Evolution is all about the fitness of an individual – and species – to survive and reproduce in a given environment. And survival is successfully navigating the world in search of food, drink, and mates, and avoiding or overcoming danger. In many ways, it’s like football. Your aim is to be at the top of the league and to be there, your team has to be fitter than your competitors and win games. The main difference is that if you are unfit in football, you fall to the bottom of the table and then get relegated to the next lower league. In evolution there is only one league and in that one, you play for your life. Be unfit and lose, you face death and extinction, you and your team, your species.

For Homo sapiens, turning around his relationship with the crocodile and making himself the super predator among the animals was a big step toward his championing the game of survival. But survival skills are neither the invention of Homo sapiens nor do they come from the 250 million years old reptilian brain of the crocodile. Long before the first animals with nervous systems evolved, already the sponge was fulfilling the same survival requirements. In fact, the survival strategies of all plants and animals, as different as their physical structures may be, reflect the same survival needs: Move toward nutrients and sources of energy: Over the day, the sunflower turns its blossom from the East to the West along the path of the sun in the sky; Move away from harm and danger; Remember and learn: Overnight, the sunflower turns its blossom back to the East to be ready for the sunrise; And because evolution wants organisms to survive not only as individuals but as a species, reproduce. These instructions for survival are universal and date back to the beginning of one-cellular life. Single-cell organisms have developed these behaviors without having a brain or even a nervous system. As part of the history of life as such, they are innate and lie directly in the cell. And today, in our human DNA.

In the world of the one-cellular organism, bacteria are the grand master of survival. They have been following these biological survival instructions for the last 3.5 billion years. Bacteria reproduce asexually. 2 billion years ago, protozoa, also a single-celled organism but more like an animal or plant cell, engaged in mating for sexual reproduction. Today, sexual reproduction is the norm in plant and animal life. According to Ella Fitzgerald, birds and bees and even educated fleas do it, beans and oysters, clams and lazy jellyfish do it, and Lithuanians and Letts, and the Dutch and Finns do it.

To secure the survival of the species by sexual reproduction, evolutionary forces and biology have encoded in the survival instructions of animals, including humans, specific behaviors as their primal instinct of sexuality. I apologize to the LGBTQIA+ communities, but here, only the heterosexual males and females count. All other post-modern gender identities are not of interest because for procreation and evolution of the human species, they lead nowhere. And as we all know, when it comes to sex, heterosexual males and females behave differently. So, it comes as no surprise that these innate behaviors are gender specific. They are biologically programmed to be so: Males engage in mate searching and compete for mates through violence and courtship. The females focus on the success of their offspring by exercising their choice with whom they mate. Sexual reproduction opened the gender binary of male and female not as a social construct but as biologically hard-wired behavior.

Sexuality is such a dynamic life force that I could well imagine that the gender binary of male and female shaped the human perception of the rest of the world in binary oppositions as well. I say this because the human mind’s default processing template is binary and neurologists say, this reflects how the brain works; a neuron fires, or it does not. And with their growing mental capacities, humans started figuring out the world in binary oppositions: Hot or cold, light or dark, one or many, high or deep, true or false, good or bad, us or them, human or animal, human or God, and all the rest. Structuralists say that without binary oppositions we cannot make sense of the world. Linguists say that without them language cannot convey meaning. And philosophers debate whether binary oppositions are two opposed parts of one concept or two mutually exclusive conditions. Post-structuralists argue that binary oppositions were imposed by authoritarian social forces and reject them altogether.

Our brain, the organ of our conscious and unconscious perception, helps us in other ways with survival. Evolution has brought a unique order into the complex interactions among our environment and our bodily senses and the mind. It has coordinated our perception of the world with the sole objective of promoting our survival. Recently in my garden at dusk, I experienced this deep-rooted system:

I was strolling through the grass along the hedge and suddenly jumped, in fright. What I saw had triggered a survival alarm: ‘A snake!’. But then immediately my fear was refuted: ‘False alarm. Relax, it’s only the garden hose.’ For the split of a second, my perception had taken me back to our origins in the forest, signaled a threat and ensured that I would be ready to fight or flee. When I told my brother of this occurrence, he laughed at me and told me that I had been in Africa too long, there were no more snakes in the gardens of Switzerland. That’s beside my argument, I explained. There are no more snakes in the garden where I live in Nairobi either, but my experience showed that evolution had hard-wired our perception to promote survival and help us identify threats of the jungle, still today. And, of course, it showed that I was still fit for survival. Had I not jumped and had it been a snake, I might have been bitten and had I been bitten, I might now be dead and gone.

This selective human perception in favor of survival not only alerts us to threats but also helps us identify best food. Human perception recognizes the shape and red color of an apple as ripe and ready, easy food. Due to this on the market stands, the green Granny Smith has a hard time. Is it ripe yet? In Africa in the Stone Age thousands of years ago, the perception of a snake in the grass by an early modern human will also have triggered the instinctive survival alarm: ‘Be ready to fight or flee’. But then, the brain will have opened options: ‘Let it go’, ‘let me kill it to avoid a future threat’ or, particularly in the forests of Central and West Africa, ‘I haven’t eaten today, let me kill and eat it’. Killing and eating a snake was more effortful than picking an apple, but worth it. Its proteins kept Homo sapiens’ brain power growing and boosted his perception in favor of survival and, over time, many other things.

But throughout the Stone Age, Homo sapiens was still closer to living the life of an animal, following his biological program. His behaviors had evolved over millions of years and were genetically hard-wired. He was a roaming hunter-gatherer, following his instincts, busy meeting the basic needs for his physical survival: Eat, drink and sleep. When danger calls, fight or flee. And for the survival of the species, procreate.

Fast forward: At the University of Bern in the seventies, I was self-evidently ’68 generation and progressive. I considered myself not only to be a student of law but also an intellectual. I read sociology and had great sympathy for the ‘nouveaux philosophes’ and their post-structuralism. I liked that they did not represent any particular school of thought or political movement. I also liked their rejection of traditional social structures but do not recall any one of them denying the gender binary of male–female. That came later. I was ‘tiers-mondiste’, read titles like ‘L’Afrique aux Africains’ and debated ‘Dissociation as a Development Strategy’ for the Third World. In my post-graduate studies of international relations in Geneva, I started a diploma project on cross-cultural awareness in international affairs. Once I had joined the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, I volunteered to go to the Swiss Embassy in Kinshasa for my practical diplomatic training. And in 1982 when I returned from Kinshasa and was nominated as Swiss career diplomat, I vied for a position in the multilateral affairs of the Swiss Development Cooperation and got it.

Dealing mainly with the development organizations of the United Nations, I came to know the basic human needs of survival from another point of view. In the sixties and early seventies attempts to bring development to the Third World through technical assistance and then the economy had failed. Something had to change. So now, international development cooperation was to provide the necessary resources for the survival and development of the individual. The lowest rung of human survival needs had inspired the international development strategy. In 1976 when it was declared, the ‘basic needs approach’ was about food and nutrition, water and sanitation, clothing, and housing. Then, basic education and basic health services were added. Then also ‘non-material needs’, such as ‘self-determination’, ‘political freedom’, ‘cultural identity’ and ‘sense of purpose in life and work’, and then – it got out of hand and fell apart. The basic needs approach to international aid and development was also short-lived.

After four years in the multilateral affairs of the Swiss Development Cooperation in Berne, I was transferred to New York, New York, ‘The city so nice they named it twice’. There from 1986 to 1990, I was at the Swiss Mission to the United Nations, covering the economic and social work of the UN, which included the United Nations Development Programme UNDP. New York is where I became a true devotee of jazz and blues and ran marathons with the New York Road Runners. But I did not neglect my diplomatic work. In1989, I was elected to be the representative of the donor countries on the Board of the UNDP Governing Council. It was the last year of the 1980s and the end of the UN Development Decade. As a proud First Vice-President and Chairman of the powerful Budget and Finance Committee of UNDP, I participated in the evaluation of the 3rd Development Decade of the United Nations. Since 1960, the year of African Independence, the UN had considered its global developmental efforts in the framework of ‘Development Decades’ – and ever-changing strategies. But from technical assistance to economic cooperation, from the basic needs approach to integrated projects and supporting government programs and budgets, the international community had never found the formula for accomplishing development in the Third World to the ambition of the North. In a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we concluded that the Third Development Decade had failed. And that there should not be a fourth one. – The Berlin Wall had fallen, it was the end of the Cold War, and the world would soon come to a new order anyway.

to receive email adverts for new texts.

to write comments.

  • Another awe inspiring piece, this time from single cells to UN Decades, and without a snake in the garden!

  • I think your brother is right, although there are snakes in our garden in the Jura mountains – only they are inoffensive.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}