Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Prologue : Yali's Question | Summary



The prologue begins with the central question of the book. On a 1972 trip to New Guinea, Diamond was talking with a friend, Yali, about what is now called Papua New Guinea and about global inequalities. Using the local word cargo to mean "material riches," 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 takes Yali's question and applies it to world history, attempting to divine the primary causes of current questions of inequality and power. Diamond pushes "this question back," from Yali and contemporary concerns, to why peoples of western Europe conquered much of the world in 1500, and then further back still, to explore what allowed European empires to form in the first place.

Before answering the question, Diamond rejects common interpretations, particularly the common idea of "biological difference between peoples" being responsible for conquest. Diamond finds such explanations both "loathsome" and "wrong." He writes that there is no scientific basis for notions of racial superiority. Based on personal experience he argues, "New Guineans are smarter than Westerners," largely because they have to learn to survive under very difficult circumstances. He also debunks the idea that a colder climate for Europeans produced a more ingenious society able to survive in harsher conditions.

Diamond hits on one common answer: access to "guns, infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products" benefited Europeans and allowed them to conquer other peoples. This is a step in the right direction, but why did those of western Eurasia have this advantage, and not others? He argues both that the answer will have to be developed from an interdisciplinary approach employing genetics, geography, biology, archaeology, and epidemiology and that he is uniquely qualified to develop such a book. He then gives a general outline of the book.


The prologue develops some of the major themes, questions, and methodologies for the book. It first establishes that Guns, Germs, and Steel is ultimately trying to understand contemporary political questions about the nature of power and global inequalities in the 20th century. It also establishes that Diamond is developing his book to counter widespread racist ideas about the distribution and nature of contemporary power and about why some peoples were colonized and others built global empires.

Given this explicitly political and anti-racist framework, Diamond goes on to establish that his book will use empiricism and the scientific method to explore how and why global inequalities developed as they did. Diamond is first and foremost looking at a historical question, and his book is primarily a work of interdisciplinary history, covering the span of 13,000 years of human history and looking at how geography dramatically impacts human societies. This book is scientific as well as historical, attempting to explore through comparison and hypothesis the basis and possible answers for Yali's question about the nature of global wealth inequality.

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