The Greek physician Galen (AD 130-201) is remembered for his discovery of the function of the pulse and his voluminous writings on medical subjects. The American scholar Bernard Lewis has noted that Galen made some observations on the characteristics of different peoples, which were recorded by the Arabic scholar Al-Masudi (d. 956 AD). According to this source, Galen described sub-Saharan Africans as having “black skin, frizzy hair, a flat nose, thick lips, great merriment, weakness of intelligence, and a long penis.” Reportedly, “Galen says that merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence.”
Galen’s observations were remarkably accurate. They appear to be the first recorded statement of the low intelligence of blacks, which was likewise noted by Sir Francis Galton in his book Hereditary Genius (1869), and has been confirmed in numerous studies carried out during the last 90 years in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Galen also appears to have been the first to note that black men typically have large penises. This has been confirmed by Prof. Phil Rushton, who records that blacks generally have larger organs than Europeans and Asians. Race differences in testosterone and androgen, the male sex hormones, are responsible for penis size, and also account for the stronger sex drive and greater aggressiveness of blacks, as well as their high rates of prostate cancer.
Galen’s observation that blacks are characterized by great merriment has received less attention, but has been confirmed by studies showing that blacks suffer less from depression than whites, but more from mania. Mania is a psychotic condition characterized by a powerful sense of euphoria, including cracking jokes and laughing uproariously at them or, as Galen put it, “great merriment.” Depression and mania are opposites, and were conceptualized by the German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer (1888-1964) as lying at the opposite poles of a continuously distributed dimension of personality. The low prevalence of depression and higher prevalence of mania in Africans was noted in a 1953 publication for the World Health Organization by Dr. John Carothers, a medical officer at the mental hospital in Nairobi. He recorded that among 1,508 African patients admitted during the years 1939-48, only 24 suffered from depression, amounting to 1.6 per cent of admissions. He contrasted this with the 22 per cent of European patients admitted to the same hospital for depression. He wrote that “there is no doubt that classical psychotic depression of any type is relatively rare in the African.”
Dr. Carothers attributed the low rate of depression in Africans to their relatively poor “sense of responsibility for one’s past and of retribution that must follow for one’s sins.” He cited the experiences of a number of other European physicians who had noted the low prevalence of depression in Africans. On the other hand, he noted that “all writers are agreed that mania, in all its standard forms, occurs not uncommonly in Africans . . . [and] whenever separate figures are given for manic and depressive forms of affective psychosis, it seems that the majority are manias.”
A symptom of mania that occurs from time to time in Africans is “running amok,” described by Dr. Carothers as “a man quite suddenly seizing a machete or a tommy-gun or a rifle and rushing around slaying all he meets. It would appear that running amok is a symptom common to acute mania, katatonic [sic] schizophrenia, epilepsy, psychopathic personality and possibly other conditions such as cerebral malaria.”
The low prevalence of depression and higher prevalence of mania among blacks has been observed in the United States. In 1991 Drs. Lee Robins and Darrell Regier reported a large-scale survey that gave life-time prevalence rates for major depression and mania for blacks, whites and Hispanics. The life-time prevalence rates for major depression were significantly higher for whites (6.6 percent) than for blacks (4.5 percent), while the rate for Hispanics was intermediate at 5.6 percent. The life-time prevalence rates for mania were significantly higher for blacks at 0.1 percent, compared to 0.08 percent for whites, and 0.07 percent for Hispanics.
These differences were confirmed in 2007 by the American psychiatrist Dr. D. R. Williams and his colleagues in a report of a large-scale survey in which life-time major depression prevalence rates were significantly higher for whites (17.9 percent) than for blacks (10.4 percent). They also reported the rate for Caribbean black immigrants as 12.9 percent. Probably the reason that the rate for Caribbean black immigrants is a little higher than the rate for American blacks is that immigrants may experience greater stress in adjusting to life in a new country and this can cause depression. Despite this they have a significantly lower prevalence rate for major depression than American whites, who typically have less reason to be depressed.
Consistent with blacks’ higher prevalence of mania, they score higher than whites on the hypomania scale of standard personality tests, such as the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). Hypomania is a form of mania, though without the psychotic elements of delusions or hallucinations.
The rarity of depression among blacks is probably related to their very high levels of self-esteem. Compared to whites, blacks are consistently more likely to agree with statements such as “I am an important person;” “If given the chance I would make a good leader of people;” and “I am entirely self-confident.”
The low prevalence of depression among blacks is reflected in their lower rates of suicide, compared with Europeans and East Asians. Many of those who commit suicide are severely depressed, so it is not surprising that suicide is “a white thing,” according to black folklore. Prof. David Lester has shown that in the United States the suicide rate of blacks is approximately half that of whites, and this has also been found in Britain and South Africa.
Why should blacks experience less depression than whites? Probably this is a by-product of their higher levels of testosterone. It has been shown in numerous studies that low testosterone levels are associated with major depression. This also explains why women are about twice as prone to depression as men.
John C. Carothers. The African Mind in Health & Diseases. Geneva: WHO, 1953.
David Lester. African American Suicide in Modern Times. New York: Nova Science, 1994.
Bernard Lewis. Race and Color in Islam. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
L.E Robins & D.A. Regier. Psychiatric Disorders in America. New York: Free Press, 1991.
Williams, D.R., Gonzalez, H.M., Neighbors, H. et al. (2007). Prevalence and distribution of major depressive disorder in African Americans, Caribbean blacks, and non-Hispanic whites – results from the National Survey of American Life. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 305-317.