THE FOURTH WORLD The Heritage of the Arctic and Its Destruction By Sam Hall Knopf. 240 pp. $17.95

THERE IS a parasite called the warble fly that uses caribou as egg repositories. "The larvae penetrate the skin," writes Sam Hall, "and remain there until the following year when they have developed. At this time, the parasites bore their way out of the caribou's body, causing so much pain that the infested caribou shakes itself vigorously to expel the flies. Hardly an adult escapes. Yet, warble flies never settle on the calves, which could not tolerate the pain and would undoubtedly die, thus endangering the continued existence of the species."

This passage from Hall's brief report on the Arctic serves as not just another flash of local color but a reminder of how exacting the task of Arctic survival can be. If the warble fly were not discriminating enough to abide by its version of the statutory-rape law, the effects on a lengthy food-chain -- at the apex of which stand the native people of the Arctic (Inuit) -- would be catastrophic.

Speaking of people, Hall points out how skillfully natural selection has designed the average Inuk (singular of Inuit). One of his evolved characteristics is "a shortening of the arm below the elbow, and the leg below the knee. In proportion to their bodies, these extremities are stubbier than in any other race in the world. The reason is simple. In such excruciating cold the body was forced to adapt in order to survive. The shorter the distance to the extremities, the greater the chances of survival."

The theme of Hall's book is the painful contrast between such fine-tuned adaptations and the "civilized" world's reckless intrusions into the Arctic. The attractions have included the hope of discovering a Northwest Passage, the profitability of whaling, and the presence of oil. Whalers unwittingly introduced devastating new diseases into the Arctic, and the missionaries who followed them wittingly shamed the Inuit into forsaking their animistic religion. In some cases "shamed" is too weak a word. Hall quotes a Danish minister who inflicted himself upon the natives of Greenland. "I gave {a prospective convert} to understand that if he would not let himself be persuaded by fair means, but despised the word of God, he should receive the same treatment from me as other angakoks and liars had received, namely a thrashing."

BY NOW, with rare exceptions, the Inuit are a bewildered people, their beliefs shattered, their hunting skills dulled, their pride ravaged by welfare dependency and alcoholism. Hall comes down particularly hard on groups that usually get to play the good guys in books like this: environmentalists. By failing to distinguish between subsistence hunting and commercial harvesting of species like the bowhead whale and the harp seal, he charges, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have needlessly undermined Inuit economies in their campaigns to protect those species. He does not mention that another environmental group, Friends of the Earth, took the Inuit side in the bowhead controversy, helping secure them an exemption from the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on hunting that species.

Hall, an English television reporter, is especially informative on three Arctic subregions little-known to North Americans: Greenland, Lapland and Siberia. Though internal evidence suggests that he was not allowed to visit Siberia, on the strength of extensive reading he manages to supply a fresh perspective on the area. Its resources include enough gold, platinum and diamonds, he asserts, "to transform the Soviet Union into the world's richest country by the end of the century." Overall, The Fourth World is a more succinct and useful book for anyone wanting to learn about the Arctic than Barry Lopez's rhapsodic Arctic Dreams. At the same time Hall has steeped himself in Inuit culture so thoroughly that he can celebrate it with the same insider's ardor that Wilfred Thesiger brought to his paean to Bedu culture in Arabian Sands.

The Fourth World would be an unremittingly gloomy book if it weren't that Hall draws encouragement from the new Inuit solidarity, evinced in regular circumpolar conferences and the formation of lobbying groups for subsistence hunters and the preservation of the Arctic environment. He also puts stock in the contemporary penchant for cost-benefit analysis, which may deter governments from taking actions with even a small chance of loosing an Arctic oil-spill because the clean-up costs could be so great. What the Inuit must do is play the white man's game by insinuating themselves into those cost-benefit equations without losing sight of their tradition and values. A formidable task, but then they are among the world's hardiest people. ::

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.