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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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What are the three objections to Yali's question discussed in Diamond's prologue?

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Guns, Germs, and Steel explores the question of why Eurasian civilizations developed so much earlier than those of other continents. Diamond argues that the answer to this question is related to biological differences between humans and other animals. Diamond defines "guns, germs, and steel" as a metaphor for three factors that helped Eurasian civilization conquer other parts of the world: domesticated crops and animals (germs), which enabled expansion over larger areas; technologies such as guns and steel, which increased the chances of survival in combat; and infectious diseases (such as bubonic plague), which killed large numbers of people in previously unexposed populations.

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Yali's question has to do with the differences in how human society has evolved. Why did people in Europe or the Middle East develop agriculture and advanced technologies while people in New Guinea, Yali's home, did not?

Diamond says that his book is an attempt to answer this question but...

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also notes that most anthropologists have stopped thinking about the issue. There are several reasons, he claims, which all have to do with racism. First, by asking the question, one tacitly admits that some regions have been "winners" and others "losers," and such a mindset can serve to justify European colonialism. Second, the question can be understood as an attempt to explain European (white) superiority. Third, the question suggests a privileging of "civilization" over "savagery." All three objections are facets of the same problem: that in posing such a question, we begin with the assumption that European civilization is the natural outcome of history, and in answering this question, we are, in effect, telling the story of how Europe "won."

Diamond, while sensitive to these objections, believes that Yali's question is nevertheless important. His approach in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is to show that the evolution of human civilization is not based on racial superiority but instead on a number of geographic and biological factors that are independent of human intelligence. One example is Diamond's argument that agriculture spread from the Fertile Crescent to Europe because of geography: the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent made it possible for a large land area to share certain climate characteristics, which in turn made it possible for domesticated crops to spread.

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Yali’s question is rephrased by Diamond in this way: “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way?" For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, and exterminated Europeans and Asians?” While Diamond admits this is an intriguing and relevant question, the prologue must address several objections before continuing.

1. Does an explanation justify the outcome? Diamond is concerned that illustrating the processes of inequality might create the sense that the outcomes we now live with were, in fact, inevitable. He dismisses this concern by arguing that an investigation of the process simply seeks to understand inequality rather than to justify or perpetuate it.

2. Is this investigation Eurocentric? Diamond is wary of a European-specific view of world history. He admits that most of the text will be spent away from Europe and that Europe owes its success largely to foreign imports in terms of both ideas and resources.

3. Does this mean one type of society is “better” than another? Diamond assures his reader he is not here to make judgment calls on what type of society is best and that using the terms “hunter-gatherer” and “civilization” are not intended to do so. He sees the first world as containing its share of positives and negatives and has spent enough time in New Guinea himself to see the benefits of simpler living.

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In the Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond says that his impetus for writing the book began when his friend Yali, a Papua New Guinean, 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?

Before Diamond goes about answering the question, he looks at three possible objections people may have to his writing the book at all.

The first possible objection is that people might read his explanation of this as a justification for colonialism and assures the reader that he is attempting to explain rather than justify the success of Europeans in colonizing many areas of the world.

The second objection is that the book might take a Eurocentric perspective, but Diamond points out that he sees unequal cultural developments as a global rather than Eurocentric issue, devoting much space to China and other non-European powers. 

The third objection is that a book that explains the military success of Europe might appear to be assuming the cultural superiority of technological societies, but Diamond makes the case that he does not consider possession of "cargo" something that makes a culture better in any other way. 

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I think that you mean "objections" to Yali's question and not "objectives."  That is why I have changed the question...  The three objections are:

  1. If we explain why some people rule over or dominate others, aren't we saying that the domination is okay?  If we say that the Europeans dominate Yali's people due to various reasons, aren't we saying that it is right for the to dominate?
  2. If we answer this question, aren't we automatically being pro-European?  Isn't it wrong to talk about European dominance when that might be disappearing anyway?
  3. Doesn't the question imply that civilization is good and other types of society are not?
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