Why the west?

Why the ‘West’ has dominated the last couple of centuries is an interesting question with many aspects. It is especially so considering how many important technologies and ideas were either first or concurrently invented elsewhere.

Take zero:

The Western civilizations, for example, failed to come up with it even after thousands of years of mathematical inquiry. Indeed the scale of the conceptual leap achieved by India is illustrated by the fact that the classical world was staring zero in the face and still saw right through it. The abacus contained the concept of zero because it relied on place value. When a Roman wanted to express one hundred and one, he would push a bead in the first column to signify one hundred, move no beads in the second column indicating no tens, and push a bead in the third column to signify a single unit. The second, untouched column was expressing nothing. In calculations, the abacist knew he had to respect untouched columns just as he had to respect ones in which the beads were moved. But he never gave the value expressed by the untouched column a numerical name or symbol.

This is a passage from Here’s Looking and Euclid, which further proposes the failure to see zero was in part due to the West being down its own particular philosophical tangent. Whereas India was a place with a rich history that embraced nothingness:

Indian philosophy embraced the concept of nothingness just as Indian math embraced the concept of zero. The conceptual leap that led to the invention of zero happened in a culture that accepted the void as the essence of the universe.

Author Alex Bellos goes on to assert that it is partly the transmission of these Indian concepts that spurred the scientific revolution.

With the adoption of Arabic numbers, arithmetic joined geometry to become part of Western mathematics in earnest, having previously been more of a tool used by shopkeepers, and the new system helped open the door to the scientific revolution.

Of course the story is much more complicated.

Not only did the use of Arabic numerals and arithmetic require a rich intellectual and practical tradition upon which to glom on to. But the right combination of openness, education, wealth (etc.), and technologies like paper to kick off the revolution.

What is really clear is how important the interplay between civilisations has been for progress. Culture, philosophy, ideas and even biology all crossed borders. Some many times over.

The real question then is, why was the West the main beneficiary?

As always my emphasis.

What happens when you ban headscarves?

We find that the law reduces the secondary educational attainment of Muslim girls, and impacts their trajectory in the labor market and family composition in the long run. We provide evidence that the ban operates through increased perceptions of discrimination and that it reduces assimilation by casting religion and national identities as incompatible.

This is from a recent working paper looking at a 2004 French law that banned “religious signs” in primary and secondary schools. It affected many religions, but was essentially a de facto ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school.

These bans are purportedly to encourage assimilation and a homogenisation of values. But study authors Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka find that it can actually intensify a minority sense of identity.

Which makes sense. I’m struggling to think of a ban on anything that actually changed minds. Some part of the population will follow the decree because they believe in it already. Others will stomach it. And the rest will contravene and reap the consequences/rewards.

In cases like murder, the benefits of a ban outweigh the consequences for the individual. For some drugs, the tide seems to be shifting in the other direction.

But do the benefits of forced cultural homogenisation really outweigh the consequences for these women and their families? Especially given they could rebound for generations?

We measure educational and socioeconomic outcomes of French-born women with parents from Muslim-majority countries who were just old enough to have been at school when the law was enacted, and compare them to older cohorts who did not experience the ban, and to a variety of control groups, including non-Muslim immigrants and Muslim men.

Our first finding is that exposure to the ban significantly reduces the likelihood of completing secondary education. Part of this effect appears to be driven by a negative impact on enrollment rates in secondary school for Muslim women aged 16 and above… We also find that Muslim women affected by the ban took longer to complete secondary education, conditional on their pre-existing age-educational profiles. These higher dropout rates and longer completion times indicate that the ban disrupted the educational progress of Muslim girls. This negative educational shock carries over to a number of longer term outcomes, such as labor force participation, employment rates, and fertility patterns.

These women and families were wearing scarves for a legitimate reason to them. That a top-down approach is destined to fail is driven home by the mechanism by which this all occurred:

We show that these longer run effects of the ban work through two hypothesized pathways: a discrimination channel, and an identity channel. First, women affected by the ban report increased perceptions of discrimination at school and a lower trust in the French school system… Second.. Muslim women were forced to choose between a secular French identity and attachment to their religious practices, a conflict that often led to alienation from the French society. In the data, Muslim women affected by the ban increase their identification with the nationality of their father relatively more than their identification with France.

As always my emphasis.