What is Yali’s question to Jared Diamond?

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In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond argues that environmental considerations rather than inherent differences in intellect or genes caused some civilizations to survive longer and prosper more than others. In the book's prologue , Diamond explains that it was a...

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In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond argues that environmental considerations rather than inherent differences in intellect or genes caused some civilizations to survive longer and prosper more than others. In the book's prologue, Diamond explains that it was a question by a New Guinean politician named Yali that prompted him to research and write the book.

The prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel is called "Yali's Question." In it, Diamond writes that he was visiting New Guinea as a biologist studying bird evolution. He and Yali were taking a walk along a beach together. Diamond could see that Yali possessed an abundance of charisma, energy, intelligence, and curiosity, albeit in ways that differed from western norms, given that New Guineans had only been exposed to western, industrialized civilization in the last few centuries. When whites arrived, they had centralized governmental authority and brought various tools that New Guineans had never seen before, such as matches, steel axes, clothing, medicines, and other items. The collective word for goods like these to New Guineans was "cargo."

Although many white people thought of native New Guineans as inferior, Diamond, through his exposure to many locals, was well aware that they were "on the average at least as smart as Europeans." That's partly why Yali's question was so thought-provoking to him. 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?

As Diamond relates, Yali's question was difficult for him to answer. It was true that Europeans, Americans, New Guineans, and other civilizations throughout the world had vastly different lifestyles and histories, but it was not a simple matter to account for these discrepancies. Diamond explains on his website:

The answer depends on a synthesis of four bodies of information, in the fields of social science, botany, zoology, and microbiology, applied to findings of archaeology, linguistics, and human genetics.

Ultimately it took Diamond 25 years to research and write Guns, Germs, and Steel as an answer to Yali's question.

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The title of Diamond's book refers to some of the factors which are traditionally considered critical in explaining European dominance in world affairs; essentially, that the Europeans had superior technology and, by coincidence, far more deadly diseases than many of the non-European cultures they encountered, which led to an easy subjugation. This evolved into the modern prevalence of European culture, if not direct political rule.

Yali is introduced in a prologue set in the 1970s, when Diamond was doing research in New Guinea. At the time, part of the island was attempting to establish political independence from Australia, essentially a microcosm of the global question that the book investigates. Yali was a local politician who, in Diamond's view, was still far less well-off than his white counterparts despite being the equivalent of a political celebrity among his own people. Yali and Diamond had a discussion about their respective cultures, culminating in Yali's question:

"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?" 

Cargo referred generally to the manufactured goods developed by whites which broadly defined the "before" and "after" contact changes in New Guinean culture. Diamond's book is an attempt to answer Yali's question; however, it should also be taken into consideration that Yali had a view of material goods that was nearly religious, and his reasonings and motivations behind the question were probably not, in my opinion, aligned with Diamond's interpretation of it.

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World War II made a tremendous impression on the peoples of the South Pacific, including the natives of New Guinea. The Americans brought a prodigious amount of equipment and supplies in ships that seemed to cover the entire ocean. The New Guinea natives referred to this spectacular influx of material goods as "cargo." Yali's question to Jared Diamond when they met in 1972 was:

"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?" 

Diamond says in the prologue to Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) that the book was inspired by that question. He did not publish it until twenty-five years later, at which time it became a best-seller.

"Cargo cults" are still common in the South Pacific. According to Wikipedia,

The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth ("cargo").

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In the introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond claims that Yali's question was the inspiration for the book. Yali, a local politician in New Guinea (where Diamond was doing field work studying birds) asks Diamond the following question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [meaning material goods and technology] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" The book goes on to investigate the answer to this question, attempting to provide explanations for why Eurasian peoples developed the agriculture, technology, and pathogens that enabled them to project their influence around the world.

Source: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 13.

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