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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 relevant today?

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Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel is

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [material abundance] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

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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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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is Yali's question?

Yali is described by Diamond in the Prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel as a "remarkable local politician" in New Guinea, where the author was doing field research on bird evolution. Diamond writes that Yali, a very intelligent and perceptive man, was asking him "lots of probing questions." Perhaps the deepest of these questions was the one that forms the inquiry at the heart of Guns, Germs, and Steel:

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?

By "cargo," Diamond writes, Yali meant material goods, the trappings of technology, "ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas." As Diamond perceived it, this very simple question "went to the heart of life as Yali experienced it," and it raised very significant questions about the course of human history in general. Diamond says that Guns, Germs, and Steel was written as an attempt to provide an answer to Yali's question, which really interrogated the sources of human inequality on a global scale. The book's argument—in short, that human inequality was essentially the result of geographic accident—is Diamond's answer, one which is intended to undercut spurious claims of European racial and cultural superiority.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is Yali's question?

Yali's question is the central theme of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. When Diamond was doing field work in Papua, New Guinea, a local politician, Yali, asked Diamond:

"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?"

This question prompted Diamond to spend many years studying to find an answer.

Diamond, who has traveled widely and met people of many different cultures, knows that within every race and culture there are very intelligent and hardworking people. This means that the disparity in "cargo" (wealth, technology, and material goods) could not be due to ethnic or cultural differences. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond explores the geographical and environmental factors that, over thousands of years, led to such disparities in wealth and technology.

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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what is Yali's question?

Yali’s question is the basis for this entire book.  As Diamond reports it in the prologue, Yali’s question is:

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?

What Yali means by “cargo” is wealth and material goods.  What Yali is asking, in essence, is why people of European descent came to be so much richer and more powerful than people like Yali’s own people in New Guinea.

Yali was a New Guinean that Diamond got to know.  He was very curious about why his people were so far behind the white people in terms of material wealth and power.  This led him to pose his question to Diamond.  Since then, (this was in 1972) Diamond had wondered about why the various societies in the world were so unequal.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, he sets out to answer this question.  He presents a geographical argument in which he claims that white people came to be so dominant because of geographical luck.  Yali’s question was the impetus for him to think about the issues that he raises in this book.

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What is Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

In his prologue, Jared Diamond recounts being sent to study birds in New Guinea in 1972. While there, he met a curious and charismatic New Guinean politician named Yali. Yali, like everyone else, knew that the Europeans had developed much more "cargo," or material goods such as steel axes, medicines, soft drinks, and umbrellas, than had the native New Guineans. He wanted to know why. Yali asked,

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 came to understand that this was a far more complex question than he had realized. He spent twenty-five years trying to come up with the answers that became the content of his book.

Diamond goes on to say that he recognized that the question encompassed more than simply the material calculation of who could afford to drink more cokes or have more stuff in their homes. He therefore reformulated Yali's question as follows:

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, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

Diamond acknowledges from the start that, despite several centuries of false assertions of innate white superiority, there is no difference in intelligence and ability between European white people and other ethnic groups. Answers, Diamond states, lie in other areas. These include the development of agriculture, which was key to accumulating the surpluses that allowed large populations to develop, the development of metal technology, the transmission of knowledge through sophisticated writing systems, a lack of geographic barriers, and the early development of disease immunity.

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In "Guns, Germs, and Steel," what is Yali's question? Why do you think Yali is interested in the answer?

Yali's question, in Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is essentially this: why were white people so rich (having so many material goods) when Yali's people in New Guinea had so few material goods of their own?

Why would Yali be interested in this?  Well, just about any primitive culture with few conveniences would be interested in having more of those modern conveniences.  It would not be strange to wonder why they didn't have all the material goods.  In addition, if you were Yali, maybe you would think that if you could understand the answer, you could help your people get more of those material goods and improve your way of life.

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According to the Prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, what are some various possible answers to Yali's question ?

Diamond lists various answers that other people sometimes give to Yali's question.  Among them are:

  • Biological answers.  Some say that Europeans are simply more intelligent by nature.
  •  Effect of cold weather.  Some people say that European cultures developed in difficult conditions with cold climates.  This forced them to be more inventive, thus allowing them to gain a technological advantage.
  • The importance of lowland river valleys in dry places.  This argument holds that civilizations arise in such places so that they can organize irrigation projects.
  • Answers that only give proximate causes.  These answers say Europeans came to dominate because they had guns and such but do not explain why Europeans had these advantages.
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What is Yali's question in Guns, Germs, and Steel?  

The answer to this can be found in the Prologue.  On page 14 of the paperback edition, (the second page of the book), Diamond sets out Yali's question.  It reads:

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?

 

When Yali talked about "cargo," he was referring to material possessions.  What Yali wanted to know was why white people had come to dominate the world to such a great degree.  He wanted to know why they were so much more advanced and so much wealthier than the people of New Guinea (where Yali was from).  

Diamond spends the rest of the book trying to answer this question and concludes that it was geographic luck that led to European domination of the world.

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Summarize Yali's question from Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It is not really possible to summarize Yali’s question as Yali’s question is made up of one short sentence.  Yali’s question is given in Guns, Germs, and Steel as

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?

There is not really any room to summarize this question.  Instead, let us explain it.

What Yali is asking is why some people of the world came to be wealthier and more powerful than others.  He had seen how much in the way of material goods (this is what he calls “cargo”) the white people who came to New Guinea had.  He had seen that they had so much more than his own people in New Guinea.  Therefore, he came to wonder why that state of affairs existed.

Yali’s question, asked in 1972, became the core of this book that Diamond wrote many years later.  Diamond is trying to explain why Europeans came to dominate the world.  He is trying to answer Yali’s question in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

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