Vernadsky Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vladimir Vernadsky’s publication of The Biosphere inspired imaginative investigations and speculations about humankind’s role in shaping the world’s environment.

Summary of Event

A pioneer in the field of biogeochemistry, Vladimir Vernadsky was given professional direction early in his life. An older cousin who was a retired army officer and an independent man of extensive reading remarked to Vernadsky that “the world is a living organism.” Profoundly impressed with this concept, Vernadsky within a few years began his scholarly studies of the earth’s physiology—the ways in which its matter and biota, including humankind, interact and affect one another and their common planetary environment. [kw]Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere (1926) [kw]Publishes The Biosphere, Vernadsky (1926) [kw]Biosphere, Vernadsky Publishes The (1926) Biosphere, The (Vernadsky) Biogeochemistry [g]Russia;1926: Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere[06580] [c]Environmental issues;1926: Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere[06580] [c]Biology;1926: Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere[06580] [c]Earth science;1926: Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere[06580] [c]Publishing and journalism;1926: Vernadsky Publishes The Biosphere[06580] Vernadsky, Vladimir Vernadsky, George Fersman, A. E. Dokuchayev, Vasily Vasilyevich Lotka, Alfred Goldschmidt, V. M. Lovelock, James Hutchinson, G. Evelyn

Vernadsky graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1885 and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Moscow in 1897. He was professor of crystallography and mineralogy at Moscow University from 1890 until 1911. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, he spent three years at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he wrote extensively on the subjects of geochemistry and biochemistry, crystallography and mineralogy, geochemical activity, marine chemistry, the evolution of life, and futurology, displaying all the signs of a polymath. From 1926 until 1938, he directed the State Radium Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg); he was among the earliest scientists to recognize the tremendous importance of radioactivity as a source of thermal energy. He established the first Soviet national scientific academy, the Ukrainian Academy of Science, in 1928, serving simultaneously as its president and as the director of the Academy of Science’s Leningrad biogeochemistry laboratory. Vernadsky founded the field of biogeochemistry, and it was the principal one in which he gradually gained international distinction.

A man of broad scholarly talents and mastery of several scientific specialties, Vernadsky became best known outside the Soviet Union for his publication of La Biosphère in 1926 (The Biosphere, 1929), a study in which he elaborated on his theory of the biosphere. Vernadsky borrowed the term “biosphere” from Eduard Suess Suess, Eduard (1831-1914), a Viennese professor of structural geology and eminent scholar who suggested the existence of an ancient supercontinent. Suess—who had first used the word at the end of a monograph about the Alps—and Vernadsky used the word “biosphere” to refer to the total mass of living organisms that process and recycle the energy and nutrients available in the earth’s environment. This activity occurs inside a thin veneer of life that circles the globe.

Vernadsky was concerned that the importance of life in the entire structure of the earth’s crust had been underestimated—when it was not ignored altogether—by his scientific colleagues. For most scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the investigation of possible interactions between living organisms—human beings included—and the “dead” earth lay beyond the pale of narrow specializations. Biologists studied live organisms, for example, and geologists studied inert rocks; there was little inquiry into interrelationships between the “live” and the “dead.” Vernadsky, however, had measured both the distribution and the migration of chemical elements and isotopes in the earth’s crust, and he became convinced that the earth exists within a crustal layer permeated with life—life that continuously interacts chemically with dead matter in reshaping a common environment.

Vernadsky did not accept the loose, generalized notions of his day that suggested that the earth itself is a living organism—a proposition he found to be overstated. He elaborated on an imaginative theory that, like the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the sphere of fire—the earth’s reliance on the Sun—the biosphere forms another of the concentric circles enveloping the earth.

Vernadsky pursued his curiosities relentlessly, a pursuit enhanced by his enormous capacity for work. In the early 1940’s, toward the end of his life, having fixed the word “biosphere” in the scientific lexicon, he added another word and therefore still another concept: that of the “noosphere.” Noosphere Noös is the Greek word for “mind”; Vernadsky believed that the “sphere of the mind” represented a new power altering the face of the earth. Defined precisely in the manner of science, the noosphere is neither a sphere, like the atmosphere or lithosphere, nor a physical phenomenon, yet it has physical consequences, for the human mind, in Vernadsky’s words, had become, for the first time, “a large-scale geological force” that was reshaping the planet.

Significance

Vernadsky enjoyed a lofty reputation in the Soviet Union and in Europe well before American scientists became familiar with his work. Just as the United States was emerging as a center of international scientific thought during the 1940’s, Vernadsky’s data and interpretations were introduced to the U.S. scientific community. Vernadsky’s son, George Vernadsky, had emigrated to the United States to join the Yale University faculty as a historian, and he and another member of the Yale faculty, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a well-respected English-born limnologist and ecologist, arranged for the elder Vernadsky’s major studies to be published in English. The first of these translations, a seminal work on biogeochemistry, appeared in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences in 1944. A second contribution, summarizing Vernadsky’s conceptions of the biosphere and noosphere, was published in the American Scientist in 1945.

As scholars familiar with Vernadsky’s scientific achievements have noted, Vernadsky’s imaginative conceptions of the biosphere and noosphere predated James Lovelock’s inspired Gaia hypothesis Gaia hypothesis and paralleled some fundamental ideas integral to it. Late in his life, for example, Vernadsky, like later Gaia theorists, contradicted prevailing scientific perspectives on the relationships between human beings and nature. According to Vernadsky, all but a few historians, students of the humanities, and even biologists had failed to comprehend the laws of the biosphere, “the only terrestrial envelope in which life can exist.” Although human beings spoke confidently about individual freedom and had amassed a history independent of natural laws, the fate of the human race, Vernadsky observed, is inseparable from the natural laws of the biosphere. Humankind is geologically tied to these laws and to their material and energetic structures. As a consequence, none of the earth’s organisms can live in a state of freedom. All organisms are connected “indissolubly and uninterruptedly” through nutrition and respiration as well as through their surrounding material and its energetic medium. For Vernadsky, life of every kind, preeminently human life, constitutes a geological force within a global web that links all of nature. Thus Vernadsky’s studies and the intellectual constructs that flowed from them—the concepts of the biosphere and the noosphere—are closely related to later conceptions of an ecosystem. One general characteristic of an ecosystem, for example, is that every natural zone composes a regular, natural complex in which living organisms and nonliving matter are inextricably bound together by their interactions.

Vernadsky, enticed by the specifics of his research, was not alone in grasping the realities informing this perception. Vasily Vasilyevich Dokuchayev, the founder of landscape geochemistry and a pioneer in the Soviet school of soil science, for example, shared this view, even though the substance of his research differed from Vernadsky’s. V. M. Goldschmidt, a German mineralogist, stressed the interrelationships of geochemical cycles. Similar conclusions emerged from the work of Vernadsky’s student A. E. Fersman, who devised methods for mapping geochemical provinces, thereby providing a spatial component to his mentor’s studies.

Analogous investigations were also being pursued during the 1930’s and 1940’s by such figures as the biologist Alfred Lotka, a pioneer in physical chemistry who viewed the earth as a single system driven by solar energy, and the limnologist, biomineralogist, and biogeochemist G. Evelyn Hutchinson. As students of the meteorological, biological, mineralogical, chemical, and other processes interacting in freshwater lakes, limnologists, like biochemists, often appeared in the forefront of ecological theorizing after the 1930’s.

The American “discovery” of Vernadsky’s work was recognized soon after his death as having contributed both a partial history of and an intellectual foundation for the development of the Gaia hypothesis. The English-born American James Lovelock, who first expounded the Gaia hypothesis in 1972 and published further specifics during the 1980’s, fully acknowledged Vernadsky’s importance to his work. Lovelock, indeed, described Vernadsky as “our most illustrious predecessor.” Lovelock, moreover, was the first to publish a review of The Biosphere in an American scientific journal. Praise for Vernadsky’s work also came from Lynn Margulis, another major scholarly contributor to Gaia studies.

Although Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology was antithetical to most Americans during much of the twentieth century, recognition of the significance of Vernadsky’s work facilitated the further recognition that Soviet scientific thought, whatever its limitations in some areas, nevertheless offered Western science fresh perspectives. Although great advances had accrued to Western, particularly American, science through the development of specializations and subspecializations, these advances were accompanied by a loss of communication and understanding among many specialists, which tended to discourage the creation of syntheses and of comprehensive, or holistic, perspectives. The formulation of holistic theory was no more appealing to Soviet authorities, chiefly because it smacked of religion, than it was to many scientific specialists in the United States. Vernadsky, in fact, was snubbed by Soviet officialdom. It was not until many years after Vernadsky’s death that Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev revived the scientist’s reputation in the Soviet Union by quoting him—and then made his own contribution to The Gaia Peace Atlas (1988).

Vernadsky’s explanations of the interplay between the environment and living organisms at a time when such concepts were unfamiliar to all but a few Western scientists also encouraged subsequent reevaluations of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian ideas about the nature of evolution. Evolution;theory Darwinian and neo-Darwinian thought, although accurate about many fundamental aspects of evolution, emphasized competition among and between organisms as the principal mechanism of selection for survival. Because Darwinians tended to ignore chemical interactions between living organisms and their environments, however, a number of leading scientists after the 1970’s believed that Darwinian explanations of evolution were significantly incomplete. Theorists such as Lovelock and Margulis insisted that, as a result of “academic apartheid,” many scientists were largely ignorant of discoveries such as those of Vernadsky in biogeochemistry, geology, and ecology. They argued that Darwinians were consequently unable to account for the impacts that the evolution of life has had on planet Earth.

Placed in historical context, Vernadsky’s research and his detailed conceptualization of the biosphere and the noosphere were perceived by the close of the twentieth century to constitute important additions to scientific understanding of the environment as well as to add important components to ecological studies. In these respects, Vernadsky joined the ranks of Gaia theorists and others such as the paleontologist-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre and author-philosopher Édouard Le Roy. Le Roy, Édouard The writings of these two Frenchmen not only acknowledged the reality of Vernadsky’s biosphere and noosphere but also emphasized that humankind, as the planet’s dominant geological force, had introduced a new geological era that could be described as “psychozoic,” “anthropozoic,” or “mental.” A few worried that this might be the planet’s last geological era. Biosphere, The (Vernadsky) Biogeochemistry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balandin, Rudolf K. Vladimir Vernadsky: Outstanding Soviet Scientist. Moscow: Mir Publishing, 1982. Presents a clear, competent, and balanced discussion of Vernadsky’s life and scientific career. Includes endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golley, Frank Benjamin. A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology: More than the Sum of the Parts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. A fine and lucid history, chronologically arranged, on the evolution of a little-understood seminal idea. Chapter 3 places Vernadsky in historical context. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grinevald, J. “A History of the Idea of a Biosphere.” In Gaia: The Thesis, the Mechanisms, and the Implications: Proceedings of the First Annual Camelford Convention on the Implications of the Gaia Thesis, edited by P. Bunyard and B. Goldsmith. Wadebridge, Cornwall, England: Quintrell, 1988. Invaluable survey of the concept of the biosphere, clearly presented and well documented. Includes notes and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joseph, Lawrence. Gaia: The Growth of an Idea. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Nontechnical survey of the subject includes discussion of Vernadsky’s importance, particularly in chapter 10. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovelock, James E. “Geophysiology: The Science of Gaia.” In Scientists on Gaia, edited by Stephen H. Schneider and Penelope J. Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. Brilliant and clearly presented exposition of the Gaia hypothesis by its chief theorist. Pays tribute to Vernadsky’s work at the outset. Includes graphs and bibliographic notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Margulis, Lynn, and Gregory Hinkle. “The Biota and Gaia.” In Scientists on Gaia, edited by Stephen H. Schneider and Penelope J. Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. Aims at securing financial support for Gaia scientists, but much of the substance is an exposition of the science behind Gaia (Margulis was almost a cocreator of the Gaia theory along with Lovelock). Explains Vernadsky’s work favorably. Includes graphs and bibliographic notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneider, Stephen H., James R. Miller, Eileen Crist, and Penelope J. Boston, eds. Scientists Debate Gaia: The Next Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. Collection of essays reexamines the Gaia hypothesis from the perspectives of numerous scientific disciplines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernadsky, Vladimir I. The Biosphere. Translated by David B. Langmuir. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1998. First translation into English of the entire text of Vernadsky’s original work, with extremely helpful annotation by Mark A. A. McMenamin. Includes a foreword by Lynn Margulis, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, Jonathan. The Next One Hundred Years. New York: Bantam Books, 1990. Clearly written and at times fascinating account of forces shaping the face of the earth. Cites Vernadsky’s biosphere and noosphere as significant concepts. Includes notes and index.

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