Aim some research funds at life beneath our feet
WITH some $38 billion of federal tax money, the United States landed a man on the moon. He brought back a bag or two of rocks. Further billions have been spent in the 20 years since to explore the mysteries of outer space. Such feats have enlarged our national pride and prestige and have added a little to knowledge of the earth's outer skin. No such billions have ever been offered to learn about what emerges from the earth's soil. We have not probed thoroughly enough to learn what abundant values exist in the plants, insects, and other creatures that are close, underfoot, or at arm's length.
Botanists have given names to about 300,000 species of plants. Man knows a little about only one-half of 1 percent of these, the few upon which he depends to feed himself and his animals. Yet, modern science wields enough chemical, electronic, and other tools to research them all. Each species could be examined in all its stages, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit. Even if most were found valueless, a few discoveries could yield new components for industrial processes, improve diets, or lead to medicines yet unknown. Nearly half of the medicines now in use have originated in plants. And other uses would likely be found.
No one as yet knows as much about the actual compositions of lower plant forms, such as the 15,000 species of moss and an estimated 50,000 kinds of fungus.
What about insects? They seem to be better adapted than man for earthly survival. Entomologists estimate that so far some 850,000 kinds have been described, and guessers say that probably 2 million kinds exist. Except for honeybees, silkworms, and a very few others, man has found little use for and knows little about these abundant creatures. Would their body fluids, their venoms, or their coatings reveal values yet unsuspected? We ought to look.
The waters of the seas have furnished fish, shellfish, turtles, and other edibles. But little scientific effort has looked into the multitudes of organisms that abound from the shores to the ocean depths. Far below the waves, life forms manage to flourish without oxygen or light. They may have more useful things to tell us than can be found on Mars or Jupiter.
If plants, insects, and sea creatures do not supply us with enough ignorance, we could also inquire into the bacteria, invisible but accessible.
A comprehensive program of research into all the life forms, to seek all their possible values to humankind, could not be carried out cheaply, nor finished soon, if ever. Funds would have to be found for explorers, for laboratories, for costly tools, and to pay for the essential array of well-trained scientists. Whether early generations can produce enough such scientists may be doubtful.
Huge sums would be required to examine these unknowns. But good beginnings could be made with less than the $38 billion that paid a few fares to the moon and back. Not every project could be expected to yield advantageous results; the necessary explorations might be far more uncertain than wildcat drilling for oil. But without trying, nothing will result.
Maybe on a future day, after the federal deficit has been subdued, a politician will arise who is daring enough to sponsor a plan for applying public funds. A regional effort would be logical for a beginning. Once the idea for finding everything possible about everything that lives on earth really prevails, private and public money from all nations might be attracted. Every part of the world has problems to solve and opportunities to discover and could help itself through fuller knowledge of its own living resources.
Ancient man stared at the heavens over his head, thought about the sun, moon, and stars, and wondered what they had to tell him. Underfoot, he barely managed to find a few plants that he could eat. For long centuries philosophers built theories about the celestial bodies they could not reach, and debated their theories furiously.
This 20th century has given man the know-how and the means to hurl himself into those upper regions, to unravel a few of their mysteries, yet has brought back little that may ease human existence, extend the life span, or add to the pursuit of happiness.
May the next century find him looking at and within the surface he walks around. He will find more by looking down than he has discovered by looking up.