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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Jared Diamond's approach to answering Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel

Summary:

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond answers Yali's question by examining the environmental and geographical factors that influenced the development of human societies. He argues that the availability of resources, domesticable plants and animals, and the orientation of continental axes played crucial roles in shaping the power dynamics and technological advancements of different civilizations.

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What sources does Jared Diamond use to answer Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond uses a huge variety of sources in his attempt to answer Yali's question.  To get a sense for the variety of these sources, the best thing to do is to look in the "Further Readings" section at the end of the book.  Diamond's argument in the book encompasses everything from microbiology to religion to linguistics.  Diamond uses sources from all of these fields.  He uses books and articles by major scholars in the various fields to give evidence about such varied things as the distribution of grasses with large seeds in prehistoric times and the stages through which societies develop.

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What research tools does Diamond use to answer Yali’s question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Diamond will use two major types of research tools in his attempt to answer Yali's question.

First, he will use tools from the "hard sciences."  He will study things like the size of seeds of various grasses in different areas of the world.  He will look at the evolutionary strategies of microbes.  These are research tools taken from the biological sciences.

Second, he will use tools from the social sciences.  Here, he will use thought experiments and natural experiments.  He will, for example, look at the spread of Polynesians across the Pacific.  He will look at how their societies differed from one another based on the environments in which they ended up.  He will also try to do things like categorizing civilizations, as when he differentiates between bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states in Chapter 14.

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How does Diamond address Yali's question in the areas of agriculture, domesticated animals, technology, geography, and disease in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

All of these areas, as you call them, are closely connected to one another and together they answer Yali's question.

Geography matters because it makes agriculture more or less likely to arise in a given area.  Diamond argues that some areas were lucky because they had, among other things, more plants and animals that could be domesticated.

Once agriculture arises, it brings with it domesticated animals (usually).  It is germs that originate with the domesticated animals that bring the diseases like smallpox that can kill other populations of people.

Agriculture and domesticated animals also help make a large population possible.  Not all of these people need to farm and so specialists arise -- artisans who can invent technology over the years.

The larger populations, technology and diseases end up helping the Europeans be richer and more powerful than people like Yali's.

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

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

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

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

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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How does Diamond answer Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Yali's question to Jared Diamond was as follows:

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?

The entire book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is a complex answer to this deceptively simple question, meaning that to answer Yali's question is to summarize the book's thesis. The three elements mentioned in the title are examples of key advantages that geography has bestowed on Europe. The development of agriculture allowed for large, complex civilizations involving the division of labor and the opportunity for people to specialize. This in itself created wealth, but it also meant that new weapons, such as guns, and construction materials, such as steel, could be created. These helped Europeans to create even greater wealth, both through trade and through conquest.

European civilization also allowed populations which lived in close proximity to develop immunity to germs. Though the initial cost was high, this meant that small European expeditionary forces were, albeit inadvertently, employing germ warfare when they arrived in the Americas. Such factors as these created enormous wealth for Europeans, which Yali describes as the cargo they bring with them.

Other populations were less geographically fortunate and did not have these opportunities, depriving them of cargo. Throughout the book, Diamond gives many more examples of the ways in which geography determines the fortunes of populations, providing subtle variations on the basic answer to Yali's question.

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How did Diamond answer Yali's question? (Epilogue)

In the prologue to his famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Jared Diamond credits Yali's question with providing the impetus for the research that led to writing this nonfiction masterpiece. Yali, a native of New Guinea, 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 spends the entire book answering Yali's question, and he summarizes his answer in the epilogue. At the beginning of the epilogue's second paragraph, Diamond states:

I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate difference in the people themselves but to differences in their environments.

Diamond then goes on to summarize the four main factors that contribute to those environmental differences. The first factor, he explains, is the "differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication." Economically complex societies need an abundant and stable food supply to be able to grow their populations and achieve political and military advantages.

The second factor involves the ease of diffusion and migration of populations based on ecological and geographical barriers: this made Eurasian trade and growth relatively easy due to the east-west axis of the continent. However, New Guinea's rugged terrain and isolating central mountains prevented significant progress towards unification.

The third factor involves diffusion between continents. For instance, diverse geographies, climates, and ocean boundaries isolated the civilizations of North and South America. This was also a problem for the isolated lands of New Guinea and Australia.

The fourth factor is the differences in areas and populations between continents. Larger areas and higher populations lead to inventions, innovations, competing societies, and pressure to adapt. Diamond mentions in summary that New Guinea has a much smaller land area and fewer large animals than Eurasia. He says,

It's just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.

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How did Diamond answer Yali's question? (Epilogue)

The answer to the question Yali asks Jared Diamond that inspires him to write Guns, Germs and Steel is complicated, but it boils down to this: the differences between the histories of people is not about their inner selves, but rather about the environments they live in.

Diamond writes:

I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environments. 

He goes on to explain that if populations had been switched long ago, they would have developed the characteristics of the people who live in those environments rather than retaining the characteristics they have now. Diamond says there are four important aspects of the answer to Yali's question that have to be considered. They are:

  • The differences in plants and animals available for domestication.
  • The rates of diffusion and migration within each continent. Some were less easily traveled than others.
  • The differing rates of diffusion and migration between continents, which affects things like the spread of technology.
  • The area and population size of each continent.

At the end, Diamond says the answers to Yali's questions are probably more complex than Yali would have wanted, and they still leave some issues unresolved. 

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How did Diamond answer Yali's question? (Epilogue)

To find the answer to this question, simply look on the very first page of the Epilogue.  There, Diamond says that he would tell Yali that the differences between various kinds of people "have been due not to innate differences" between the kinds of people.  Instead, they have been due to "differences in their environments."

That is the one sentence synopsis of the book.  Diamond has argued throughout the book that Europeans came to dominate the world because of accidents of geography and environment.  He argues that Europeans were lucky, not innately superior.  They were lucky because they inhabited a part of the world that was good for agriculture and, therefore, for having a large population that could lead to having "guns, germs, and steel."

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are common answers to Yali's question besides Diamond's?

Yali’s question, which is essentially, “Why did some areas of the world develop wealth and technology in greater quantities than others?” has been answered several times throughout history. Diamond himself asks on page 18, “Does Yali’s question really need another book to answer it?" Obviously he believes so, and he proves his case by rejecting three previous proposals before presenting the final potential answer that he believes is much more likely.

1. Per Darwinian evolutionary theory, some sections of humanity evolved to be physically or intellectually superior to others. The Europeans are more highly evolved than other populations of the world. This is rejected, as there is no evidence to support this claim, and it boils down to modern-day racism. It is difficult to assess the average IQ of an entire population, and intelligence can be measured differently between populations.

2. Cold climates require more innovation than warm climates. While this would support a Northern European answer to Yali’s question as to why Europe was more technologically advanced that other areas, this is also rejected. Warmer climates had their share of innovation, as Diamond cites the development of writing, pottery, and agriculture in areas not previously considered cool enough to require stricter innovation.

3. As evidenced by the Fertile Crescent, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow and Yangtze Valleys, agriculturally productive environments created more complex and centralized forms of government. In fact, Diamond argues that this chicken and egg question goes the other way and that agricultural abundance (in the form of complex irrigation systems) comes after centralized government, according to modern archaeology.

4. The fact that Europeans had “guns, infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products” appears to be the correct answer, according to Diamond. This is why Europe developed more wealth and technology than other areas of the world, and this can be proven through multiple methods. That being said, Diamond acknowledges that this is not a sufficient answer to Yali’s question, and he will spend the rest of the text exploring this particular answer.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are common answers to Yali's question besides Diamond's?

There are several alternative answers to Yali's question that Diamond explores and rejects as unsatisfactory in his prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel.

First, Diamond rejects racism, or the assumption that white Europeans are simply smarter or more diligent by virtue of having better genes. Although some people may have believed this in the past, there is no modern scientific evidence supporting any correlation between intelligence and skin color (or race).

Next, Diamond rejects the notion that when the ancestors of modern Europeans moved from Africa to colder climates, they were forced to develop advanced technology to survive inhospitable environments. This is obviously not a viable account as many of the First Nations groups lived in cold, inhospitable climates and yet came to be subjected to European colonists.

A final solution Diamond rejects is one based on the theory that civilization first developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt because their peculiar geography required extensive cooperation to handle irrigation, leading to early urbanization and centralized government.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are common answers to Yali's question besides Diamond's?

The answer to this question is found in the Prologue.  It beings on p. 18 of the paperback edition of the book.  Diamond discusses three common answers that he does not agree with and one that he thinks is accurate, but which does not really answer the question.

The first answer is based on race.  This answer says that the Europeans were simply racially superior to the New Guineans and other such people.  It holds that Europeans are naturally more intelligent than the “backwards” people and that this superiority allowed them to dominate.

A second answer, found on p. 22, is geographical.  It says that Europeans came to dominate because their homeland has a colder climate.  It is easier to live in a warm climate than a cold one, so tropical people did not have to work hard to innovate simply in order to live.  As Diamond gives the argument:

… cold climates require one to be more technologically inventive to survive, because one must build a warm home and make warm clothing, whereas one can survive in the tropics with simpler housing and no clothing.

The third answer also begins on p. 22.  It says that civilization could only arise in river valleys in dry climates.  In those places, large-scale agriculture was only possible if there was a centralized government.  This forced people to become civilized.

The final answer is one that Diamond agrees with.  It says (on p. 23) that “European guns, infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products” were what allowed the Europeans to dominate.  Diamond agrees, but says that this is not a real answer because it does not tell us why the Europeans came to have those things when others did not.

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In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are commmonly used answers to "Yali's question?"

In his Prologue, Jared Diamond gives a number of common answers to Yali's question.  Among them are:

  • Biological explanations.  These explanations are essentially racist.  They say that Europeans are simply genetically superior to people like Yali.  Typically, they argue that European superiority shows up in the "fact" that Europeans have higher levels of intelligence.
  • Climate-based explanations.  These argue that Europeans became superior because they lived in a harsher environment.  Tropical people didn't have to work hard for their livings and so did not need technology and such.  Because Europeans lived in tough, cold climates, they had to be more ingenious in order to survive.  This made them more inventive and led to technology.
  • River-based explanations.  These argue that civilizations arose in lowland river valleys in dry climates.  Civilization arose there because it was necessary in order to organize society to create irrigation works.

These are the three major explanations that Diamond mentions in the beginning of this book.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are common answers to Yali's question besides Diamond's?

The answer to this can be found in the Prologue.   There (from page 18 to page 23 in the paperback edition of the book) Diamond lists the four most common answers to Yali’s question.  After listing each one, he gives his reasons for rejecting it.

The first answer to Yali’s question is an answer that is based on ideas about racial differences.  Essentially, this answer says that white people came to have more “cargo” and to be more powerful simply because white people are superior to nonwhites.  Europeans are said to be (on p. 19)

genetically more intelligent than Africans, and especially more so than Aboriginal Australians.

The second and third answers have to do with geography.  The second answer holds that people from colder climates (like the Europeans) have to work harder and be more intelligent in order to survive.  They have to be more inventive whereas people in tropical areas can just sit around, pick fruit off trees, and not have to worry much about housing or clothing.  The third answer says that people in river valleys have advantages over everyone else.  This says that people living in river valleys in dry climates needed to have major irrigation works to subsist.  This necessitated centralized government to oversee the process.  That led to civilization.

Finally, there is the answer that

lists the immediate factors that enabled Europeans to kill or conquer other peoples…

In other words, this explanation holds that Europeans came to dominate because they had things like guns, metal tools, and infectious diseases.

These are, according to Diamond, the four most common answers to Yali’s question.

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