В.И. Вернадский

Geochemistry and the Biosphere

Essays by Vladimir I. Vernadsky
First English Translation from the 1967 Russian Edition of Selected Works
Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press, 2007
Book review by Ralph Abraham


Since 1960 I have been lecturing and giving courses on dynamical systems theory and
its applications in the sciences, with an emphasis on simulation of complex dynamical
systems since 1974. Over these years I have built up a compendium of historical data
on the many branches of whole systems mathematics as a matrix of websites for my
students, and in support of my own writings. [Ref. 1]

So, when I accepted the task of writing a review of the Synergetic Press edition of
Vernadsky essays, I turned to my websites for support, and was shocked to find that I
had nothing on Vernadsky, and little on biospherics, in the matrix. This was particularly
embarrassing as I regard the IE (Institute of Ecotechnics) group as part of my family,
since meeting them in 1983 at their «Cosmos Conference» in France where (I believe)
their famous Biosphere Two project was born. [Ref. 2] Of eight or so conferences on
biospherics the IE has hosted since 1978 I had attended two, in 1984 and 1985. [Ref. 3]
Furthermore, they had published «The Biosphere Catalogue» in 1985, which has been
on my bookshelf every since. [Ref. 4] So I resolved to try to correct the situation by
including in this review all that I can collect regarding the history of biospherics and
Vernadsky, and how this history diffused into our cohort. Then I will conclude with a brief
review of the Biosphere Essay. Throughout I have benefited from input from the IE,
especially, from Mark Nelson.


The best known nodes of the matrix of whole systems studies — to which biospherics
belongs — are general systems theory and cybernetics. Here is a chronology of all the
nodes I know, according to their dates of creation, as found in my website noted above,
in which I have now inserted the events of biospherics in their proper places. [Ref. 5]

  • 1785, Hutton (1726-1979), geophysiology [Ref. 6]
  • 1802, Lamarck (1744-1829), Paris, the biosphere concept (realm of life) [V. p. 402]
  • 1875, Suess (1831-1914), Vienna, the biosphere concept and word
  • 1911, Vernadsky met Suess in Austria
  • 1925, Lotka, physical biology
  • Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 11926, Vernadsky, biosphere book
  • 1928, Von Bertalanffy, general systems theory
  • 1930s, Gestalt theory, berlin
  • 1948, Rashevsky, mathematical biology
  • 1942, Wiener, cybernetics
  • 1942-63, Macy conferences, cybernetics
  • 1950, Forrester, system dynamics
  • 1957, Waddington, theoretical biology
  • 1966-70, Serbelloni conferences, theoretical biology
  • 1968, Lovelock, Gaia hypothesis
  • 1976-80, IE Conference Series on the major Earth biomes
  • 1983, IE, Cosmos Conference
  • 1984, IE First Biosphere Conference, Oracle AZ
  • (where I first saw Lovelock’s simulation of Daisyworld)
  • 1985, Laszlo, general evolution theory
  • 1986, 1st closed system experiment at Space Biospheres Ventures
  • 1987, 1st Intl. Conference of Biospherics, Royal Society and October Gallery, London.
  • Publication of Space Biospheres
  • 1989, 2nd Intl. Conference on Biospherics in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia
  • (the name «biospherics» agreed)
  • 1991-93, Biosphere 2 experiment with Vernadskyʼs theory

Among the various whole systems theories, the one closest to biospherics is Gaia
theory, which was not introduced until some twenty years or so after Vernadsky’s death.
Balandin (Vernadsky’s biographer) gives some credit for the biosphere idea to
Vernadsky’s uncle, Yevgraf Korolenko. [Ref. 7]
Vernadsky visited Western Europe on several occasions, and even wrote Biosfera in
Paris while teaching at the Sorbonne. He came to be known in the United States
through the Introduction by G. E. Hutchinson to a special edition of Scientific American
in 1969, and through the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme of UNESCO. This
program, launched in 1970, now manages a number of ecosystem or biosphere
reserves. The IE was founded in 1973, held its first conference in 1974, and embraced
biospherics early on. It started a series of conferences on major Earth biomes in 1976
which culminated in the Planet Earth conference in 1980 in France. The biomes
covered including oceans, deserts, mountain (the conference in Kathmandu, Nepal in
1978), the jungle (rainforest) conference in Penang in 1979, and the Eco-transition
Zones conference in Perth, Australia in 1980. Both the Kathmandu and Penang
conferences were co-sponsored by the U.N. Man and the MAB Program.


This chronology is an extract from the internet. [Ref. 8]

  • 1863, born, Saint Petersburg
  • Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 21885, graduated. Saint Petersburg University
  • 1890, moved to Moscow
  • 1897, PhD, Saint Petersburg University
  • 1911, met Suess, moved back to Saint Petersburg
  • 1918, moved to Kiev
  • 1919, moved to Simferopol
  • 1921, moved to Petrograd
  • 1922, moved to Paris, wrote Biosfera
  • 1924, Geochemistry published
  • 1926, moved to Leningrad
  • 1927, Features of Geochemistry published
  • 1933, wrote Essays on Geochemistry
  • 1935, moved to Moscow
  • 1941, moved to Kazakhstan
  • 1943, moved to Moscow
  • 1944, wrote the 3rd edn of Biosfera, Some Words about the Noosphere published
  • 1945, died, Moscow
  • 1967, 3rd edn Biosfera published, including A Few Words about the Noosphere


The book published in 2007 by Synergetic Press includes the Essays on Geochemistry
and The Biosphere, both in the English translation by Olga Barash of the 1967 Russian
edition of Selected Works. The Essays on Geochemistry, regarding the chemical
elements in the Earth’s crust, is a technical work outside my bailiwick — and there is an
excellent review [9] — so I will confine my review to The Biosphere.
The Biosphere has three parts:
1. The biosphere in the cosmos (82 pages),
2. The domain of life (96 pages), and
3. A few words about the noosphere (13 pages).
The first two parts are divided into sections numbered consecutively from 1 to 160: the
first part has sections 1 to 67, and the second part, sections 68 to 160. The third part
has 13 sections, numbered 1 to 13. I proceed now in this section to give a little flavor of
the content of the first two parts.
1. Biosphere [V. 1-67]
In the first part, Vernadsky discusses the biosphere as an interface between the
physical planet and its cosmic environment. The emphasis is on the radiations arriving
from space, their transformation by the living biosphere, and the role of the biosphere in
determining the complex chemical composition of the Earth’s crust. He proposes six
hypotheses, called empirical generalizations [sec. 17], which I paraphrase as follows:
1. Living matter is not created from inert matter.
2. There are no lifeless geological eras.
Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 33. Living matter of all eras has been similar to contemporary living matter.
4. Throughout all eras, there have been no sharp changes in the influence of
living matter on its surroundings, and in all, the average chemical compositions of living
matter and crust have been similar to ours.
5. There have been no great changes in the quantity of living matter.
6. All the energy produced by living matter derive from the Sun.
In the Foreword to the volume, the editor, Frank. B. Salisbury, points out:
Vernadsky’s thoughts might have been radically changed if he had known about
the oxygen revolution that is now thought to have occurred about two billion years ago
in the Precambrian.
Vernadsky credits the biosphere as the greatest chemical force on Earth [19]. If life
ended, Earth changes would slow to the geological time scale [20]. The essential part of
the biosphere is its green living matter [22] which is primarily adapted to the
transformation of solar energy [23]. The characteristic feature of living matter is its
diffusion through propagation [24] which occurs with mathematical regularity [26].
Animal living matter propagates in a peculiar way, eg, termite swarming [28], bacteria
circulating in water [30], all following mathematical laws [32] and limits [33-45]. Green
living matter dominates life on the land but to lesser degree in the sea [46]. The main
mass of living matter is concentrated in the sea [55]. One of the most important
manifestations of life in the biosphere is gas exchange with the surroundings [64].
2. Domain of life [68-160]
In the second part, V. begins by giving credit to E. Seuss for the biosphere idea in 1975.
V. describes the biosphere as the upper envelope of the Earth’s crust. And here he even
states one of the key ideas that appear later in Lovelock’s Gaia theory: the biosphere
acts as a thermostat [69]. The core of the planet is chemically distinct from the crust
[70]. The next concentric shell within the biosphere is the sima. It is thick, heavy in
silicon, magnesium, and oxygen [72], and low in free energy [74]. The atmosphere, the
biosphere, and the crust comprise the field of changes; the sima and core comprise the
field of stable equilibria [75]. These two fields are separated by the isostatic surface
[77]. The deepest part of the crust may be described in three geospheres [80, 81]. The
thermodynamics and chemistry of the crust and the biosphere are different [82, 83]. In
the crust there are four different forms of existence [86].
Domain of life denotes the environment in which living matter is supported. The
pressure of life expands the domain of life within the biosphere [90]. Living matter may
be divided into two orders, autotrophic and heterotrophic [91]. Essential gases are
produced by the biosphere [92]. Water is created by the green autotrophs [93]. The field
of existence of the heterotrophs is wider than that of the autotrophs, which is
determined by solar radiation [95]. Autotrophic bacteria are always hungry [99]. The
regions free of green autotrophs, including the vital bottom film of the hydrosphere, are
slowly expanding [101].
Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 4The heterotrophic domain is limited by temperature, pressure, phase, chemistry, and
radiant energy [103-108], water [109], gases [110], by the ozone layer of the
atmosphere [120], and the high temperatures at a depth of 3-3.5 km below the Earth’s
surface [121]. The greatest solar energy transformation in the hydrosphere is by vital
films and aggregations [125]. The surface of the ocean is covered by green plankton
[126]. Other than these films and aggregations, life is sparse in seawater [128-129]. The
life in the bottom film — comprising the pelogen or benthos (upper part) and the layer of
bottom mud — is more massive than that on the surface [130]. Aggregations include the
benthos (bottom zone), coastal aggregations, and sargassos (floating masses) [10]. The
surface plankton are vitally connected to the coastal aggregations [131] and sargassos
[132]. Only 2% of the ocean mass is occupied by aggregations of life [133]. propagation
of the plankton films is seasonal, blooming in the sprig [137].
The plankton film is the principal domain of isolation of free oxygen, concentration of
nitrogen, and precipitation of calcium and silicon [138]. The sargassos and coastal
aggregations are similar [139]. But in the coastal aggregations, more chemical elements
leave the life cycle than in the plankton film [140]. The bottom film has a great
concentration of bacteria and life products which absorb free oxygen [141], create inert
matter [142], support both oxidation and reduction [143], and influence the distribution of
elements in the Earth’s crust [144-148]. The distribution of life in the hydrosphere and its
geochemical manifestation has been the same through all geological periods [149].
Life covers the land in a continuous film [150]. It is thin [151] and contains us and green
plants [152]. The geochemistry differs from that of the hydrosphere, chemicals are
caught and held by living matter [153, 154]. Organic remains are concentrated in soils
[155]. Water comprises two thirds of living matter on land [156]. All life, and all inert
matter surrounding the biosphere, comprise an indivisible unity [159].


The concept of the noosphere, as the sphere of human thought encircling the Earth,
was greatly popularized by Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in The Phenomena of Man
(1955). Teilhard had heard of this idea of Vernadsky in 1922. Here is a compressed
paraphrase of the Vernadsky essay written in 1943.
The idea of indivisible unity of living and inert matter was stimulated by World War II [1].
Since World War I there has emerged an emphasis on «living matter», as distinct from
«life» [2]. The whole of mankind is related to the biosphere [3]. Mankind cannot exist
without the biosphere [4]. Huygensʼ (1629-1695) principle (1698): life is a cosmic
phenomenon [5]. The evolution of the form of living matter leads to change in its
chemistry [5]. Living matter created rocks [6]. Dana (1813-1895) and Le Compte
(1823-1901) showed that evolution of living matter had a direction [7]. This direction —
cephalization, which evolved the brain or central nervous system — never reverses [8].
Man embraced the biosphere for the first time, and became a single entity, mankind, in
the 20th century [9]. Mankind is becoming a powerful geological force and is
Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 5reconstructing the biosphere. The new state of the biosphere is the noosphere [10].
Proceeding from V.’s Sorbonne lectures in Paris in 1922-23, Eduard Le Roy lecturing at
the College de France in 1927 introduced the noosphere as a present-day stage that is
developing within the biosphere. He acknowledged this as joint work with Teilhard [11].
In the noosphere Man becomes a great geological force for the first time, using thought,
not energy [12]. We are entering the noosphere at a terrible time, but our ideals of
democracy correspond to a spontaneous geological process, the creation of the
noosphere [13].


The Biosphere puts forward a number of «empirical generalizations» or hypotheses [12]
which beg to be empirically proved. Biosphere 2 aimed to test many of these
hypotheses, and had the full cooperation of the Russian scientists who follow
Vernadsky. Many of the hypotheses have been resolved since Vernadsky wrote his
essay, but by 1944 he had marshaled a great deal of detailed technical support for his
biospheric proposals from the scientific findings of his generation. His way of thinking is
decidedly materialistic, or rather, biogeochemical. But looking from a distance, we may
see emerging in his work a new level of holism in the science of the biosphere.


1. http://www.visual-chaos.org/complexity/
2. Allen, John. Me and the Biospheres. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press (in press).
3. http://www.ecotechnics.edu/conf.html
4. Snyder, Tango, ed. Biosphere Catalogue. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press (1985).
5. http://www.biospheres.com/history.html
6. Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia.
7. Balandin, Rudolph. Vladimir Vernadsky: Two Ways of Synthesizing the Universe.
8. http://www.tstu.ru/eng/kultur/nauka/vernad/dati.htm
9. Jones, William. Vernadsky and his Biosphere. 21st Century, Fall-Winter 2006, pp.
Ralph Abraham, Vernadsky Review 6