What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…

The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:

I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.

But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?

By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.

This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.

Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)

Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.

To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …

So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:

Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?

Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.

I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:

During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.

UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.

22 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

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  6. I have my own issues with Diamond, but I think
    you’re way off with these criticisms.

    “By framing the question in this way, the show is
    forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor
    people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although
    we are told that there are intelligent people
    from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter
    gatherers, or poor farmers.”

    But Diamond’s entire point (as spelled out in the
    book) is that hunting and gathering requires
    a high level of sophistication. You seem to
    infer that viewers will look upon hunter-gatherers
    as inherently “inferior”. Why should he defer
    to their misconceptions?

    “While it is interesting and important to ask why
    technologies developed in some countries as opposed
    to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue:
    the inequality within countries as well as between

    Sure, but this isn’t a fair criticism; it’s
    just not the question that Diamond set out
    to answer. He is looking at coarser-grained
    issues which are every bit as interesting as
    the more fine-grained issue that you raise.

  7. Diamond _takes as a premise_ that hunter-gathering societies *are* inferior, and he puzzles over why, if the people composing them are just as smart as the people composing every other kind of society. It’s not the latter premise that is objectionable, it is the former.

  8. I was also troubled by the way the show uses New Guineans as if they were walking time capsules, living panoramas of what life was like thousands of years ago. We are encouraged to gaze on the people featured on the show as if they were archetypical hunter-gatherers before European contact, and discouraged from thinking about the fact that a camera-man is present, that many of the people in the frame are wearing modern t-shirts, that JD is present … in short, that we are not stepping back in time and that we cannot simply use New Guinean practices uncritically as evidence of what ancient food-gathering processes were like.

    Historically, colonial projects to “civilize” have often hinged on the premise that time has somehow been frozen in the colonial society for thousands of years, and that intervention from outside is needed to start the clock running again. This program, of course, doesn’t say that and is not a brief for imperialism; but I’m troubled by the residue of that myth that when we are looking at modern-day New Guineans, we are seeing time stand still.

  9. I’m on a trip atm but when I’m back I’ll write more on this. I have a lot to say as a PNG scholar. GGS makes me twitch for a number of reasons.

    A few things about Diamond:

    1. There is actually a book called “Yali’s Question” that gives a very standard anthropological response to Diamond’s book(complete with strongly held but ungrounded normative basis!) by Deborah Gewertz and Fred Errington who are two VERY respected PNG scholars. It’s worth a read. I have issues with it, but that’s just me.

    2. WHERE THE HELL IS INDIA? How can you write an entire book on world history and spend so much time on the Pacific and Asia and not mention INDIA?

    3. Diamond is Braudel lite. For people who want a 1 volume history of the world which includes a discussion of things like Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, I suggest “The Human Web” by the McNeil’s or Geoffrey Blainey’s “Short History of the World”.

  10. Are we not looking at time standing still? While I think that’s a strong phrase and a dramatic one at that, I feel that Jared Diamond is not necessarily saying that New Guineans are mere holdovers from ancient times; rather that they are representative of some characteristics that we know to be archaic (use of certain tools, hunting & gathering, etc.). Anthropology has used cultural analogies as long as it has been around and as far as I can tell is a very useful tool when used with discretion. How many questions have been answered about the past because we have contemporary parallels present in the world?

  11. Ozma, Diamond does not take as a premise that hunter-gathering societies are inferior. That is a misreading of his argument. In fact, he has often noted that if you compare hunter-gathering societies to their immediate successors in history, i.e. Stone Age farmers, the farmers are invariably worse off – in health, life expectancy, amount of leisure time, even social inequality. (As evidence, he points to skeletons of farmers as compared to hunter-gatherers – farmer skeletons are shorter, have worse teeth, more diseases, and so on.) He has actually called the adoption of farming the worst mistake in the history of the human race.

    What he is saying is that farming societies are generally more powerful than hunter-gathering societies, because they are more populous, have more concentrated political power, and so on. 10 stunted, unhealthy peasant farmers can still beat 1 tall, healthy hunter-gatherer in battle. “More powerful” does not imply “superior”.

  12. Andrew, he can hardly help but acknowledge the plusses of hunter-gather societies, as Sahlin’s _Stone Age Economics: The Original Affluent Society_ definitively established them. Diamond is nothing if not an evidentiary packrat, which I freely acknowledge. But I don’t think you can understand the question which he wrote GG&S to answer if you don’t see that he takes the very existence of (certain) PNG societies as a problem to be solved.

    It reminds me of that song from My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” There, however, the premise (men are normal, women are slightly off) is taken to be absurd, and sent up accordingly. That’s funny.

    JD’s book departs from a similarly absurd premise, but — because it gets taken so seriously — I for one am not laffin.

  13. “But I don’t think you can understand the question which he wrote GG&S to answer if you don’t see that he takes the very existence of (certain) PNG societies as a problem to be solved.”

    This is such an utter misrepresentation of his arguments that it brings to mind a line from The Crackpot Index:

    “29. 30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)”

  14. Ozma, I don’t see how that’s true at all. He nowhere says that PNG cultures are anomalous, unless you count “unusual” as “anomalous” (they are unusual solely in a statistical sense, not normative!). In fact in the article I linked to, he emphasizes that hunter-gathering has been the dominant form of human life for the vast, vast majority of our history:

    Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

    If anything, he is trying to upend the idea that agriculture is normal and hunting and gathering is abnormal.

  15. And, by the way, I think the focus on Yali’s question distracts from Diamond’s main argument. It’s just a metaphor, an anecdote that grabs the reader’s attention to lead into the main question of his book: Why did people from Eurasia conquer people from the Americas, Africa, and Australia, rather than the other way around? This question, in an analogous way to Yali’s question, does not assume that people in the Americas, Africa and Australia were in any way “inferior” to Eurasians, or even abnormal – it only assumes the manifest historical fact that people from Eurasia did, in fact, conquer people from the Americas, Africa, and Australia.

  16. Andrew, I don’t want to repeat everything I’ve said here already. It’s okay if you don’t agree with me, but I’m unwilling to replicate a very long post and several very long responsive comments. Let me put it another way: what if I wrote a book called “why I am cooler than you, explained” and the thesis of the book was that although I am “manifestly” cooler than you, it’s not your fault & in fact could not have turned out otherwise.

    Would it get under your skin? Strike you as condescending? and perhaps a bit …. biased?

  17. But that’s just the thing! Diamond does not say that “I am cooler than you” or that Europeans are cooler than non-Europeans. And to interpret his book as saying that is, in my opinion, a serious misreading. First of all, “I” is not the same as “Eurasian societies.” He is not speaking *on behalf of* Europeans. Second, conquest is not the same as coolness (or moral value, or superiority, or anything like that). To say that conquest = coolness strikes me as very disingenuous.

  18. Ozma, the problem here (as I would see it, I can’t say much, having never read the book) is that Andrew is saying that Diamond didn’t write a book that says “why I am cooler than you” or even “why my civilization is cooler than yours” but really “why my civilization conquered yours.”
    And last I checked a conquering of sorts did go down. This doesn’t neccessarily imply that one civilization is superior to another, it just implies that one is more prone to growing faster than, killing and enslaving other civilizations. I’m not sure that’s an accurate portrayal of the book, but what do I know.

  19. again, again, *we disagree* on Diamond’s basic question. I don’t think it is in any way innocuous, and I think his approach to answering it is even less innocuous. I’ll stop repeating myself now.

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  21. What are you saying, Ozma? That scholars should be forbidden to discuss inequalities between cultures? The fact that the per capita GDP of the United States is 40,000 dollars, and that the per capita GDP of Papua New Guinea is 600, is completely off-limits?

  22. Ozma, I don’t mean to be rude, but your comments make no sense at all. Diamond isn’t making any value judgements at all in his question. It is, as Andrew rightly says, about power relations. Why did Eurasia conquer Australasia, and not the other way round. Diamond repeats this formulation again and again throughout the book, so I find it hard to believe you don’t realise this. His premise is that agricultural societies are better at war and conquest than hunter-gatherers, and I doubt you would dispute that. Again, there is no value judgement here. From that premise, all Diamond is doing is saying that biogeography accounts for the more rapid development and spread of agriculture and the subsequent trappings of civilisation (writing, “cargo” etc) in Eurasia than in other parts of the world. What on earth is objectionable about that? It may be right or wrong but it’s not a question of morality.

    Furthermore, your point about PNG makes even less sense. Of course there are urban Papua New Guineans with internet access, but you’ll notice they weren’t urban Papua New Guineans with internet access before Portugal invaded. And I have no idea where you get this idea that Diamond thinks of ” (certain) PNG societies as a problem to be solved”. He writes with incredible warmth and sympathy about PNG and its societies all the way through the book. What PNG societies do you think he thinks are a problem to be solved, and where’s your evidence?

    Finally, you are right that inequality within societies are important. Diamond wouldn’t question this. But it has absolutely no bearing on the question at hand. There were many, many different societies in Eurasia, Africa , the Americas and Asia, all with varying levels of inequality. That doesn’t change the fact that it was Eurasian societies who conquered the others, thanks in large part due to superior technology and partial immunity to epidemic diseases, and not the other way round.

  23. Not sure why I said Portugal in the post above, but you get might point. I’d also like to point out that Diamond repeatedly contrasts the relative sophistication of PNG agriculture and technology with that of Australia and Tasmania, and argues that biogeography helps explain the differences not just between Eurasian societies and others but between non-Eurasian ones too. Again, I really can’t see how you disagree on this point. Australia is spectacularly ill-suited to agriculture, while PNG is not great, but much better. How can that fail to have a huge impact on how their various societies develop from broadly similar starting points (ie small hunter-gatherer bands)?

  24. Hi Ginger Yellow,

    You are sometimes confusing me with Kerim. I didn’t make the point about inequality within societies, he did (though I agree with him that it is, again, telling that Diamond evinces no interest in this problem).

    I understand that my comments make no sense to you. At base, we have a disagreement about whether Jared Diamond’s attitude toward PNGuineans is “incredibly warm and sympathetic” or so patronizing it makes one’s teeth ache. One of the things that is very striking about this entire debate is how it doesn’t seem to matter how often the anthropologists and geographers say that Diamond’s thesis does not convince specialists, people are insistent that it just has to be so, anyway, because it makes sense to them. as someone else said somewhere else in all this (and I am sorry to not be able to give attribution), GG&S is a “just so” story. Arguing with this is like beating one’s head against a wall.

  25. Um, this is such a weird perspective it’s hard to know what to do with it. It’s as if I’d written my senator complaining about his stance on an issue and gotten a letter back from a member of his staff saying I was obviously only being so picky because I was jealous I wasn’t a senator, too.

    Diamond operates in a different universe than we do. I don’t think I am overstepping by saying that probably, for the group of young scholars here, what makes us professionally envious is stuff like seeing somebody we went to graduate school with get an article published in a major journal, or land a hyper presitigious job. That any of us think, “dammit, that should have been *my* PBS special” when we watch a 70 year old man tottering about on public television is, well, a truly baffling line of attack. You might think we are motivated by bad faith, but we are certainly not motivated by that kind of bad faith.

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  27. Guns Germs and Steel is one of the flimsiest historical theories I have ever encountered and I can not understand how Jared Diamond has garnered the attention that he has. Leave it to a Physiologist/linguist to take on the job of an Anthropologist/Archeologist and get it all wrong. I believe what Jared Diamond attempts is benign justification for Western stereotypes and misconceptions about the rest of the world. He seems to believe that nobody outside of Eurasia has benefited from cultural diffusion, nor have they contributed anything of value to world history or civilization.

    Ironically, Northern and Western Europeans have contributed among the least to what we could consider human civilization. For example, there is no sign of relevant civilizations ever existing in Scandinavia.

    African nations have been trading with other parts of the world for millennia. Ancient Nubia had strong trade relationships with nations inside as well as outside of Africa for thousands of years and at one point even ruled over Egypt. Ethiopians were also among the first people to adopt Christianity in 4th century AD. How could this have come about if there was little contact with countries outside of Africa? Yemen is only a stone’s throw from Ethiopia; the countries are divided by the “Bab el Mandeb” (Red Sea/Gulf of Aden).

    To convince one’s self that civilization and technological advancement have only come about within the parameters of that arbitrary border confining what Jared Diamond refers to as Eurasia is ridicules, especially in the face of Archeological and Anthropological evidence to the contrary. Any first year Cultural Anthropology student would know this.

    In East Africa Swahili were building ships for centuries that were superior in quality to early European ships called “mtepe;” and were trading with China, Arabia and India by sea, becoming very wealthy as a result. Most of China’s ivory for some time came from direct trade with the Swahili. According to many authors including Schmidt and Avery (1978, 1979, 1986) and a review in American Anthropologist (Kusimba, 1997), Africans between 1500-2000 years ago were smelting iron at temperatures not reached in Europe until the industrial age. These Africans (in Tanzania) are believed to be among the first to produce carbon steel, using a special preheating method.

    In West Africa the civilizations of Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Timbuktu attracted people from all over the world. In the early part of the fourteenth century to the time of the Moroccan invasion in the late sixteenth century, the city of Timbuktu became an important intellectual and spiritual center of the Islamic world, attracting people from as far away as Saudi Arabia to study there. Great mosques, universities, schools, and libraries were built under the Mali and Songhay Empires, some of which still stand today.

    A large number of innovations that many Europeans today recognize as being uniquely their own, such as fire arms and the old trade ships once used for commerce (The kind used by Columbus for example) trace their history back to technologies and influences acquired through Islamic contacts in the Iberian Peninsula. In the year 711 AD, Islamic invaders conquered that part of Europe known today as Spain and Portugal and ruled over the region for close to 800 years (711 to 1492). Europe as a result saw a number of improvements in various areas of life and interest, ranging from the medical sciences to military; to paved roads, and street lamps. The Moor also introduced Europe to its first Universities and the numerical system currently in popular use today.

    Scholars describe the Moor as originating in the Senegal River valley in Southern Mauritania as Almoravides, and then gathering followers from many ethic groups before overwhelming the Iberian Peninsula. The Almoravides were a group of devout Muslims also partially responsible for the destabilization and eventual demise of the Kingdom of Ghana — located in what is today Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania — in and around the same time as the Iberian siege.

    The spread of Islam into Africa is not mentioned in Jared Diamond’s theory, nor is the fact that the Saharan Desert is only between 5000-2000 years old, making his claims of isolation seem all the more ridiculous in from a broad perspective. Further, it has also been shown that the current inhabitants of Europe do not resemble Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans in craniofacial form, but share close affinities with sub-Saharan Africans (Brace et al, 2006). I am curious why Jared Diamond does not incorporate these bits of historical, geographic and Anthropologic information into his makeshift post hoc hypothesis.

    At the time of Columbus’s arrival in the America’s the Aztec were using math, astronomy and agriculture that was superior to Europeans. If it were not for contact with South American Amerindians (initially by accident) much of Europe would have likely died of starvation; as the continent was experiencing sever famine at the time. It was South American agriculture and crops that saved Europe from near death. Ironically, in exchange for this vitally needed learning the Europeans inadvertently killed off between 80-95% of Amerindian populations; completely wiping out many Aboriginal Caribbean native groups with new-world diseases, and then slavery.


    Africans had access to guns, too – but like the Arabs, who introduced the weapon to Europeans, initially found them inconvenient for traditional warfare. In effect, Africans also had guns germs and steal, which refutes a large part of Jared Diamond’s ridiculous theory.

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