≡ Menu

The Biosphere meets Vernadsky

Добро пожаловать, Вернадский вентиляторы || Ласкаво просимо, Вернадський вентилятори

I hope that the Cyrillic text above reads, in Russian and Ukrainian, ‘Welcome, Vernadsky fans!’ — or something very similar. The concept of biosphere exerts a powerful tug on people these days. In pre-technological times humanity lived within it; might be overwhelmed by it; and knew it intuitively by its manifestations of seasons and moods. In a loose sense, biosphere was what Animist peoples worshipped as spirits or gods.

The notion that our swirling ball of rock, air and water forms a single entity with life began to gel as a scientific concept in 1802: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck touched on this in Hydrogéologie.


Eduard Suess,  professor of geology at the University of Vienna, coined biosphere in 1875. However, he did not attach a profound concept to the term.


Vladimir Ivanovitch Vernadsky

It was left to a Russian, Vladímir Ivánovich Vernadsky, to pull together a century’s worth of scattered scientific and philosophical discoveries to reveal the biosphere as our planet’s birthright, both as past life’s legacy and present life’s inheritance.

Among the scientific threads he wove together, Vernadsky retrieved the work of two French scientists, M.J. Dumas and J. Boussingault, both members of the Institute of France. In 1844, at a conference in Paris, the pair had propounded the theory that living matter is an appendage of the atmosphere, not the other way around. (‘The Chemical and Physiological Balance of Organic Nature’, Dumas M. J., and Boussingault J. B., London, 1844.) Living matter builds bodies of organisms and their foodstuffs out of atmospheric gases: after death, life’s processes restore these gases to the atmosphere to form living flesh again.

Vernadsky holds a place in Russian science roughly equivalent to that of Darwin and Wallace in the West. His book, The Biosphere, published in Russian in 1926, remained virtually unknown through seventy years of Soviet isolation. Among Vernadsky’s many observations:

‘The gases of the biosphere are identical to those created by the gaseous exchange of living organisms … This cannot be an accident. The free oxygen in the biosphere is created solely by gaseous exchange in green plants. Finally the quantity of oxygen in the biosphere … is of the same order as the existing quantity of living matter … the breathing of organisms has primary importance in the gaseous system of the biosphere; in other words, it must be a planetary phenomenon.’

Vernadsky seems almost to have anticipated the upward and outward ‘pressure of life’ (his phrase) that took place 300 million years ago, when green plants enriched the atmosphere with oxygen:

‘Trees and grasses, growing in a new transparent medium (the atmosphere), have developed forms according to the principles of energetics and mechanics. Even the … infinite variety of their forms displays the tendency to produce maximum work and to attain maximum bulk of living matter. To reach this aim, they created a new medium for life—the atmosphere.’

Reasoning along similar lines, Vernadsky noted that Earth’s crust has long been inhabited by organisms,

‘transformers that convert cosmic radiations into active energy in electrical, chemical, mechanical, thermal and other forms. There is no substantial chemical equilibrium on the crust in which the influence of life is not evident, and in which chemistry does not display life’s work. Life is, therefore, not an external or accidental phenomenon of the Earth’s crust… Cosmic energy determines the pressure of life.’


A false-color composite of global oceanic and terrestrial photo-autotroph abundance, from September 1997 to August 2000. Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.

Furthermore, life plays not merely an organic role, but a powerful geological role in our world. (Vernadsky was a mineralogist.) ‘Without life, the crustal mechanism of the crust would not exist.’ Vernadsky’s next sentence, ‘All living matter can be regarded as a single entity in the mechanism of the biosphere,’ sets the scene for a new science, a science which is becoming acceptable in our time. In the West, until recently, this was known as the Gaia hypothesis.

Source: This passage is adapted from Let There Be Life, Verses 34 & 35.

* * *