The Stone Age: nasty, brutish and short — maybe not!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2009

The words of Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher, are often taken out of context. In his book on political theory, Leviathan, Hobbes wasn't referring to prehistoric humans. His opinion was that without some form of government the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" because of our warlike predisposition.

It may be true that the average Stone-Ager wouldn't have lived long enough to collect Social Security benefits. But when Congress approved the measure less than 75 years ago, the average American wouldn't either! Until early in the 20th century life expectancy in the United States was only about 40 years, not much longer than that of those who lived tens of thousands of years earlier. By 1935 it had only risen to about 62.

We place such a high premium on living longer that we ignore the fact that the majority of elderly persons suffer from several chronic illnesses that simply did not exist only a few years ago — and not because people didn't live long enough. Coronary heart disease, occlusive stroke and type 2 diabetes are the leading causes of death among certain ethnic groups in the United States. Their genetically identical relatives who maintain their traditional lifestyle, notably in Africa, Polynesia and Asia, are free of these diseases, even the 20 percent or so that make it beyond the age of 60 years.

The terms poor, nasty and brutish, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder. Modern hunter-gatherers do not feel impoverished but consider possessions a burden. Depression is rare among them, even those that have been pushed to the inhospitable fringes of their environment. Contrast that with the fact that antidepressant medications are among the most frequently prescribed in our society, the most prosperous in history.

Perhaps the risk of living in a home with a dirt floor or having no heated running water is not as great as one would think. In the era before the wondrous vaccine of Jonas Salk, the children of affluent families were more likely to acquire polio than their neighbors across the tracks. Living with certain parasites may actually protect us from certain autoimmune diseases and our super-clean kids have twice the risk of asthma than their parents did.

Don't expect me to give up my hot shower, my microwave oven or my laptop just yet but life without them probably wouldn't be as nasty as we think.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.