BAKED SNAKE HAS never been a favorite of ours except in a metaphorical sense -- and even then, the public person has to be pretty high and mighty and the offense at which he is caught pretty terrible before we can say we truly enjoy the sight of a snake baking. As an actual, non-metaphorical kitchen-event it holds even fewer charms. If you like Egg McMuffins and Hershey bars, your're just not; python meuniere material and never will be -- so forget it. We tell you all this by way of justifying our uncharacteristic slowness to leap into the fray on a Big. Issue in our town: the case of the Interior Department scientist who got fired for officially protesting a restaurant's inclusion of endangered-species rattler on its menu. Frankly, for the first day or two we were just plain yecched- yecched-out by the issue.

But there was something else to our delay -- namely, a lot of ambivalences and on-the-other-hands to be worked through before we felt able to reach a firm judgment. A pronounced malaise at the idea of nine-to-five government regulator-officials carrying their authority out of channels and out of the office was ultimately overcome when we considered that it was neither novel nor entirely bad for them to do so. If there are off-duty policemen protecting the public weal, we suppose there might just as well be off-duty herpetologists looking out for the interests of distressed snakes, and the vigilance of the fired-Interior official, C. Kenneth Dodd, was therefore commendable. His eye is on the rattler.

However, there was just a tiny something in the idiom and assumptions of Mr. Dodd's letter to the restaurateur, Dominique D'Ermo, that also held us back. It was that business at the end about how this particular species needed to "be maintained as a viable part of the Northeastern ecosystems." We have nothing against the Northeastern ecosystem. Despite what some people say, we even regard ourselves as an occasionally viable part of it. But the sense, conveyed by the letter, that any loss whatever to the ecosystem represents some kind of crime against the very globe itself and the balance of nature and the great chain of being and so forth -- well, that thought seems to us to be part of something else: an increasingly reflexive and uncritically invoked cliche that deserves more case-by-case scrutiny than it gets any more.

Animal husbandry and the cultivation of crops, otherwise generally known as agriculture, amounted to the first major, organized human assault on the world's various ecosystems, and commerce, industry, science and the other large enterprises of humanity were the same. Their collective name is civilization, and civilization itself may be described as one gigantic, several-thousand-year-old disturbance of the global ecosystem. Where does that leave you on the baked snake issue? On the side of those who say that flora by flora and fauna by fauna the endangered species should be thought about and worried about and protected and preserved, if the civilized judgment is that protection is needed.

That judgement should be made, naturally, on the basis of some sort of balancing of values: what the threat to the endangered species is meant to gain for other life, for instance, what protecting it against extinction will cost in other dangers and deprivations. A truly civilized society will be quick to note that eliminating an endangered species from the bill of fare offered in an exotic, pricey setting shouldn't take any more than three seconds to agree to. Mr. Dood, in other words, decided right. That Interior Secretary Andrus, dismayed by his manner of acting, promptly fired him, remains both a starting act of political clumsiness and bureaucratic unfairness, and a reminder, if any were needed of how far civilization has yet to go.