"The Biosphere" The Key Book

"...We must realize that the natural system of the Earth, named Nature by Humboldt, the Biosphere by Vernadsky, Gaia by Lovelock, and ecosphere by others is a fundamental concept for our religious, philosophical and scientific quest to learn 'What is Life?'..."

Jaques Grinevald, from the Introduction to The Biosphere

Vernadsky's monumental work, "The Biosphere" first appeared in Russian in 1926. The work was little known in the West until an abridged version was published in English in 1986 (Synergetic Press), and later the complete work in a Spanish version (Fundacion Argentaria-Visor) and an English version (Copernicus/Springer-Verlag), both published in 1997. The Copernicus version (recommended) is available for purchase at Amazon and selected pages can be viewed online at Google Books.

"The Biosphere" is a must-read for anyone interested in a better understanding of the global environmental picture. It is suitable for study by high school and college science students, scientists in all specialties, and lay people with some background in chemistry and biology. However, it is easy-to-read and presents its major concepts in a way that makes them understandable to modern readers regardless of scientific background. The version published by Copernicus is 192 pages in length including extensive and important introductory material, annotations, appendices, and index.

"Biospherology" is the term now used by some for study of the biosphere [G. V. Guegamian. Zhurnal Obshchei Biologii (Journal of General Biology:Russia). 1980;41:581-95]. Others, such as NASA, use the term "biospherics."


Although the Viennese geologist Eduard Suess (1831-1914) had coined the term Biosphere for the place on Earth's surface where life dwells, and the word has since been used in various contexts by many scientists, it is Vernadsky's concept of the biosphere, as set forth in this book, that is accepted today. Three empirical generalizations exemplify his concept of the biosphere:

  1. Life occurs on a spherical planet. Vernadsky is the first person in history to come to grips with the real implications of the fact that Earth is a self-contained sphere.

  2. Life makes geology. Life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. Virtually all geological features at Earth's surface are bio-influenced, and are thus part of Vernadsky's biosphere.

  3. The planetary influence of living matter becomes more extensive with time. The number and rate of chemical elements transformed and the spectrum of chemical reactions engendered by living matter are increasing, so that more parts of Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.

What Vernadsky set out to describe was a physics of living matter. Life as he viewed it, was a cosmic phenomenon which was to be understood by the same universal laws that applied to such constants as gravity and the speed of light.

by Lynn Margulis, et al. (pg. 19)


The following passages present some of Vernadsky's concepts of the biosphere and its study. Note his fascinating comments on life being similar to a gas - diffusing and exerting a pressure by the multiplication of organisms.

"The biosphere is at least as much a creation of the sun as a result of terrestrial processes. Ancient religious intuitions that considered terrestrial creatures, especially man, to be children of the sun were far nearer the truth than is thought by those who see earthly beings simply as ephemeral creations arising from blind and accidental interplay of matter and forces. Creatures on Earth are the fruit of extended, complex processes, and are an essential part of a harmonious cosmic mechanism, in which it is known that fixed laws apply and chance does not exist." (pg. 44)

"It is living matter - the Earth's sum total of living organisms - that transforms the radiant energy of the sun into the active chemical energy of the biosphere.

Living matter creates innumerable new chemical compounds by photosynthesis, and extends the biosphere at incredible speed as a thick layer of new molecular systems. These compounds are rich in free energy in the thermodynamic field of the biosphere. Many of the compounds, however, are unstable, and are continuously converted to more stable forms." (pg.50)

"The study of life faces even greater difficulties, because, more than in any other branch of the sciences, the fundamental principles have been permeated with philosophical and religious concepts alien to science. The queries and conclusions of philosophy and religion are constantly encountered in ideas about the living organism. Conclusions of the most careful naturalists in this area have been influenced, for centuries, by the inclusion of cosmological concepts that, by their very nature, are foreign to science. (It should be added that this in no way makes these cosmological concepts less valuable or less profound). As a consequence, it has become extremely difficult to study the big questions of biology and, at the same time, to hold to scientific methods of investigation practiced in other fields.

The vitalistic and mechanistic representations of life are two reflections of related philosophical and religious ideas that are not deductions based on scientific facts. These representations hinder the study of vital phenomena, and upset empirical generalizations." (pg. 51)

"Living matter gives the biosphere an extraordinary character, unique in the universe. Two distinct types of matter, inert and living, though separated by the impassable gulf of their geological history, exert a reciprocal action upon one another. It has never been doubted that these different types of biospheric matter belong to separate categories of phenomena, and cannot be reduced to one. The apparently permanent difference between living and inert matter can be considered an axiom which may, at some time, be fully established. Though presently unprovable, this principle must be taken as one of the greatest generalizations of the natural sciences." (pg. 53)

"Living matter - organisms taken as a whole - is spread over the entire surface of the Earth in a manner analogous to a gas; it produces a specific pressure in the surrounding environment, either avoiding the obstacles on its upward path, or overcoming them. In the course of time, living matters clothes the whole terrestrial glove with a continuous envelope which is absent only when some external force interferes with its encompassing movement."

"The diffusion of living matter by multiplication, a characteristic of all living matter, is the most important manifestations of life in the biosphere and is the essential feature by which we distinguish life from death. It is a means by which the energy of life unifies the biosphere. "

"The diffusion of life is a sign of internal energy - of the chemical work life performs - and is analogous to the diffusion of a gas. It is caused, not by gravity, but by the separate energetic movements of its component particles." (pg. 60)

"The uninterrupted movement resulting from the multiplication of living organisms is executed with an inexorable and astonishing mathematical regularity, and is the most characteristic and essential trait of the biosphere. It occurs on the land surface, penetrates all of the hydrosphere, and can be observed in each level of the troposphere It even penetrates the interior of living matter, itself, in the form of parasites. Throughout myriads of years, it accomplishes a colossal geochemical labor, and provides a means for both the penetration and distribution of solar energy on our planet.

It thus not only transports matter, but also transmits energy. The transport of matter by multiplication thus becomes a process sui generis. It is not an ordinary, mechanical displacement of the Earth's surface matter, independent of the environment in which the movement occurs. The environment resists this movement, causing a friction analogous to that which arises in the motion of matter caused by forces of electrostatic attraction. But movement of life is connected with the environment in a deeper sense, since it can occur only through a gaseous exchange between the moving matter and the medium in which it moves. The more intense the exchange of gases, the more rapid the movement, and when the exchange of gases stops, the movement also stops. This exchange is the breathing of organisms; and, as we shall see, it exerts a strong, controlling influence on multiplication..." (pg. 62).


Part One. The Biosphere in the Cosmos

  • The Biosphere in the Cosmic Medium
  • The Biosphere as a Region of Transformation of Cosmic Energy
  • The Empirical Generalization and the Hypothesis
  • Living Matter in the Biosphere
  • The Multiplication of Organisms and Geochemical Energy in Living Matter
  • Photosynthetic Living Matter
  • Some Remarks on Living Matter in the Mechanism of the Biosphere

Part Two. The Domain of Life

  • The Biosphere: An Envelope of the Earth
  • Living Matter of the First and Second Orders in the Biosphere
  • The Limits of Life
  • The Limits of Life in the Biosphere
  • Life in the Hydrosphere
  • Geochemical Cycles of the Living Concentrations and Films of the Hydrosphere
  • Living Matter on Land
  • The Relationship Between the Living Films and Concentrations of the Hydrosphere and Those of Land

Permission to quote passages from The Biosphere was kindly provided by Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.