What are the main objections to answering Yali's question that are given in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are three main objections to answering Yali's question that Diamond addresses in the Prologue to the book.   They are:

  • The idea that answering the question justifies the dominance that Yali is asking about.  By studying why Europeans have come to dominate, we are (the argument goes) justifying this outcome and preventing it from being changed. 
  • The idea that answering this glorifies Europeans.  By answering Yali's question, we focus on Europeans and make them seem better than everyone else.
  • The idea that this makes value judgements.  By answering the question, we imply that civilization is good and that hunter-gatherer societies are backwards and bad.

These are the objections that Diamond presents and dismisses in the Prologue.

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Diamond's Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel lists three possible objections to trying to find an answer to Yali's question about why Europeans have so much more "cargo" than the indigenous populations of Papua New Guinea. 

One objection is that by answering the question Diamond might appear to be supporting a value system that judges the worth of a culture by its material goods and technologies rather than by other value systems such as the way it treats its poor or the strength of its kinship networks.

Another issue is that answering this in a sense reinforces a version of "Whig history" in which we see the past as leading to a future defined by European supremacy and thus exalt one specific mode of cultural formation.

Finally, although Diamond is careful to avoid this, answering the question might lead to a form of racism. 

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caledon's profile pic

caledon | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I should note that there are widespread objections to some aspects of Diamond's work from the anthropological community, largely due to his cherry-picking style of evidence, and of railroading the reader, as demonstrated in these considerations of Yali's question.

Yali is a native New Guinean politician who encounters Diamond in the prologue. Yali's question is an articulation of the difference between "white" and "non-white" cultures; why do the whites produce so many things and bring them to New Guinea, while the natives have very little of their own? Diamond believes that this effectively sums up the theme of the book.

The first objection is the idea that explaining European dominance will justify it, essentially by showing that it was inevitable. Diamond believes that this stems from a false correlation that is not actually being argued for.

The second objection is that this explanation will necessarily be Eurocentric, and therefore biased in favor of the outcome. Diamond states that societies other than European ones will be prominent throughout the book.

Third, Diamond believes that merely using words like "civilization" will weight our opinions in favor of the Europeans, because we normally come to think of civilization as good, and opposed to "savage" cultures that do not share specific traits that we have come to equate with civilization. 

Personally, I find it interesting that Diamond's listed objectives are primarily rooted in social anthropology and give little consideration for contentious empirical issues, such as the exact times at which humans colonized the various parts of the earth, or the reasons for the extinctions of the Pleistocene megafauna on every continent. In short, Diamond is more concerned with why and how we're asking the question rather than whether we have enough solid evidence to come to a conclusion at all. 

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