An early fan of Mother Earth from Mother Russia

The Biosphere
February 19, 1999

Throughout the 20th century, students have been denied the visionary insights of Russian scholars. The roots of modern environmentalism can be found not only in the insights of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, but also in the pioneering endeavours of a Russian polymath, Vladimir Ivanovitch Vernadsky. The Biosphere is the first complete translation of Vernadsky's classic work, first published in 1926, and confirms his status as one of the great scientists and trans-disciplinarians of this century.

The young Vernadsky was tempted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Ivan Vasilievich, a liberal economist and anti-monarchist radical, but opted instead for science, which was less heavily censored by Tsar Nicholas II. Although he had strong philosophical and political views, Vernadsky has become best known outside Russia for his development of the biosphere concept. Its essence is that all living things are purposefully connected for their own perpetuation. All spheres of life -Jthe biological, geological and conscious human spheres -Jare in active co-evolution.

The term biosphere was coined by Eduard Seuss in 1875 in The Face of the Earth . Suess imagined he was a traveller in outer space. The biosphere was the sum of all the living things he saw, a layer of matter that was unique, not only in being alive, but also because it acted as an animated interface between the lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. Vernadsky took this vision a step further by outlining a new geology in which all the earth's surface rocks, including those that are igneous and metamorphic, are the products of biological activity. This development of the biosphere concept was visionary in that it combined global ecology with Darwinism. In the West the academic subject of ecology had not yet begun, but in Russia Vernadsky was already relating ecological principles to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Vernadsky was just as innovative in his development of the concept of the noosphere. This centres on the belief that the human race, being the only evolutionary form to possess the capacity to think consciously, is destined to transform the biosphere into the noosphere, the "sphere of the mind". This fundamental shift depends on humanity recognising and acting on its responsibility. Vernadsky would have approved of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, though he would have been shocked at the lack of progress since.

Despite his atheism, a crucial element of Vernadsky's world view was his adherence to cosmism, a school of thought that, unlike many other Russian intellectual trends, had no obvious parallels in the West. Cosmism encompassed three major themes. The first saw the earth in the context of a larger cosmos. Our planet is, cosmists suggested, small and fragile, with finite resources. On seeing that man could control the environment on earth, cosmists proposed that the same management would be possible in space.

Second, cosmists believed that the continuation of humanity required a conscious and unified effort, and they suggested that bringing the chaos of the universe under human control was a legitimate moral goal for humanity.

A third element of cosmism was aimed at solving social problems. The future management of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial resources could be achieved only by conscious foresight, which required the harmonious and active engagement of the entire population. The fragmented society they saw around them resulted from a decline in moral values and the increasing ineffectiveness of traditional religion.

Contemporaries of Vernadsky believed that cosmism provided a new, rationally derived moral order that would provide material, social and spiritual wholeness. In this, cosmists laid a trail recently followed by some sociobiologists, such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson.

Surprisingly, there is no mention of Vernadsky as a follower of cosmism in either the foreword, introduction or index of The Biosphere . There is reference, however, to the noosphere, in the useful biographical commentary prepared by Jacques Grinevald. Mark McMenamin's revised text reads smoothly and is well served by his copious annotations, which provide an historical context for Vernadsky's insights.

Lynn Margulis, together with 12 colleagues, has contributed a foreword that suggests that Vernadsky's achievements rank alongside those of Darwin. This elevation may seem premature to today's biologists, but as a broader understanding of his contribution increases, it may achieve wider acceptance. The next task for Vernadsky scholars is to produce just as comprehensive a body of scholarship on Vernadsky's noosphere concept and environmentalist philosophy as they have for the biosphere concept.

Tom Wakeford is associate director of Gaia: the Society for Research and Education in Earth System Science, based at the University of East London.

The Biosphere

Author - Vladimir Vernadsky
ISBN - 0 387 98268 X
Publisher - Copernicus
Price - £19.00
Pages - 326
Translator - D. B. Langmuir

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