What's the Use of Life?

August 01, 1994|By BARBARA TUFTY

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Why save the whale? What is the need for the fiery skipper butterfly on our lawns or roadsides? What use is a white trout lily growing in the woods? A Gila monster slinking across a desert? A tiger raging through the Satpura forest of India? What use are these things?

You might just as well ask: Why do we need fingernails? What use are five toes? Do we really need music? Poetry? Math? What use are dalmatians? Collies? Siamese cats?

Or even, what use is a human being?

There is no simple answer. There may not be any need for any creature, including humans, but here we are -- and we each represent part of an enormously complex and splendid tapestry of life on this planet. We are all part of threads, color and fabrics interwoven in wild, strange designs to give strength, substance and variety to life.

We all are living organisms that have through billions of years conformed to or altered the atmosphere, rocks and soils, waterways and deserts, and evolved to our present forms. Each one of us shares a part of this planet, maintaining a precarious balance between humans, animals and plants; our needs for food, water and sun; and our desires for self-assertion and space. The interweaving of these diverse organisms, their activities and environments creates the diversity of life.

The basic unit of biodiversity is the species, which consist of individuals that are grouped together into genera, families and orders. The spirea in your garden is related to the rose -- as well as to cinquefoil, hawthorn, apple, quince, raspberry, cherry, peach.

You, I, your neighbor are members of the genus Homo, and even though today we are only one species, sapiens, we differ from each other in a million and one distinct ways. Our primate order includes a wide range from the tiny tree shrews and the wide-eyed lemurs to the monkeys, baboons, orangutans and gorillas.

Biological richness is the abundant diversity of life. Today, some 10 million species exist -- about 9,000 kinds of birds, 4,500 kinds of mammals, 20,000 butterflies and perhaps 250,000 plants, according to botanist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chair of the Committee on the Formation of the National Biological Survey. There may be as many as 1.5 million kinds of fungi; and the 4,000 named species of bacteria represent only a tiny fraction of the actual total. What about fish? Beetles? Leprechauns?

All this tremendously rich biodiversity is important: the complex interrelationships between organisms and ecosystems weave the little understood, fragile web of our lives. The presence of a caddis-fly larva denotes an unpolluted stream; a fresh-water mussel indicates a healthy river; an earthworm, fertile soil; butterflies, fresh air.

We Homo sapiens are beginning to understand the dynamic relationship of species to the health of the ecosystem and to the well-being of the whole planet, including ourselves.

The question remains: Will we understand it before we destroy it?

Barbara Tufty is a conservation editor and writer.

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