Vernadsky's Vision of the Noosphere

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Via Peter Critchley:

"Vernadsky wrote that he was introduced to the concept by Édouard Le Roy’s 1927 lectures at the College of France. (Vernadsky, Vladimir: Some Words on the Noosphere) Aphorism 11. (Original Published 1944). The first use of the term was by Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 (in his Cosmogenesis). Some claim that the term originated with Édouard Le Roy rather than Teilhard de Chardin. They knew each other, in any case. (Fuchs-Kittowski, K.; Krüger, P.: The Noosphere Vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir I. Vernadsky in the Perspective of Information and of World Wide Communication; in World Futures: Vol. 50, No. 1-4, 1997. p. 768).

Stated in a couple of lines, Vernadsky’s understanding of the noosphere seems similar to Teilhard’s, described as the planetary “sphere of reason,” the new state of the biosphere. (Moiseyev, Nikita Nikolaievich: Man and the Noosphere; The noosphere represents the highest stage of biospheric development, its defining factor being the development of humankind's rational activities. (Translation of Russian Title: Petrashov, V.V.: The Beginning of Noocenology: Science of Ecosystem Restoration and the Creation of Nocenoses; Pitt, David; Samson, Paul R. (2012). The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 6; Yanshin, A. L.; Yanshina, F.T.: Preface; in Vernadsky, Vladimir Ivanovich: Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon, Moscow, Nongovernmental Ecological V.I.Vernadsky Foundation, 1997, (Original translated by B.A.Starostin) p. 6.) Vernadsky But whereas Teilhard develops the theological/humanist dimensions, Vernadsky’s concept is grounded in the geological sciences. It’s interesting to pt both concepts together (which for me is the view consistent with the two concepts of God in the Hebrew Bible, Elohim and Hashem, the God of the Creation as physical universe and the God of love and personal relations). The view common to both is that human reason is active in creating the next evolutionary geological layer as part of the evolutionary chain, joining culture and nature. Some claim it was Vernadsky who introduced the concept of the biosphere into the notion of noosphere, which fits the idea of him as a pioneer in this area, grounding the idea in the natural sciences – his own field of biogeochemistry - away from theology, but it seems that Teilhard was well aware of the concept of the biosphere, developed by Edward Suess in 1875. (Levit, Georgy S.: The Biosphere and the Noosphere Theories of V.I. Vernadsky and P. Teilhard de Chardin: A Methodological Essay, International Archives on the History of Science/Archives Internationales D'Histoire des Sciences", 2000. p. 161).

There are fundamental differences between Teilhard and Vernadsky, mind – but the view of human activity becoming conscious as a geological power, capable of influencing the environment consciously from within, is similar.

Vernadsky is worth exploring on this. (As is Teilhard, whose work seems much more well-known). Vernadsky made the noosphere the third phase of the Earth’s development after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). In contrast to purely naturalist conceptions (Gaia for instance), Vernadsky underscores the way that human cognition transforms the biosophere in fundamental ways. The noosphere thus emerges as humankind comes to consciousness through the increasing mastery of physical processes.

The interesting thing for me is that both thinkers were prepared to go beyond the boundaries of natural science – and hence their views risk being dismissed as ‘not scientific’ - to create overarching theoretical constructions – dare I say metaphysics – comprising philosophy, social sciences and ethics as well as evolutionary theory. (Levit, Georgy S.: The Biosphere and the Noosphere Theories of V.I. Vernadsky and P. Teilhard de Chardin: A Methodological Essay, International Archives on the History of Science/Archives Internationales D'Histoire des Sciences", 2000). I’m also interested in the factb that Vernadsky’s view, grounded in the natural sciences, converged with Teilhard’s in possessing a teleological character. Both argued for the teleological character of evolution. (Many don’t want to go there, but I read people like theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, or Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and many more, and I don’t see how they avoid teleology even if they refuse to recognise it or overtly deny it). It’s no wonder that the scientific status of the concept is questioned, given the extent to which it drew, in aspects, from Henri Bergson and his ‘Lévolution créatrice (1907), the idea that evolution is "creative" and cannot necessarily be explained solely by Darwinian natural selection. According to Bergson, this creativity is sustained by a constant vital force, animating life and connecting mind and body in a way that contradicts Cartesian dualism of One hundred years later, Stuart Kauffman proposes much the same thing in ‘Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion.’ Kauffman writes of will, consciousness, and agency as emergent within an endlessly creative universe. He claims that to be ‘God enough.’ (I’m not sure about that, since it loses transcendendence, but you can see it as an immanent view that has a lot in common with Teilhard and Vernadsky). Basically, it’s the idea that human beings are co-creators in a ceaselessly creative universe. Co-evolution. Sounds new. I would argue that Marx’s metabolic thinking is well worth exploring, not least because it brings us to mediation and the human role in evolution via specific social relations and forms in time and place. The end is the harmonization of cultural and biological evolution. I know Vernadsky most as one of the few who developed Marx’s pioneering metabolic understanding, emphasising the mediation and relation between the social metabolic order and what Marx called “the universal metabolism of nature.” I think it’s here – encompassing all the critique of political economy, praxis, agency that Marx emphasised – and the relation of ‘Nature’ where the focus should be when it comes to addressing environmental crisis. The environment is social and cultural (and moral) as well as natural, it’s the mediation that matters."


Vernadsky's Unique Holistic Approach


Giulia Rispoli and Jacques Grinevald:

"The biosphere and the noosphere have to be considered as inseparable, interconnected systems that are crossed by a continuous exchange of biogeochemical and cultural processes. Human activity is indeed associated with the rise of a new form of energy that is not only biogeochemical but also, and at the same time, cultural. The exchange between the two spheres, however, does not compromise the specific autonomy of each one. Boundaries between them play an important role: Rather than obstructions or barriers, they act to increase the differentiation of sub-systems within a whole substantial unity.

Vernadsky was not the only one to introduce the notion of the noosphere. Edouard Le Roy developed this idea in complicity with his younger friend Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They proposed to look at this stage as the last and ultimate one in the biosphere’s evolution. The noosphere is a culmination of a collective spiritual agent, a super-mind, which drives the Earth towards the Omega-Point.Georgy Levit, Biogeochemistry-Biosphere-Noosphere. The Growth of the Theoretical System of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky. Berlin: VWB Verlag Für Wissenschaft Und Bildung, 2001.

Vernadsky’s conceptualization of the noosphere differed significantly from those advanced by the French Catholic thinkers. According to Vernadsky the problem of the origin of life was the problem of the formation of the Earth’s biosphere, therefore the impact of human consciousness on Earth was a question entirely rooted in the biosphere and its biogeochemistry. In contrast to a spiritual stage qualitatively separated from the biosphere, the noosphere, according to Vernadsky, marks the emergence of human technological and scientific activity as a geological phenomenon that is functionally and physiologically dependent on Earth’s mechanisms. Thus, the noosphere is a concrete material system that connects humankind and the planetary environment through science and technics, and whose processes can be traced back in the Earth’s geochemistry. The noosphere discloses a complex system in which all life, including man and its exosomatic instruments, the earthly environment, and all technologies became inseparable. In this respect the word bio-techno-sphere would be even more suited then technosphere to untwist the bundle underlying the Vernadskian notion of the noosphere.

As Vernadsky pointed out in his Problems of Biogeochemistry, in the course of the last half-millennium the development of civilized humankind’s strong influence over its surrounding nature, and its comprehension of it, continued growing ever more powerful and with an accelerating tempo.

“During that time the unified culture embraced all the surface of the planet (see § 64), the book printing became discovered, all earlier inaccessible areas of the Earth were recognized, new forms of energy (steam, electricity, radioactivity) were mastered, all chemical elements became coped with and used for human demands, telegraph and radio were invented, the drilling penetrated into the Earth’s crust for kilometers, and man rose with his aeroplanes to a height of over 20 kilometers from the surface of the geoid. [...] The question of the planned, unified activity for mastering nature and for the right distribution of the wealth is now on the agenda. This question is tied up with the consciousness of the unity and equality of all people, with the consciousness of the unity of the noosphere.

Was Vernadsky a precursor to the post-Second World War Holocene-Anthropocene transition? Probably not. It is true that he had already prefigured ethical issues deriving from the ecological imbalances of man’s engagement with nature in a time when ecological concerns were banished under the Stalinist regime; but Vernadsky was thus censored, deformed, or ignored until very recently. However, if on the one hand he believed that changes and accelerations in the human technical system of labor and production can cause geological phenomena of huge significance, on the other his noosphere notion seems to coincide with the fulfillment of a new morality, a new rationality, and eventually the emergence of a new humanism. This does not resemble the catastrophic tone of Crutzen’s Geology of Mankind or, more in general, the idea of the Anthropocene that constantly reminds us about the damaging effects that humankind has had on the environment since at least the thermo-industrial revolution of the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, Vernadsky’s latest writings on the noosphere seem instead more optimistic with regard to humanity’s future use of scientific and technological knowledge.

By highlighting the importance of the study of coevolution between humanity and the biosphere from a long-term perspective, the noosphere unveils a more complex concept, in philosophical terms, and with a historical depth that precedes humankind’s most recent endeavors.Oldfield and Shaw, “V.I. Vernadsky and the noosphere concept,” 2006. We must remember also that Vernadsky’s geological thought was mainly Huttonian, and very different from the “Wegenerian revolution” (J. Tuzo Wilson) of the 1960s or the more recent neocatastrophism of mass extinctions and biodiversity crisis thinking. Understanding the noosphere calls then for a more comprehensive historical analysis, going beyond an explanation of the human degradation of terrestrial ecosystems, the so-called global environment, or sustainability.

Vernadsky’s holistic approach problematizing the relations between humankind, scientific and technological progress, and the Earth was overlooked by his contemporaries. This lack of intellectual and institutional support in the West (France, England, and the United States) was one of several reasons why Vernadsky decided to return to the Soviet Union, where he developed his biogeochemical studies within the Academy of Sciences. In the Stalinist State Vernadsky was respected as an international-class geoscientist and even honored, but not really understood; his social and philosophical ideas were repressed by communist ideologists. After his death, and at the beginning of the Cold War, Vernadsky’s ideas were banned and rehabilitated only during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Vernadsky’s renaissance started in the 1960s, and the rediscovery of his biosphere–noosphere theory, the originality of his approach, and the charisma of his persona emerge vividly today, driving us through the intricate threads connecting the Anthropocene debate and the rebirth of the technosphere notion, but still able to fuel and enrich current controversies and narratives."