In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is Yali's question?

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Yali is described by Diamond in the Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel as a "remarkable local politician" in New Guinea, where the author was doing field research on bird evolution. Diamond writes that Yali, a very intelligent and perceptive man, was asking him "lots of probing questions." Perhaps the deepest of these questions was the one that forms the inquiry at the heart 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," Diamond writes, Yali meant material goods, the trappings of technology, "ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas." As Diamond perceived it, this very simple question "went to the heart of life as Yali experienced it," and it raised very significant questions about the course of human history in general. Diamond says that Guns, Germs, and Steel was written as an attempt to provide an answer to Yali's question, which really interrogated the sources of human inequality on a global scale. The book's argument—in short, that human inequality was essentially the result of geographic accident—is Diamond's answer, one which is intended to undercut spurious claims of European racial and cultural superiority.

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Yali's question is the central theme of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. When Diamond was doing field work in Papua, New Guinea, a local politician, 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?"

This question prompted Diamond to spend many years studying to find an answer.

Diamond, who has traveled widely and met people of many different cultures, knows that within every race and culture there are very intelligent and hardworking people. This means that the disparity in "cargo" (wealth, technology, and material goods) could not be due to ethnic or cultural differences. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond explores the geographical and environmental factors that, over thousands of years, led to such disparities in wealth and technology.

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Yali’s question is the basis for this entire book.  As Diamond reports it in the prologue, Yali’s question is:

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?

What Yali means by “cargo” is wealth and material goods.  What Yali is asking, in essence, is why people of European descent came to be so much richer and more powerful than people like Yali’s own people in New Guinea.

Yali was a New Guinean that Diamond got to know.  He was very curious about why his people were so far behind the white people in terms of material wealth and power.  This led him to pose his question to Diamond.  Since then, (this was in 1972) Diamond had wondered about why the various societies in the world were so unequal.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, he sets out to answer this question.  He presents a geographical argument in which he claims that white people came to be so dominant because of geographical luck.  Yali’s question was the impetus for him to think about the issues that he raises in this book.

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