A House subcommittee put in a useful day last month, just pondering the depths of man's ignorance of the world about us. The hearing didn't qualify as news for the evening TV, but the subject was of towering importance.
Rep. James H. Scheuer, D-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee that handles environmental issues, is a man with a mission. He wants to bring an element of order to the disorderly way in which information is now assembled on the animals, birds, fish, insects and other species that inhabit our planet. His idea is to coordinate a comprehensive inventory. We cannot know what we are losing, he observes, until we know what we have.It is unquestioned that our planet constantly loses subspecies. The process has been going on for millennia, partly through natural selection, partly through the activities of man.
The most persuasive witness before Scheuer's subcommittee on May 23 was Patricia T. Bradt, principal research scientist at Lehigh University's Environmental Studies Center. She is a biologist who has devoted the past 20 years to the study of benthic invertebrates. These she defines as "critters that live on the bottom of lakes and streams."
She said: "It is essential for evaluating the health of an aquatic system to know exactly how many different kinds of invertebrates are there. However, invertebrate identifications are difficult, in sore need of research, and taxonomic keys are often unpublished or inaccessible. I must send fingernail clams to Canada, midge larvae to Pittsburgh and mayflies to Illinois for identification confirmation."
Scheuer's bill would establish a National Center for Biological Diversity. Its principal task would lie in cataloging the mountains of taxonomic data that now pile up helter-skelter in various government agencies and private institutions. As Bradt says, we know a great deal about "warm fuzzy vertebrates, beautiful birds and spectacular flowers. But of perhaps greater importance to ecosystem functioning are the little known beetles that bury dead carcasses; the praying mantis that bites off its mate's head; the hat-throwing fungus that tosses its spores a meter; the delicious mushrooms that grow only in symbiotic association with certain trees; the alga that spends winters in the gut of a dragonfly.
"As a biologist I am continually surprised and delighted by the diversity of forms and functions that living organisms assume. They have evolved to take advantage of a particular ecological niche, and we must preserve these niches lest we destroy inconspicuous species forever, before we know why they are on this planet."
This outsider, who is no biologist, is too ignorant to have an opinion on whether the bill is good or bad. But my gut instinct tells me that Scheuer is on to something big. At the very least, his idea merits a national debate.