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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, how did Diamond answer Yali's question?

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The book's title is a reference to the question posed by Yali, a New Guinean politician, to Diamond. In the book, Diamond attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations and societies developed modern technologies and economies first. Despite the fact that New Guinea was populated by peoples of relatively equal technological and economic levels as Europeans for thousands of years, he attributes this differential growth to environmental factors rather than differences in racial heritage. He argues that geography, climate, and access to domesticable plants and animals determined which societies were able to develop more advanced technologies and economies first. He also contends that these same factors made possible the rise of more complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor and increased trade among societies.

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As Jared Diamond explains in the prologue to his famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Yali, a local politician, asks his question while they are strolling on a beach in New Guinea together in 1972. Yali asks, "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 writes that the entire book is an answer to Yali's question.

In the years since Yali and I had that conversation, I have studied and written about other aspects of human evolution, history, and language. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali.

To New Guineans, the word "cargo" represents the material goods that Western people developed and brought into their country. Many Westerners considered themselves genetically superior to New Guineans and believed that the answer to Yali's question had to do with race. Diamond found this explanation absurd, as he had lived and traveled with New Guineans and found them at least as intelligent, if not more so, than the visiting Westerners.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is Diamond's explanation that environmental factors, rather than inherent genetic differences, are responsible for some human societies developing technology and expanding more rapidly than others. For civilizations to make the transition from hunting and gathering to more settled agrarian societies, certain preconditions concerning geography, climate, and access to domesticable plants and animals are necessary. In early human history, these conditions existed most abundantly in the Eurasian Fertile Crescent and certain other parts of the world, so these areas were first able to evolve complex societies and technologies.

Diamond answers Yali's question using a synthesis of botany, zoology, microbiology, and social science. The rise in food production in some areas was the first step to developing modern agrarian civilizations. That made possible larger, more sedentary societies. Not all plant and animal species offer easy domestication, so some areas had a clear advantage over other areas. Additionally, trade and ideas spread more easily on east-west axes, such as those on the Eurasian continent, where climates and seasons are fairly similar.

In conclusion, Diamond's answer is that the development of "cargo" had nothing to do with inherent differences in the people themselves but only reflected the differences in their environmental circumstances.

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Yali, a New Guinean man befriended by Jared Diamond during his fieldwork in that country, asked Diamond why white people "developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Guns, Germs, and Steel is, as Diamond writes, his answer to this important question. Diamond took the question to entail larger issues about the way humans developed technology, culture, diseases, and other things that affected the course of world history. Of course, as Yali observes, Europeans (and Eurasians more broadly) made many of these developments more quickly, and more thoroughly, than did other peoples around the world. This was why, as Diamond describes it, they were able to colonize and conquer other peoples. I have synthesized the crux of Diamond's answer to the question as follows:

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

Diamond rejects superficial theories about the hierarchy of racial, cultural, and other differences, which have had pernicious origins and effects. Rather, he looks at geographic factors that favored the development and spread of agriculture and its attendant technologies in Eurasia. The rise of agriculture led to an environment in which the "guns, germs, and steel" associated with "civilization" rapidly developed and spread. These things, and not any inherent superiority or biological difference, provide Diamond's answer to "Yali's Question."

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Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is, in its entirety, an attempt to answer Yali's question. In the prologue, Diamond recounts how Yali asked him,

"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 explains that this question haunted him because he had, in his travels, met people from a wide range of cultures—some from wealthy Western cultures but also many from indigenous cultures that were less technologically sophisticated—and had found among all cultures many people who were equally intelligent and hard-working. Thus, rather than believing that differences in wealth were due to innate capacities, he felt that he needed to search for other explanations of inequalities in technology and material goods between different cultures.

He found his solution in geography, and especially in differences in regional availability of domesticable plants and animals which gave certain cultures an advantage in making an early neolithic transition to agriculture.

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The answer to this can be found in the Prologue and then, in more detail, throughout the entire book.  The entire book is Diamond's answer to Yali.

Basically, Diamond answers Yali by saying that white people have more "cargo" because they were lucky.  Diamond says that geographic luck, and not any kind of superiority of race or culture, made Europeans come to dominate the world.  Europeans lived in a place where agriculture could develop easily and could spread easily.  This led to big civilizations in Eurasia and the Europeans benefitted from that.  The presence of all these civilizations gave the Europeans the "guns, germs, and steel" that allowed them to have more wealth and power than the New Guineans and other natives of other parts of the world.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is the role of germs in answering Yali's question?

Yali wanted to know why white people had so much "cargo" when compared to people from New Guinea.  Germs help to answer this question because they help to explain why Europeans were able to conquer so much of the rest of the world, thus making themselves richer and more powerful still.  

Epidemic diseases developed among the societies that had been farming the longest.  These were Eurasian societies.  Societies in the Americas, Australia, and other places had not been farming as long and lacked epidemic diseases.  When Europeans came in contact with Native Americans, for example, European epidemic diseases killed huge percentages of the Native Americans.  This helped the Europeans conquer and the conquest made them richer and more powerful.  Thus, germs help to answer Yali's question.

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