differences must be seen as innate and inherited, unchangeable, and unbridgeable.

Next, Butterly examined whether race is a biological or social construct. “[I am going to] bring you through a genetic argument about whether or not there is such a thing as a biological race difference. I think it’s important to use the genetic evidence because that is really where the science is,” Butterly explained.

Though his argument was based in scientific research, true to interdisciplinary form, Butterly began his line of logic in Western theological traditions, which he said informs thought and discourse around topics such as race in the Western world, whether or not one believes that the religious tradition has any basis in reality.  He began by explaining the difference between genesis, the theory that all humans evolved from a common ancestor, and polygenesis, the theory that modern-day humans evolved from many different ancient people. If humans evolved from different ancestors, Butterly said, then humans could be subdivided into subspecies. “Once you say that, you begin that ‘Us Versus Them’ dichotomy,” Butterly explained. “And if you are going to believe that, then you [justify] eugenics, which is selective breeding, that actually started in the United States prior to Nazism. [You can justify] oppression and segregation, and eventually… genocide, because if these are different races, then they are not human and then we are able to oppress them.”

He then went on to give an historical example of this theory of polygenesis at work.  Carolus Linnaeus, who developed the biological system of classification which we still use today, and his followers, further divided the species of homo sapiens into four subspecies: americanus, asiaticus, africanus, and europeanus. He defined these subspecies not only by their phenotypical presentation, but also by behavioral characteristics as well, ascribing homo sapiens americanus with the distinctive feature of “paints himself with red lines.” By contrast, early classification systems of humans described Homo sapiens europeanus as being “governed by laws.”

“Just a little self-serving,” Butterly remarked.  He went on to explain how the theory of polygenesis justified this otherness and these racist classifications.  According to Butterly, it is therefore important to understand whether or not humans are of the same or different origins. If they are of the same origin, then the logic behind the otherness becomes null and void.

The earliest Homo erectus remains, which dated back to 3.7 million years ago, were discovered in Africa. Homo erectus dispersed from Africa throughout the world sometime after this. However, modern day humans have evolved into Homo sapiens. The question for early anthropologists therefore centered around whether or not the homo erectus living in Africa later evolved into the Homo sapiens of today. If they did, then humans all have a single origin and are of the same species, Butterly reasoned. If they did not, then humans living in Africa and humans living in Europe would be two separate species.

As it turns out though, Butterly studied under just the man to address this question. Dr. Allan Wilson, late professor of biochemistry at the University of California-Berkley, and Butterly’s graduate mentor, developed a method to measure evolutionary rates through mitochondrial DNA. Through his groundbreaking work, Wilson posited the African Eve Hypothesis, which claims that all humans descended from a single African woman who lived 200,000 years ago.

If this is the case, then Butterly says that we are all the same species, and race is a social construct used to justify violent racist practices, including the unequal distribution of food. “A large part of [global hunger] has to do with racism,” Butterly concluded.

In Butterly’s earlier lecture in Jones’ anthropology class, he addressed the biological effects of hunger, global nutrition, and how many people die worldwide from lack of food. Jones said that he learned a lot from the earlier lecture, and hoped to learn just as much from the second lecture. “I’m not a traditional student, so I am having a great time being back in school. I am learning a lot, so this is going to be very educational for me. Who knows? It might benefit me later on down the road,” he said.

While Butterly’s work may benefit Jones later on down the road, Butterly hopes that the work will benefit the rest of the world by undermining the othering and racist ideologies that underlie global hunger later on down the road as well.