In the early 1960s, a physician named Stewart Wolf heard about a town of Italian immigrants and their descendants in northeast Pennsylvania where heart disease was practically unknown. Wolf decided to take a closer look at the town, Roseto. He found that almost no one under the age of fifty-five showed symptoms of heart disease. Men over sixty-five suffered about half the number of heart problems expected of average Americans. The overall death rate in Roseto was about one-third below the national averages.
After concluding research that carefully excluded factors such as exercise, diet, and regional variables like pollution levels, Wolf and sociologist John Bruhn concluded that the major factor keeping folks in Roseto healthier longer was the nature of the community itself. They noted that most households held three generations, that older folks commanded great respect, and that the community disdained any display of wealth, showing a “fear of ostentation derived from an ancient belief among Italian villagers relating to maloccio (the evil eye). Children,” Wolf wrote, “were taught that any display of wealth or superiority over a neighbor would bring bad luck.”
Noting that Roseto’s egalitarian social bonds were already breaking down in the mid-1960s, Wolf and Bruhn predicted that within a generation, the town’s mortality rates would start to shift upward. In follow-up studies they conducted 25 years later, they reported, “The most striking social change was a widespread rejection of a long standing taboo against ostentation,” and that “sharing, once typical of Roseto, had given way to competition.” Rates of both heart disease and stroke had doubled in a generation.
Among foragers, where property is shared , poverty tends to be a non-issue. In his classic book Stone Age Economics, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains that “the world’s most primative people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.” Socrates made the same point 2,400 years ago: “He is richest who is content with least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”
Sex at Dawn
Ryan and Jethá 2010