What question is Jared Diamond trying to answer in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Diamond begins his book by describing a question posed to him long ago by Yali, a New Guinea politician he met while doing field work in that country. The question that he asked, according to Diamond, was:

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [i.e. goods and technology] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

Yali's question is central to Diamond's book. Put another way, he wants to explore how it was that societies around the world developed technology and other aspects of civilization ("guns, germs, and steel") that made it posible for them to dominate other societies. Why did, as he asks later in the book, Pizarro arrive to conquer the Inca and not the other way around? Diamond's main goal is to show that these inequalities developed primarily due to geographic variations that made certain regions more suitable for agriculture than others. It was not, in other words, cultural or, more insidiously, racial superiority that allowed Europeans to dominate the world for so long.

Source: Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 14.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond begins with a personal anecdote. Diamond is an American scientist with degrees in anthropology and biology who is very interested in how geography and ecology interact with human culture. When on a research trip to Papua New Guinea to study birds, he becomes acquainted with Yali, an important local figure who had served as a soldier and politician and was a follower of the traditional "cargo cults," a religion which is grounded in a notion that a return to traditional moral and cultural behavior will result in a quasi-miraculous appearance of "cargo" or material wealth. Yali asked Diamond:

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo. . . but we black people had little cargo of our own?

The book is an attempt to answer this question. Diamond argues that the people he has met in his travels are just as intelligent and hardworking as Europeans and that the differences in technology and prosperity are due to geological and ecological ultimate causes, rather than racial or cultural characteristics. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this book, Diamond is trying to answer “Yali’s Question.”  Yali was a native of Papua New Guinea who became friendly with Diamond.  At one point, Yali asked Diamond

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?

When Yali talked about “cargo” he meant material goods.  He was asking why the white people had so much technology and so many material goods while Yali’s own people did not.  This is the basis of the question that Diamond is trying to answer.

The more expanded version of the question is “why were Europeans so much more powerful than other people in the world by the 18th or 19th century?”  Diamond says that people tend to argue that this was because Europeans were racially or culturally better than other kinds of people.  However, Diamond disagrees.  His main thesis in this book is that Europeans came to be richer and more powerful simply because of luck.  They were lucky in terms of their geography and that luck allowed them to become dominant.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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