What was Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond?

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In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond argues that some civilizations acquired technology and power more rapidly than others not because of any inherent genetic superiority but rather due to their geographical locations and other environmental factors. As Diamond explains in the book's prologue called "Yali's Question," the inspiration for the book came from a question posed to him during an hour-long walk in New Guinea with a local politician named Yali.

At the time, Diamond was working as a biologist and studying the evolution of birds. They talked about birds and then about New Guinean politics. Yali eventually posed the question that became the basis of Guns, Germs, and Steel:

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?

By "cargo" Yali was referring to the material goods that white colonizers brought to New Guinea such as clothing, steel axes, matches, medicines, umbrellas, and other material goods. Diamond makes it clear that he and Yali were both aware that New Guineans possessed at least as much inherent intelligence as the white people that subjugated them and supplied them with this "cargo." Yet the immense disparities in lifestyles meant that there had to be some important reasons for the differences that Yali alluded to in his question.

Diamond spent the next 25 years conducting research and then published Guns, Germs, and Steel as an answer to Yali's question.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 5, 2019
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The answer to Yali's question forms the central thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yali, a local leader in Papua New Guinea, asked Jared Diamond (the author) the following question in 1972:

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?

According to Diamond, Yali's people had only recently (as in a couple of centuries ago) lived in the Stone Age, in the sense that they still used simple stone tools, survived as hunter-gatherers, and lived in small villages. So what Yali was asking Diamond, a scientist visiting the area on a research trip was, "Why did Europeans develop the complex technology that enabled them to expand their influence around the world? Why didn't this happen in Papua New Guinea?" Diamond's answer to this profound question is complex, and he summarizes it as follows:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences between peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

Europeans developed the technologies that we associate with modern life because they lived in regions possessing geographic and climactic characteristics that were amenable to the rise of settled agricultural societies. In other words, what we think of as "civilization" is not the result of racial, intellectual, or cultural differences between peoples, historical or modern. Europeans developed the "guns, germs, and steel" necessary for conquering peoples around the world by geographic accident.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond was intended to answer a question asked to Diamond by his friend Yali, a native of Papua New Guinea. Yali asked:

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?

In the Prologue, Diamond examines this question. He says that in his years working as an anthropologist he has met people from many different cultures who are intelligent and hardworking and thus was, like Yali, puzzled as to why some cultures developed great wealth and advanced technology and others did not.

After rejecting racist answers and cultural stereotyping, Diamond seeks answers in the natural environment, arguing that certain geographic areas contained more of the necessary preconditions for the development of wealthy, technologically advanced civilizations. Among these preconditions were the ability to support plants and animals that could be easily domesticated and similar natural resources as well as accessible east-west travel routes. 

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