In Yali's Question, Errington and Gewertz think that Diamond misunderstood what New Guineans really wanted from Westerners when he interpreted the meaning of Yali's question. In Guns, Germs, and...

In Yali's Question, Errington and Gewertz think that Diamond misunderstood what New Guineans really wanted from Westerners when he interpreted the meaning of Yali's question. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what did Diamond think Yali's question about cargo meant, and what do Errington and Gewertz think that Yali really meant?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz, Jared Diamond misunderstood Yali's question when he interpreted it to be a question about technology and goods, because they believe it was a question about relationships and social structure.

Yali's original question to Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel is a simple one. He asks: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

Diamond later reframes this question, saying:

Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

This can help elucidate exactly how he interpreted Yali's question. He saw it as a discussion of the lack of equality in the world and a question of why development occurred at such different rates in different places. They were discussing the fast-paced political changes occurring in New Guinea at the time the question was posed.

In Yali's QuestionSugar, Culture, and History, Errington and Gewertz have a different perspective on what, exactly, Yali was asking Diamond. They say that he did "not understand that Yali really was asking less about cargo per se than about colonial relationships between white and black people." They posit that this misinterpretation creates a fundamental flaw in Diamond's presentation of the situation.

Errington and Gewertz explain that what the New Guineans really wanted was "to compel the Europeans to recognize mutual humanness." They argue that the desire to obtain cargo stemmed from this desire. The people of New Guinea saw that the Europeans valued cargo and therefore sought to obtain cargo to win respect by "possessing what Europeans so obviously valued."

They explain that many people in New Guinea were focused on the fact that Europeans didn't want to see them as fully human. This lack of equality kept them from being fully able to be active in their own history and politics. By obtaining cargo, they believed that they could become "interesting and socially significant (exchange worthy) to the Europeans."

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Diamond says that he was inspired to write Guns, Germs, and Steel by a question that was asked to him by Yali, a New Guinean leader.  On p. 14 of the paperback edition of the book, Diamond tells us that Yali asked him

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

To Diamond, this is a question about why some societies became rich and powerful while others did not.  He believes that Yali is asking why the white people who came to New Guinea were able to have a society that could have so many material goods while the people of New Guinea were not able to do so.  He writes Guns, Germs, and Steel as an attempt to answer that question.

Errington and Gewertz, by contrast, understand Yali in a different way.  They say that Yali was not asking about material goods.  They say, instead, that he was asking why white people treated New Guineans so badly.  On p. 25 of their book, they say that

…Diamond does not understand that Yali really was asking less about cargo per se than about colonial relationships between white and black people…

Errington and Gewertz, then, think that Yali was asking about the way Europeans behaved while Diamond thinks he was asking about the goods that they possessed.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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