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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond
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What are three considerations Diamond discusses as he ponders Yali’s question in Guns, Germs and Steel?

The three considerations Diamond discusses as he ponders Yali's question in Guns, Germs and Steel are: 1) Explaining why Europe became more advanced than other areas tends to confirm the notion that Europe is superior; 2) Framing the question in this way contributes to a Eurocentric view of human development; and 3) The question assumes that the natural progression of human history is towards "civilization" and that being "civilized" is better than being "primitive."

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Yali's question is essentially "Why did white Europeans become so much more powerful than other peoples?" Diamond rephrases this question by asking "why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?" He posits three potential objections to considering this question:

  • Explaining why Europe became more advanced than...

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Yali's question is essentially "Why did white Europeans become so much more powerful than other peoples?" Diamond rephrases this question by asking "why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?" He posits three potential objections to considering this question:

  • Explaining why Europe became more advanced than other areas tends to confirm the notion that Europe is superior.
  • Framing the question in this way contributes to a Eurocentric view of human development.
  • The question assumes that the natural progression of human history is towards "civilization" and that being "civilized" is better than being "primitive."

Diamond's ultimate concern in answering Yali's question has to do with its potentially racist assumptions. He argues in his prologue that white people are not "smarter" than other races and that the Europe's ability to conquer other civilizations in the 1500s had more to do with the chance combination of geographic, biological, and technological factors.

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In the Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts that Yali, a New Guinean leader, had asked him: "why is it that you white people brought so much cargo [to New Guinea], but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Diamond states that in his own experience, people of all races and cultures were equally intelligent and hard-working, and thus the book would be a search for some other sort of factor that might explain the uneven distribution of wealth and power.

There are three considerations or pitfalls Diamond wanted to avoid in his analysis of the problem:

  • He wanted to avoid justifying the dominance of Western European civilization. He was especially concerned not to fall into the pattern of the late nineteenth-century Darwinists who saw European dominance as evidence of Europeans as being more highly evolved.
  • Diamond wished to avoid a Eurocentric approach which focused on the success of Europeans as the main narrative of global history.
  • He wanted to avoid an account which privileged complex technological civilization and treated it as somehow better than other types of culture.
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The answer to this question can be found in the Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel. In it, Diamond says that Yali, a New Guinean leader, once asked him why it was that "white people developed so much cargo [material goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own" (13). This leads Diamond to the salient question of the book:

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 (15)?

Diamond, in short, is seeking to understand why world history progressed as it did, and as a biologist, he will look deeper than cultural, economic, and political considerations, which, he tells the reader, have preoccupied historians. But he mentions three considerations, or "objections," as he terms them. They are paraphrased as follows:

  1. By explaining the dominance of some people over others, are we running the risk of justifying their actions? He dismisses this concern by saying that understanding the origins of something is not the same as justifying or accepting the human actions involved.
  2. Does investigating the origins of European dominance necessarily involve a "Eurocentric" approach to history? Diamond argues that his approach leads to the opposite conclusion of approaches that glorify European cultural and technological achievements.
  3. Is the study of "civilization" based on the assumption that societies and people with advanced technology are necessarily superior to hunter-gatherer societies, for example? Diamond assures the reader that this is not his suggestion, saying that the "so-called blessings of civilization" are mixed, at best.

So, in short, Diamond says that Guns, Germs, and Steel is, if anything, geared toward addressing the kinds of concerns he raises. It is in no way intended to justify European culture or the ways in which it spread around the world.

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