Drawing on Diamond’s work, not necessarily limiting yourself to only Guns, Germs and Steel or only to the first chapters of that, offer an answer to Yali’s question.
Jared Diamond was a professor of physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles when he wrote the book Germs, Guns and Steel, he also worked as an evolutionary biologist, Diamond had a huge interest in birdwatching from a young age and had gone to New Guinee many times because of the bird species there. In 1972, Jared met a young New Guinean who was aware of the material wealth the western society possessed and the scarcity surrounding his people, this realisation resulted in him asking, “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, 1997: 14). New Guineans use the word Cargo to refer to the material goods brought to New Guinea by Westerners, these goods are treated with religious reverence by New Guineans and were believed to be evidence of the westerner’s power. The western colonials typically believed that power was determined by race and considered themselves to be genetically superior to other races therefore they believed that it was only natural for them to have more cargo than New Guineans. What Diamond thought was a simple question with a straightforward answer would taunt him for thirty years after his encounter with Yali. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond makes a compelling case in an attempt to answer Yali’s question. He questions why the history of the world became what it is, why some parts of the world developed differently to others.
Diamond looks deeper into Yali’s question, he wonders why wealth and power became distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, “why Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians weren’t the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians” (Diamond, 1997:15). Diamond believes that the best way of answering Yali’s question is by comparing the beginning of all historical developments of different continents around the world from 11 000 B.C (13 000 years ago). The date 11 000 B.C corresponds with end of the last Ice Age and Pleistocene Era, this date also corresponds with the beginning of village life and the divergence amongst cultural practices in parts of South and North America, and other parts of the world (Diamond, 1997:35). According to Diamond, there have been people living in New Guinea for over 40 00 years, this is much longer than on the continents of North and South America. Diamond believes that New Guineans are the most culturally diverse and adaptable people in the world, and for this reason he does not understand why they are so much poorer than modern Americans. Diamond undoubtedly believes that modern “Stone Age” people are most likely to be more intelligent than technologically advanced peoples, to justify this statement he continues to state that on average, modern “Stone Age” people are “more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is” (Diamond, 1997:20). David mentions that most of what he knows about birds he learnt from New Guineans, he says that New Guineans possess skills that presumably reflect brain function. They were able to create mental maps of unfamiliar dense surroundings, this is something westerners cannot do. Diamond wanted to find a greater reason for human inequality, he explicitly rejects all racial explanations that support the differences in socially and economically different societies, he instead argues his case based on geography and biogeography which he believes has the answer to Yali’s question. Diamond believes that there is a dearth in compelling biological evidence for differences in intelligence between the races where technology is concerned (Tomlinson, 1998).
In going back to the starting point Diamond studies the chain of events that took place from 11 000 B.C and concludes that the Europeans dominance is a result of opportunity and necessity rather that any kind on ingenuity. Diamond uses Polynesia as a small-scale example for why some societies remained hunter-gatherers while others turned to agriculture for their survival. Most of the Polynesian islands were populated around the same time, and although they had started off at roughly the same time they differed greatly in area, isolation, elevation, climate, productivity, biological and geological resources (Diamond, 1997:55). The different environmental conditions caused some islands to be fertile while others remained infertile, the people on the infertile islands were forced to become hunters and eventually started exploring other islands in search for food. The fertile islands, on the other hand, were thriving the people living on the fertile land started farming and producing their own food this eventually resulted in people fighting among themselves for more resources. Fertile land owners new that owning land meant having more resources that would eventually give one a good and long life. In essence the environmental differences between different islands played a huge role on how the tribes developed (Diamond 1997:57). In the end some islands had become more developed and diverse that others although they had all started with nothing the islands that grew crops and domesticated animals had a better chance of survival, and had more time and energy to develop technology.
On a global scale, the road to inequality began when people stopped being hunter gatherers and started farming, when this happened; people didn’t have to spend all their time looking for food to eat but instead they would plant, harvest and store surplus of food, with food stored people had much time to develop the things around them eventually building cities which would later grow to become empires that dominate other parts of the world (Diamond, 1997). The process of development depends certain factors that needed to be in one’s favor in order for a society to move from hunter gatherers to farmers. First, a society needed to have crops that were high in nutrients and could also be stored, secondly a society needed a climate that was dry enough to allow storage, and thirdly, they needed animals that could be domesticated by humans that would also help with the farming processes (Tomlinson,1998).
Through the Polynesian islands example Diamond explains that when a society is in control of the animals and crop production, they are able to use it to feed a large group of people who will then grow the population and learn other advantageous skills that will continue to make the conditions favourable for the population, this will allow them to be socially and technologically innovative (Diamond, 1997:60). When this happened in parts of the world, societies started to become hierarchical and political structures developed, this led to nations being built. Diamond states that the only problem/ disadvantage that faced most places around the world was that they were just not suitable for the first half of building a civilization, because of their location, they simply could not develop a system of agricultural based on their environment. Eurasia, on the other hand, was perfect, it had a relatively dry climate and lots of plants and animals that could be domesticated. Eurasia had barley, two kinds of wheat, beans, flax, goats, sheep, donkeys and more (Tomlinson, 1998). Diamond discovered that while Eurasia had 14 animals that could be used by humans, there was only one in South America (a llama), and none in all other parts of the world. Although some people argued that some animals in other parts of the world could be domesticated, the Zebra has repeatedly proven itself to be untameable, and although African elephants are tameable they are impossible to breed in captivity because they are large animals (Tomlinson,1998).
Eurasia’s geographical location were the most important advantageous factor, its geographical location promoted cultural exchange between Eurasian people in a way that the rest of the world lacked (Tomlinson, 1998). The fact that Eurasia stretches east to west instead of north to south like the Americas and Africa allowed for a greater variety of plants and animals that could be domesticated in Europe and Asia. Eurasia was fortunate to have the west to east latitudes instead of north to south, because through domestication, animals that were being bred on the east side of Eurasia could also be used on the west side of Eurasia due to the seasons and climate being relatively similar as Europe and Asia. The Americas, on the other hand are geographically fragmented, this means that it would be difficult for plants and animals from South America to survive in North America because of the differences in seasons and climates, North America has a cold climate while South America has a warm climate. Africa’s extreme variations in the environment and weather made it impossible to use domesticated plants and animals from different regions of Africa. Unlike Africa and the America’s, the Europeans were able to adopt the animals and plants from parts of South West Asia including their agricultural techniques many years ago. Because societies in Eurasia were able to produce a crop surplus and in the long run create cities, people were able to specialise in advanced skills outside of basic survival, Eurasian people made their societies grow much faster economically and technologically in comparison to hunters and gatherers. These advantages eventually led the people of one part of Asia, and many parts of Europe to conquer the world using technological advances like guns and steel (Tomlinson, 1998).
In conclusion, Diamond answer to Yali’s question to why westerners have more cargo than New Guineans is geography, Diamond believes that the Westerners power and dominance over other parts of the world was not because of any biological superiority but that it simply came from luck that they were the ones who evolved in geographically advantageous areas. Had New Guineans been the ones to enjoy the same geographical advantages as Europeans, then they would have been the ones to conquer the rest of the world regardless of their race.
Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton ; Company.
Tom Tomlinson (May 1998). “Review: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 2008-03-14.