CARYL HASKINS is a man of science and science has made him different from your common drudge.

"There's only one of him on this planet," said a friend when somebody questioned the poisonous ants Haskins keeps in the guest room. House guests are relatively rare.

Haskins is a former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and has been on various advisory commissions to Presidents. He is a newly retired trustee of Yale, member of various learned societies and board members of almost everything except Brer Rabbit Molasses.

But what really rivets people when they talk to him is something other than a common scientific competence and the titular honors that go with it:

Most people simply have not previously beheld a fellow of such intense curiosity, such a spectrum of interests and such detailed learning, coupled with such a reverence, or, as they say, such a Grade A fresh awe at the wonders of life.

You could hardly say whether science gave him reverence for nature, or reverence for nature gave him science.

The polymorphism he marvels at in ants and guppies, he values in mankind - the ability to vary, to adapt in rich or bizarre variety. To march to a different drummer. His biology colors his morals.

Even in a matter seemingly so far removed from guppies as the question of funding scientific research, he trusts the richness of variation more than the uniform brilliance of orthodoxy.

Intellectually he acknowledges the need for funding vast, complex projects, but it is pretty clear his heart is really with the one who watches the apple drop or who tries out a pendulum.

"It is the gifted, unorthodox individual in the laboratory," he once told the Literary Society of Washington, "or the study or the walk by the river at twilight who has always brought to us . . . all the basic resources by which we live."

He used to make the announcements for Carnegi of discoveries at the Wilson and Mount Palomar telescopes, and these were calculated to expand the average person's horizons. Within just a decade (as Haskins reminds us) the farthest stars or quasi stars have been detected at tremendously increasing distances. Five billion light years distant, 10 billion light years distant and now farther than that. (Five billion light years is 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles off, Haskins guarantees).

But then, while the mind is adjusting to celestial roominess, Haskins mentions the poor ant that got stuck in the Baltic amber 80 million years ago - similar to the ants of today that are a great enthusiasm of his.

Almost best of all is the little water bug only two-tenths of a millimeter long, which lays its eggs inside the eggs of a dragonfly and develops there. Even the adult is barely visible to the human eye, "and you can imagine the size of its brain," as Haskins says. And yet the female gets in the water, using her wings as paddles, and swims around until she finds just the right dragonfly egg. It is very complex behavior, and Haskins is lost in wonder that a brain so small could manage it.

Problems of genetics and polymorphism - the tendency to vary within a species - in particular are among Haskins' greatest joys. His work with guppies is well known. He is not above saying "and this is where the guppies come in" at times when one was not aware at all that guppies were going to come in.

Spares of hair, almost always smiling and bright-eyed, Haskins may be seen occasionally at Washington parties where he is forever asking questions.

An ambassador once was talking of Latin verse, and Haskins was asking about Virgil. A woman spoke of raccoons, and Haskins wanted a run-down on their habits - did they see them the same time each night, did they come up on the porch; a man spoke of Marliac, the French plant breeder, and Haskins wanted to know which species were used.

He is never observed to tell anybody about the things he knows, unless he is questioned directly. He never says, "That reminds me the last time I was in Papua (Perth, Panama, Trinidad, London, Vienna, etc.)."

Sometimes you may hear that Haskins "knows something about fish, I think" and if you persist a little, he will tell what you ask, but you have to work at it.

"You never told me," a man reproached him once, "that you have studied the Japanese carp (koi) and have travelled all over Japan looking at them."

"Well, you never asked," Haskins said. (In Japan on other business, he discovered the night desk clerk of the hotel was a koi fancier who took off every weekend to visit notable examples of the imperial carp. Haskins wound up with some grand large specimans for his pond at Westport, Conn., where he maintains a house and a range of greenhouses full of rare tropical fishes, birds and plants.)

"Is Haskins a rich dilettante?" someone once asked.

"Yes," snapped back a friend of Haskins. "Like Leonardo or Jefferson." Ordered Life

HASKINS was born in upstate New York. His father, who died when Caryl was 3, was head of General Electric's lighting department and inventor of the self-guiding torpedo.

Haskins was educated at Yale and Harvard, then went to GE's research laboraty. By 1935, he was starting independent research in Cambridge on the effects of radiation on cells.

He founded the Haskins Laboraties, a nonprofit research group that during World War II, worked on ways to rehabilitate men blinded in battle, producing a supersonic guiding device (in nature, bats use something of the sort) and a reading machine.

He has advised Cabinet members on science and served on the President's Science Advisory Committee. He has inspected Harvard laboratories for Harvard (a quite select committee) occasionally getting visiting dates mixed up.

But not often. His wife, Edna, herself a biologist when Haskins wooed her in England in the '40s, (Mrs. Learned Hand used to tell people the Haskinses met over a bunsen burner, which was a very slight inaccuracy - they met for the second time over a bunsen burner), is a well-organized woman who can manage things on the spur of the moment.

But chiefly both Haskinses rely on Pat Gussin, who not only runs the office they maintain on 18th Street, answering mail and the endless phone calls, but also plots the schedule. When they are out of town, she feeds the ants and fishes and plants in their Washington apartment.

Haskins is now in Australia, looking at ants, but recently he was in Panama, inquiring into fish. Gussin phones Edna Haskins at Westport and says, "You have dinner tomorrow night in Baltimore. Take the 4 p.m. plane from LaGuardia. A car will meet you at 3:10 at your place."

Both Haskins admit that if Gussin, who has run their lives for years, told them to be in Vladivostok on Tuesay and there dive into the sea, they would surely do it without question. Antman

Ants are a special enthusiasm of Haskins, and he is sometimes surreptiously called Antman by those alarmed to hear he keeps poisonous ants.

The National Geographic (of which Haskins is a trustee, along with the Smithsonian Institution and other learned groups) once ran an article about Australian ants suggesting their bites could be fatal.

Haskins said that is grossly exaggerated; why, those ants may give you a little sting, maybe like a honey bee.

"I never want," said the author of the article when told Haskins pooh-poohed the ant stings, "to be hurt like that again." He said he felt the effect of one ant sting for many days.

Haskins has written on ants, and continues to study live ones. Many are primitive, lacking the intense complexity of American and European ants, which are rapidly displacing the ancient types in Australia.

Once in Sydney, Haskins collected a tree branch with certain leaf cutting ants for a fellow biologist, and secured them in a plastic bag inside a zippered container. He then set off for another part of the continent leaving the ants in the hotel room closet.

The ants chewed through the plastic and (according to Pat Gussin) either unzipped the bag or chewed around it and got loose in the hotel.

Haskins was phoned by an infuriated hotel manager.

Haskins said he certainly understood and would fly back instantly, and then Edna got on the phone and shared the manager's alarm. By the time she finished, the manager was feeling better and told them to go on with their trip, he could manage the ants. When the returned, the manager was so pacified by Edna Haskins' sympathy with his plight that not only did he not throw the Haskinses out of the hotel, he actually present them with a remnant of the offending ants that he had collected and put in a safe.

Caryl Haskins has had his moments, all right, in transporting ants, rare wasp nest, buckets of live fishes and so forth from one part of the world to another.

"You cannot imagine the confusion at customs," he once said, though some of hearers could well imagine.

They are now pretty well used to him, and airlines know to have a spare seat for the Haskinses' various buckets, all shockingly alive. Mysteries

In the field of genetics, polymorphism is a particular passion with Haskins who is forevery asking "why?"

To take something everybody knows, he points out that bees in a hive have identical genetic codes. With the same DNA, why are the bees not all alik? Why, he demands to know, are there queen bees, workers bees, drones, scouts and so on?

And how do the bees know when to turn out a new queen bee (which they can easily do, by changing the die of one of the larvae) since it is useless to produce a new queen unless the old one is dead (she will kill any potential queens).

As everybody knows, the queen secretes an external hormone which is passed by worker bees throughout the hive. If the molecules of this tiny amount of hormone are not received by workers, they start to work producing a new queen.

Haskins wants to know what force or mechanism it is that takes the genetic code of some creature and directs it into some specialized form. It is now known that RNA affects the use to why the information in DNA is finally put. So how does RNA know?

Among ants, far less well known than bees, there are kinds that plug passageways with their heads, serving as soldiers or guards. "A tap on the head," Haskins say, "inspire them to stand aside."

There are ants that cannot survive without slave ants of a different species. How do such societies work? How can there be survival value in some of the bizarre arrangements of ants that cannot even feed themselves?

Haskins has long studied things like this.

At his Westport house he will show you the ants, who live in theoretically escape-proof large terrariums of Plexiglas. Most ants, if you poke at them, will scurry off. Haskins has some that if you poke a pencil at them will race forward to attack:

"Here he comes," Haskins says.And your finger better not be there when he does.

"Is there anything to be gained from watching the ants or the fish, apart from seeing that they do behave a certain way?"

"No," Haskins says a little sadly, as if you had asked him if there is any particular value in art, philosophy, religion or learning. Crash Course

His proclivity for direct and intense perception has colored his view of science in general.

He was among the first to see the dark side of such trumphs as nuclear fission and landing on the moon.

"Those were applications of science that required enormous sums," he observes, "and vast teams working together. It wasn't long before people were saying, almost unconsciously, if we can build a bomb or land on the moon, then surely we can conquer leukemia."

And the unspoken assumption was that if vast sums and vast manpower "conquered" space, then surely the same resources directed to disease would produce equally spectacular results.

But Haskins is very sure science does not work that way. It was a relatively small team, for example, that discovered genetic codes. And a small team that expanded incredibly our concept of the distance of stars in space.

The trouble is (from Haskins' viewpoint) that if people start thinking of science in terms of crash programs of enormous scope, then what happens to small teams that may make news in astronomy or biology, or on the other hand may not?

Will scientists and potential scientists be siphoned off, or drawn into enormous ventures heavily supported by government? Will funds dry up, or draw back, that support such relatively small teams?

Haskins' ants do not seem important compared to the "conquest of cancer," but the truth is nobody at present knows what the ultimate value may be for studying ants.

At least Haskins has good authority:

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise; which having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer and gathereth her food in the harvest." (Proverbs VI) Guppy Watching

Polymorphism is marked in guppies, as in ants, and Trinidad is a marvelous natural laboratory for observing this, so naturally Haskins for several decades has traipsed back and forth.

Fortunately there are two sets of streams available for his studies. One set flows north from mountains to sea, the other set of streams flows south to a greater river. Guppies in the seabound streams are isolated populations, since they cannot get back and forth through salt water, but in the river-bound streams they can meet in the common ground of the major river.

Haskins procured from Germany a strain in which a certain gene is sex-linked, father to son to grandson, no matter the genetic makeup of the mother. This gene expresses itself in a colored spot so conspicuous it can be seen from the bank.

Haskins raised 800 of these marked guppies and released them in the two sets of streams, then observed them year by year - it is almost 30 years now - to see what happened. Would they die out? Would they take over? Would they reach a certain percentage of the total guppy count and then remain stable in number? Would there be differences between shady streams and sunny ones?

He now knows the guppies have a balanced polymorphic population. A balance has been struck between the advantage of the new gene in courtship (the spot is a bright male ornament) and the disadvantage of being easier for a predator to see.

In humans a well-known example of polymorphism is sickle-cell anemia, the gene for which occurs in some humans but not others. It is extremely harmful, Haskins points out, accounting for many deaths. So why and ho have genes for it been preserved? Simply because when only one parent has that gene (not both) it is non-fatal and confers considerable resistance to malaria.

The ants, using their heads as plugs, and the guppies with their spots, are the very things people laugh at if they hear of some foundation making a grant.

But problems of polymorphism in guppies (which have embarrassingly close analogies to humans) would not be thought so trifling a topic if it shed light on sickle-cell anemia. The Big Picture

If you see him at Westport on his little farm, with the big yew bushes clipped like huge loaves, he may show you his exotic finches and diamond doves and rare rejah ducks and the uncommon sequoia tree from California.

"It's funny," he said, "that we often value what is rare and specialized. What is truly precious is what is common and unspecialized.

"Some bird bred to show some curious cresting or some dog or plant at the end of a very long line of selective breeding - that is what catches our eye, and we say it is very fine and rare and desirable.

"but we do not value common curs or other common forms in which a wide range of genes is present, capable of producing almost anything. We do not value that.

"Yet if through some accident you lose the rare and specialized types, the genes of the common type can easily produce the rare types again, simply by selection.

"But if you lose the common types, with the great variety of genes, and have only the rare types, then you can never recapture, from the rare types, the full range of genes again. That is why I say the common is precious, and irreplaceable, and the rare is not so precious, not so marvelous."

Many people have never known anybody who laughed as much as Haskins, and perhaps his professional estimate of the value of common forms of life accounts for his fairly startling courtesy. Others find bores, but Haskins finds unique organisms who probably known much that he does not.

He is one of the few men in Washington, possibly, who is not embarressed to quote Michaelangelo: "I know of no other staircase to heaven than through earth's loveliness."

Some who known him are strangely affected by him, once they get used to his happiness. One is surprised he does not keep sheep and roam about among wolves to fetch them home.

He has a great reputation for humor, largely because he laughs at any joke ever told him. When he left Carnegie, he chose a curious and humble and grand quotation from great literature: Archie's comment in "Archie and Mehitabel" by Don Marquis:

"My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name."