V.I. Vernadskii and the development of biogeochemical understandings of the biosphere, c.1880s–1968

Denis J.b. Shaw, Jonathan Oldfield

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14 Citations (Scopus)


General notions of the biosphere are widely recognized and form important elements of contemporary debate concerning global environmental change, helping to focus attention on the complex interactions that characterize the Earth's natural systems. At the same time, there is continued uncertainty over the precise definition of the concept allied to a relatively limited critique of its early development, which was linked closely to advances in the natural sciences during the late nineteenth century and particularly, it is argued here, to the emergence of biogeochemistry. In the light of this, the principal aim of the paper is to explore the development and subsequent dissemination of biogeochemical renderings of the biosphere concept, focusing primarily on the work of the Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskii (1863–1945). The paper identifies four key moments which, it is argued, help to explain the development and subsequent dissemination of a biogeochemical understanding of the biosphere. First, we draw attention to the particularities of St Petersburg's natural-science community during the late nineteenth century, arguing that this was instrumental in providing the basis for Vernadskii's future work related to the biosphere. Second, we consider the ways in which Vernadskii's ideas concerning the biosphere were able to move to the West during the first half of the twentieth century with specific reference to his links with the French scientists Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Edouard Le Roy, and the US-based ecologist George Evelyn Hutchinson. Third, we reflect more purposefully on matters of reception and, in particular, the emergence of a set of circumstances within Western ecological science after 1945, which encouraged a positive engagement with biogeochemical understandings of the biosphere. Finally, we examine the 1968 UNESCO-sponsored Biosphere Conference, which represented the first time the biosphere concept was employed at the international level. Furthermore, this event was in many ways a high point for a specifically biogeochemical approach, with the subsequent popularization of the biosphere concept during the course of the 1970s helping to broaden the discourse markedly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-310
Number of pages24
JournalThe British Journal for the History of Science
Issue number02
Early online date15 Mar 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2013


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