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African Genocide: The Horror of Scientific Racism

John G. West

As Americans and Europeans continue to grapple with the legacies of racism, they might want to explore the key role played by scientific racism in the justification of Western imperialism during  the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

One especially horrific example is the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in German Southwest Africa (modern Namibia).  From 1904-08, Germany’s “Second Reich” exterminated the Herero in particular in the name of Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” 

Decisions by Algorithm

In 2013, I included the story of the Namibian genocide as part of my award-winning documentary The Biology of the Second Reich, which examined the impact of Darwinism on German ideology leading up to the First World War. After receiving nearly 90,000 views on YouTube, the documentary was effectively shut down by YouTube through the imposition of an “age restriction.” This meant that after late 2018, only adults logging into YouTube were allowed to see it. I appealed the age restriction, but YouTube is the land of faceless decisions by algorithms, and the repeal was summarily rejected without any personal interaction. 

My documentary did include historical photos that were disturbing, especially some of the photos from World War I. But a quick search of YouTube at the time turned up many videos that employed far more graphic historical visuals without being “age restricted.” 

I considered trying to protest YouTube’s double standard, especially since YouTube was effectively censoring a story about scientific racism and African genocide, but I decided that YouTube probably would be impervious to further complaints, and so I dropped the matter.

A few days ago, I decided it might be time to re-edit my video:

Given current discussions over the history of racism, my documentary seems especially relevant right now. Scientific racism is certainly not the only form of racism in history. For example, many Christians in history used a distorted reading of the Bible to promote racism, despite the Bible’s clear teaching that all humans are created in the image of God and are ultimately part of the same human family. Nevertheless, in my encounters over the years with scientists and students and others, far more people seem to know about religious racism than scientific racism. 

Forgotten History

In fact, the grim history of scientific racism — especially scientific racism fueled by Darwinian ideology — seems to be largely forgotten, at least in the white community.  

In my experience, scientists tend to blame racism on everyone else — politicians, preachers, the unwashed masses, pop culture. They don’t want to acknowledge the scientific community’s own culpability in spreading racist ideas. 

But in our current cultural moment, it may finally be time to tell the story of Darwinian racism. I’ve removed some (but not all) of the disturbing imagery from the original film, and I’ve made it shorter. I hope it now passes YouTube’s censorship and more people will be able to see it for the first time. My documentary only tells one part of the story of racism, and it also only tells a part of the story of the influence of Social Darwinism on Western imperialism, which certainly extended to other nations besides Germany. Yet I hope my revised film will add something to the current conversation.