More than forty years ago a New Guinean named Yali posed a question to a biologist as they walked along. “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?” Jared Diamond, the biologist and author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, had no clear answer to give Yali, at least not yet. However his question and the beginnings of this book revealed two things about my perspective. The first is simply that in the years since this inquiry it is not a question that I have ever heard uttered. Of course the second is related, it has to do with a western perspective shaped by distance. Shaped from within a modern western mindset we see things in a certain way, goods are manufactured to meet personal needs and wants so that I may maintain my lifestyle. Conversely we (western countries) have something developing countries need. Yali’s question begins to the turn the tables so that we can look at the problems and developments in this book from their vantage point.
What Jared Diamond understood is that Yali’s question was not so much about goods; it was about inequalities. Thus the investigative question shaping this book asks, “Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? He quickly dispels my notion of climate, but I actually did get somewhere thinking about geography. Although a bit of a disclaimer is in order. Several years ago I had an assignment to do a research paper on El Salvador up to 1950. Lo and behold one of the things I discovered is that the area which would become El Salvador, was among the was among last evangelized (or should I say conquered?) since the region lacked ocean access from the east. Geography made the difference.
It doesn’t take too long in this book before we have to confront something that is not all that easily reconciled.
Disease, though an unintended consequence (and I know in other times very intended), played a decisive part in the Spanish defeat of the Inca peoples. Prior to Pizarro’s arrival the Inca Empire had been weakened by smallpox which had precipitated a civil war, something Pizarro was able to capitalize upon.. “One of the key factors in world history: diseases transmitted to peoples lacking immunity by invading peoples with considerable immunity.” Despite being vastly outnumbered the Spanish Governor Pizarro conquers the Inca ruler, Atahuallpa.
Quickly taking Atahuallpa prisoner Pizarro asserted, “We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead.” These words and the mindset made me think again about perspective and how we view the other. Sounds like he really believed it, doesn’t it? Even though it is clear his outnumbered soldiers were terrified they did not back down. He not only believed it, but Pizarro’s confidence and swift action was so effective that Inca people would be conquered. Why is that? What is it about speaking and acting on the behalf of your country’s King that embodies confidence? Among all the political and economic reasonings behind the rush to discover and conquer foreign lands, there is the sobering question to what degree did (does) Christian belief so influence action that we miss the gospel? You might be thinking that I am jumbling centuries; you would be correct. But if we consider our reading and discussions from last semester it seems we (I) need to recognize and acknowledge how this is so. Rather than promote equality, we have, perhaps most especially, when associated with government and politics had an approach of inequality.
There are real reasons and factors that have contributed to our inequality in human development. Diamond’s book is fascinating as he explores human exploration and expansion, examines our relationship with animals and our ability (or not) to domestic them, the difference population makes as well as the effect of guns. Due to time (not enough this week due to grading and prepping summer courses) my scan of the book is too brief, I confess. But as I interface this book with others we have read I wonder. Perhaps what is missing is the recognition of mutuality, when each party needs and receives something from the other. Diamond seems to illustrate this, “The main process running through the history of the last 10,000 years: human groups with guns, germs, and steel or with earlier technological and military advantages, spreading at he expense of other groups, until either the latter groups became replaced or everyone came to share the new advantages.”
Although I am thinking of the United States, I am also thinking of Australia. This country and in particular the people of Melbourne captured my heart during a (much too) short seven months that spanned an Australia spring to fall in 2011-2012 when my husband was on a short-term work assignment. Much has changed in recent government policy and practice concerning people seeking asylum. Living there I became aware just how diverse – ethnically, religiously and in nationality Australia is. A country that once bid people to come is turning people away, forcefully or placing in containment. On Palm Sunday this year tens of thousands of Australians marched in the major cities to protest these policies that demean those who are seeking refuge.
Charles Taylor considers the opportunity that awaits us in this time of globalization and instant communications where we are in closer proximity to one another and have increased potential to learn from each other. He reminds us that we must be aware of our differences in a healthy way, “because the understanding of what it is to borrow or to come close to the other is often very different from different standpoints.” The task before us, Taylor reminds us, is “the positive work, of building mutual understanding.” I hope that for Australia, the countries we represent and for my perspective as well.
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 12. Cargo refers to materials goods ranging from axes, to clothing, medicine, soft drinks, etc. brought to New Guinea.