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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond
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Why is Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel important to us today?

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Yali asks Diamond why “white men” have so much “cargo” and people in New Guinea have so little. Many of the multiple conflicting interpretations of the question and of Diamond’s answer are analyzed in Errington and Gewertz’s book Yali's Question . The fact that...

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Yali asks Diamond why “white men” have so much “cargo” and people in New Guinea have so little. Many of the multiple conflicting interpretations of the question and of Diamond’s answer are analyzed in Errington and Gewertz’s book Yali's Question. The fact that so many people have taken interest in the question in itself constitutes an argument for its continued relevance.

One of the key elements of the question is the term “cargo.” Most readers (and viewers of the related PBS video) have interpreted this as synonymous for “wealth” or “manufactured goods.” By extension, they have seen Yali as asking Diamond to explain why the author’s native country or region is wealthier than the one where Yali lives. A primary critique of that perspective is an implicit accusation of injustice, or a colonialist approach in which “the West” extracts resources from the rest of the world and uses them to manufacture goods for sale, often to consumers in the resource-yielding countries. This continued imbalance and inequality are good reasons that the question is still important, even for independent Papua New Guinea. However, the term “cargo” has complex historical significance. It means consumer goods that arrive unrequested, such as by washing up on the shore or being dropped from an airplane. To the colonized people, its arrival represented the validity of their belief system, and as such challenged the colonists’ dominance. That Yali uses “cargo” rather than “wealth” is telling. The implication that matters of faith are as important as wealth is another reason his question still matters.

Lohmann, R. (2006). Anthropological Quarterly, 79(4), 755–761.

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There are many reasons why Yali's question and Jared Diamond's response to it continue to matter. The main one is that economic inequality both within countries and between countries still exists, and understanding the causes of poverty and inequality can help us in trying to take positive steps towards addressing these issues.

The first important issue the question raises is racism. Some people still assume that the reason Europeans developed greater wealth and, in some ways, more technologically advanced civilizations had to do with innate intelligence or diligence, but Diamond argues persuasively that it had more to do with accidents of geography.

Next, some people argue that cultural differences underlie the differences in economic development and use that reasoning to argue for European cultural superiority, but Diamond makes the point that readily domesticable plants and animals are a far more important influence. This suggests that development projects which involve finding strains of plants and animals that can flourish under cultivation without degrading soils or using excessive water might be an important strategy for reducing inequality.

The contribution of epidemic diseases to inequality also suggests a path forward, namely that programs focusing on eradicating tropical diseases in particular might make a major contribution towards reducing global inequality.

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Yali’s question is important to us today largely because it can have a serious impact on how we think about differences between various types of people.  Specifically, the answer to the question could affect our racial attitudes.

As Diamond discusses in the Prologue, many people tend to think that Europeans came to dominate the world because they are racially or, at the very least, culturally superior to people of other races.  If people believe this, it helps to justify racism.  If, by contrast, we accept Diamond’s answer to Yali’s question, we should be less likely to have racist attitudes.  We should understand that the European dominance of the world was due to geographical factors that were completely outside of the control of any human beings.  If we take Diamond seriously, we have no reason to believe that Europeans were any better than Africans or Australian Aborigines because we know that the Europeans benefitted from things like the abundance of domesticable plants and animals in Eurasia.

Since issues of race are very important to us today, Yali’s question can be important to us even though it is a question about the past.

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