Earth -- A Biosphere

By I. M. Oderberg

In the theosophic view, the fundamental basis of the universe is consciousness which imbodies itself in varying degrees of expression. Life itself is the fundamental aspect of this expression with which we are more readily familiar, for it is evident in our environment, including ourselves. Did it come about via the "accidental" clashing of particles in the night of time, even before or just after the birth of light and other energies? Is indeed light an energy, a wave, a stream of particles Einstein called "photons"? Or is life itself innate in every particle of the "matter" we think we know, has it always been so, pervading limitless space?

Vladimir I. Vernadsky's remarkable study of the planet Earth as The Biosphere (1) contains throughout its entire composition the idea that sparks of life have always been present. It opens the door to speculation about the solar system to which our planet belongs, and beyond that to the galaxy of stars, the cluster of galaxies, and so on ad infinitum.

Published in Russian in 1926, The Biosphere, has waited until 1998 for an English translation and commentary by modern geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists. Vernadsky's experiments and summations -- way ahead of their time -- attracted considerable attention, but the Communist revolution threw a pall over his researches and conclusions. The 1998 English edition includes the views of several well-known modern scientists in related fields, which support his thesis. (2) They hail his text as a "discovery" shedding light on many problems emerging today and leading contemporary scientists to further discoveries.

Vernadsky's thesis is summarized in his usage of the word biosphere, for he thought that life is innate in every particle of the planet and, by extension, in the cosmos at large. It was not something added to or arising from the interaction of Earth's physical components. As he said:

Life remains unalterable in its essential traits throughout all geological times, and changes only in form. All the vital films (plankton, bottom, and soil) and all the vital concentrations (littoral, sargassic, and fresh water) have always existed. Their mutual relationships, and the quantities of matter connected with them, have changed from time to time; but these modifications could not have been large, because the energy input from the sun has been constant, or nearly so, throughout geological time, and because the distribution of this energy in the vital films and concentrations can only have been determined by living matter -- the fundamental part, and the only variable part, of the thermodynamic field of the biosphere.
But living matter is not an accidental creation. Solar energy is reflected in it, as in all its terrestrial concentrations. -- p. 149

Vernadsky's views are stated in the Foreword to the English-language edition as follows:

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. Still, Vernadsky himself and many of his fundamental conceptions remained largely unknown. -- p. 15
Vernadsky teaches us that life, including human life, using visible light energy from our star the Sun, has transformed our planet over the eons. He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth's history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life's cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all -- through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere -- connected in space. We are tied through Vernadskian space to Darwinian time. -- pp. 18-19

Advanced as Vernadsky's views are, particularly in respect to the ubiquity of life and its critical influence on Earth, he is still discussing life in physical terms. But can we separate life from consciousness? We sense an intelligence directing the action of cellular forces in the growth of an embryo, for example, and surely something similar contributes in the larger arena of the planet itself. We do not perceive the directing influence that guides developments in our home environment, but never yet has an organism been found lacking an "organizer" of some sort. In The Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky symbolized cosmic energy as a steed with "thought" as its rider, implying that consciousness is a faculty with universal applications. As Einstein said of "that precision I find in the functioning of the cosmos at large, the planets and the sun, and further out the galaxies and other complexities, then I must say all of these are signs of a vast intelligence in operation."

Since our human components are drawn from the cosmic environment, there must be more to the earth and cosmos than its merely physical aspect. Rather than considering life, consciousness, and matter as three isolated phenomena (or two as byproducts of the third), it may be more sound to speak of life-consciousness-substance as a unity of only apparently separate elements -- interdependent, interrelated appearances deriving from one underlying reality beyond our perception.

The key to the origin of life, then, lies in this invisible, nonphysical aspect of the universe. No individual being, whether person or planet, is ever truly "self-contained" because each is intimately joined physically and inwardly to every other aspect of the cosmos. And while the outer forms of living matter are unquestionably subject to scientifically discoverable "universal laws," life itself can no more be understood in its completeness from a purely physical analysis than can so-called inorganic matter. Nonetheless, Vernadsky's views raise intriguing points and throw new light on current scientific discussions.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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    1. Published by Copernicus, Springer-Verlag, New York; 192 pages, illustrated, index, isbn 0-387-98268-x, cloth, $30.00. (return to text)

    2. Scientists include Lynn Margulis, Mauro Ceruti, Stjepko Golubic, Ricardo Guerrero, Nubuo Ikeda, Natsuki Ikezawa, Wolfgang E. Krumbein, Andrei Lapo, Antonio Lazcano, David Suzuki, Crispin Tickell, Malcolm Walter, and Peter Westbroek. (return to text)