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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Evaluating Diamond's response to Yali's question in "Guns, Germs, and Steel."


Jared Diamond's response to Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel attributes the differences in societal development to environmental factors rather than racial superiority. He argues that geography, the availability of domesticable plants and animals, and the diffusion of technology and ideas shaped the varying progress of human societies.

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Do you agree with Diamond's response to Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Diamond has answered an important question in his sweeping historical, geographical, and anthropological work Guns, Germs, and Steel. His acquaintance Yali asks why white people (Europeans) have such advantages—why does such a power differential exist between societies in South America, Africa and other "undeveloped" nations and European ones?

Diamond, having observed South American hunter-gatherer societies as intelligent and resourceful, realizes the answer must be based on factors other than aptitude or race.

I agree with Diamond's answers, principally his thesis that communication over vast stretches of time and distance (significantly, from East to West) was a driving force in technological development. This insight takes into account the common (and correct) notion that we build scientific and intellectual achievements "on the shoulders" of others. While great insights, such as Pascal and Descartes's rationalism (which included the development of an improved algebraic system) and Newton's understanding of gravity were breakthroughs, they didn't appear out of nowhere.

By building on the shoulders of others, we "progress" (a dubious concept) in our technologies, but this type of building—which requires communication, social stability, and time—can only occur when there is a strong foundation of food supply and organizational structure. At least in the case of the former, the development of crops (principally, wheat) that could be grown, traded, and stored over vast distances—between England and Russia—had a huge impact on societal stability.

Diamond notes that in geographies such as South America, the change in climate from north to south precluded crop stability (different crops were necessary for differing climates).

Diamond's other insights about the superiority of steel weaponry and use (and transport) of horses for warfare are interesting as well, but less groundbreaking.

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Do you agree with Diamond's response to Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

I do agree with Diamond's major thesis in this book.  He basically argues that geographic factors are what caused some societies to become dominant and others to get dominated.  He says that it is these factors which have nothing to do with human beings (and not the people's racial characteristics or their cultures) that have determined the overall course of history.

Perhaps the most persuasive anecdote that Diamond cites is the experience of the Polynesians.  The fact that Polynesian people evolved so many different kinds of societies, depending on the physical characteristics of the places where they lived, seems to be a very convincing argument for the idea that it is geography that matters.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what responses by Diamond to Yali’s question surprised you?

I will look here at two aspects of Diamond's response to Yali's question.

First, on the largest scale, I was surprised when I first read this book by the fact that he argues that culture had essentially nothing to do with which societies became powerful and which did not.  I grew up reading books that emphasized the importance of culture.  For example, in college I read Max Weber's argument about how the Protestant work ethic caused Protestant countries to be stronger economically than any others.  Therefore, to read a book that argued that culture had no impact was surprising.

Second, on the smaller scale, I was surprised and intrigued by Diamond's argument that the fragmented nature of Europe's geography and politics helped to make it stronger than places like, for example, China.  I had never considered the idea that having lots of relatively small countries would allow for more progress than having one large empire as in China.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what did Professor Diamond give as a response to Yali's question?

There are two different ways to answer this question.

First, you can say that Diamond gave no answer.  This was the case when Yali first asked Diamond this question in 1972.  Diamond did not know how to answer Yali at that point.

Second, you can say (as Diamond does) that this whole book is Diamond's answer to Yali's question.  In this book, Diamond essentially says that white people got so much "cargo" because they were lucky.  White people, originating in Europe, had geographic luck that allowed them to develop farming, civilization, and technology sooner and to a greater extent than anyone else.  Diamond emphasizes that this had nothing to do with the racial or cultural qualities of white people or of Yali's people and others who have been dominated by Europeans.  In this way, then, Diamond's answer to Yali is that the geographic luck caused the disparities that Yali observed.

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Do you agree with Diamond's response to Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In Guns, Germs, and Steel,

In order to answer this question, we must first think about how Diamond actually answered this question.

Diamond’s basic answer to Yali’s question is that the Europeans came to dominate the world because they were geographically lucky.  They had geographic luck that enabled them to engage in agriculture much earlier than people in other regions of the world.  This enabled them to reach the most complex levels of societal organization earlier than others.  That caused them to have the “guns, germs, and steel” that they needed to have in order to conquer.

I completely agree with Diamond’s answer as far as it goes.  It seems that Diamond has very clearly explained why Eurasia was able to have farming long before other continents.  It seems that he has very clearly shown that farming and the ability to conquer are very closely tied together.  It seems that he has clearly shown that people in other areas, such as Australia, did not fail to build complex societies through any fault of their own. 

To that extent, I agree with Diamond completely.  I am confident in his explanations of the largest sweep of human history.  However, I am less certain as to whether he can explain things like why China or the Muslim world lost the advantages they once held over the West.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel's epilogue, would Yali believe Diamond's answer? Would you?

Although the book revolves around Yali’s question, we do not really know much about him.  This means that it is hard to know what he would be likely or unlikely to believe.  We are told (p. 13) that he “radiated charisma and energy” and that (p. 14) “his curiosity was insatiable.”  But we do not know much more about him.  Therefore, we can only really guess as to whether he would believe Diamond’s explanation.

I would argue that Yali would believe Diamond’s answer.  The main reason for this is that Diamond’s answer does not denigrate Yali and his people.  Many answers to Yali’s question center on the idea that people like Yali are racially inferior or that their culture is inferior to that of white people.  This would surely be insulting to an intelligent man who cared about his people and their culture.

I believe Diamond for much the same reason.  Half of my heritage is not white and I certainly would have a hard time believing the idea that some of my ancestors were racially inferior to others.  I also tend to doubt that some cultures are truly “better” than others. 

Thus, I believe Diamond and I think that Yali would as well.

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