SAIL to the Pacific with some Ancient Mariner, and traverse day by day that silent sea until you reach a region never before furrowed by keel where a tiny island, a mere speck on the vast ocean, has just risen from the depths, a little coral reef capped with green, an atoll, a mimic earth, fringed with life, built up through countless ages by life on the remains of life that has passed away. And now, with wings of fancy, join Ianthe in the magic car of Shelley, pass the eternal gates of the flaming ramparts of the world and see his vision:Below lay stretched the boundless Universe!There, far as the remotest lineThat limits swift imagination's flight,Unending orbs mingled in mazy motion,Immutably fulfillingEternal Nature's law.Above, below, around,The circling systems formedA wilderness of harmony.(Daemon of the World, Pt. I.)
And somewhere, "as fast and far the chariot flew," amid the mighty globes would be seen a tiny speck, "earth's distant orb," one of "the smallest lights that twinkle in the heavens." Alighting, Ianthe would find something she had probably not seen elsewhere in her magic flight—life, everywhere encircling the sphere. And as the little coral reef out of a vast depth had been built up by generations of polyzoa, so she would see that on the earth, through illimitable ages, successive generations of animals and plants had left in stone their imperishable records: and at the top of the series she would meet the thinking, breathing creature known as man. Infinitely little as is the architect of the atoll in proportion to the earth on which it rests, the polyzoon, I doubt not, is much larger relatively than is man in proportion to the vast systems of the Universe, in which he represents an ultra-microscopic atom less ten thousand times than the tiniest of the "gay motes that people the sunbeams." Yet, with colossal audacity, this thinking atom regards himself as the anthropocentric pivot around which revolve the eternal purposes of the Universe. Knowing not whence he came, why he is here, or whither he is going, man feels himself of supreme importance, and certainly is of interest—to himself. Let us hope that he has indeed a potency and importance out of all proportion to his somatic insignificance. We know of toxins of such strength that an amount too infinitesimal to be gauged may kill; and we know that "the unit adopted in certain scientific work is the amount of emanation produced by one million-millionth of a grain of radium, a quantity which itself has a volume of less than a million-millionth of a cubic millimetre and weighs a million million times less than an exceptionally delicate chemical balance will turn to" (Soddy, 1912). May not man be the radium of the Universe? At any rate let us not worry about his size. For us he is a very potent creature, full of interest, whose mundane story we are only beginning to unravel.
Civilization is but a filmy fringe on the history of man. Go back as far as his records carry us and the story written on stone is of yesterday in comparison with the vast epochs of time which modern studies demand for his life on the earth....