9. Consilience: A new framework of understanding

What universities can do

In Canada, the University of Lethbridge has two programs for undergraduates: a general experience-based brain development program and a more detailed neurobiological development program dealing with the impact of experience, genetics and epigenetics on neurobiological pathways. About 80 percent of all undergraduates take a human development course, and the university recruits graduates from different academic programs into a post-doctoral program in human development. The intention is to develop faculty with a general understanding of human development and how it relates to their disciplines.

The University of Toronto is creating an Institute of Human Development to bring together research scientists with clinicians, social workers and educators.62 Its scope will reach from basic scientific research into health and microbiology to applied research in education. Cross-disciplinary collaborations are already underway to develop undergraduate courses in early human development for all students.

The Aga Khan University (with campuses in Pakistan and East Africa) is working in close collaboration with the Aga Khan Development Network to set up an Institute for Human Development. Its stated mission is “to build capacity and drive innovation in research and higher education to advance our understanding of human development and the application of this knowledge to practice and policy that benefits individuals and serves to strengthen pluralistic societies.”63

When scientists are able to work across disciplinary boundaries, they often find multiple lines of evidence pointing in the same direction. What we know about developmental neurobiology in early childhood and its effects on health, learning and behaviour throughout the life course makes a strong case for organizing our society to better support young children and families.

Future work in the promising area of early human development will require transdisciplinary collaborations among neuroscientists, geneticists, social and biological psychologists, educators, epidemiologists, and policy and intervention experts. These experts will need to focus on stressful stimuli to the brain and the effects on health (physical and mental), behaviour and learning throughout the life course.

E.O. Wilson proposed the idea of consilience of knowledge.61 Understanding human society means joining up knowledge from biological and social sciences and from the humanities, not discounting one perspective in favour of another. Different disciplines, theoretical perspectives and evidence bases add new layers of meaning to what we know about human development. Biological perspectives and recognition of the central role of the human brain provide insight into conversations about human societies that are relevant to all.

Post-secondary education ideally should ensure a core understanding of early human development is offered across all disciplines. While academic silos can present barriers, the common knowledge base is applicable across traditionally separate disciplines in colleges and undergraduate university studies. At a more advanced level, transdisciplinary graduate programs can link new discoveries in science across disciplines and mobilize knowledge for societal improvement through innovative programs and practices.

Confronted with accelerated technical and social changes, Canada must successfully meet the challenges of nurturing, socializing and educating the next generation of citizens. Our efforts rely on a keen understanding of the nature and processes of early development, and a clear appreciation of the powerful impact that social environments have early in life. Early human development, population well-being and societal adaptation are indeed closely linked: knowledge about early human development is crucial to understanding and promoting healthy human and social capital outcomes.

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