Dr. Darwin’s Golden Secret

Monument of John Cleves Symmes Jr. in Symmes Park, Hamilton, Ohio. Photo by Christopher Roehl via Wikimedia Commons

Having recently written no fewer than three blog posts (“Voliva!” “The Rim at the End of the World” and “Taking the Voliva Challenge”) on the idea that the Earth is flat, I found myself yearning for new worlds to conquer—hollow worlds in particular. Accordingly, armed with a copy of David Standish’s Hollow Earth (2006), which Ken Feder described in his review for RNCSE as “a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and hugely informative book,” I started to refresh my memory about the idea that the Earth is hollow. Unlike flat-earthery, hollow-earthery isn’t typically motivated by Biblical inerrantism, so it might seem difficult to make it relevant to the Science League of America blog. But I found a hook for a post quickly enough in John Cleves Symmes’s circular of 1818.

Symmes is probably the most famous hollow-earther. Born in 1780 in New Jersey to a prominent family, he joined the U.S. Army in 1802 and was commissioned as a captain in January 1812, just in time for the war against Great Britain. He left the army in 1816, and went to work as a trader in St. Louis, in what was then the Missouri Territory. There, in 1818, he printed five hundred copies of the following remarkable circular, which were mailed (inter alia) to every member of Congress, the presidents of various colleges, universities, and learned societies in the United States, and a number of scholars in Europe, accompanied with a printed postscript and a certificate of Symmes’s sanity (the text of which, alas, I have been unable to discover).

Light gives light to discover—ad infinitum


April 10, A.D. 1818

To all the World:

I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in this undertaking.

Of Ohio, late Captain of Infantry.

N.B.—I have ready for the press, a Treatise on the principles of matter, wherein I show proofs of the above positions, account for various phenomena, and disclose Dr. Darwin’s “Golden Secret.”

My terms, are the patronage of THIS and the NEW WORLDS.

I dedicate to my wife and her ten children.

I select Doctor S. L. Mitchell, Sir H. Davy, and Baron Alexander Von Humboldt, as my protectors.

I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in the fall season, with reindeer and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find a warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring. (emphasis in original)

There’s a lot about this missive that invites comment, but for now I’m interested in Symmes’s promise to “disclose Dr. Darwin’s ‘Golden Secret.’” When the circular was distributed, Charles Darwin was all of nine years old, and he was never a doctor (having abandoned his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh) anyhow. Obviously Symmes was talking instead about Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1732–1802), a leading physician, botanist, poet, and natural philosopher of his day; his Zoonomia (1794–1796) to a degree anticipated and influenced his grandson’s thinking about evolution. So that raises two questions: what was Erasmus Darwin’s golden secret and what did Symmes propose to say about it?

Writing about Symmes’s circular in Galaxy in 1956, the science writer Willy Ley commented that “the world still does not know what ... [the] Golden Secret was supposed to have been.” Although Ley recognized that the Darwin in question was Erasmus Darwin, he seems not to have thought to look through his works for the golden secret. There, in canto IV of The Economy of Vegetation (1791), he could have found the following apostrophe:

“Ethereal cohorts! Essences of Air!
Make the green children of the Spring your care!
Oh, SYLPHS! disclose in this inquiring age
One GOLDEN SECRET to some favor’d sage;
Grant the charm’d talisman, that chain, that binds,
Or guides the changeful pinion of the winds! (emphasis in original)

In Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poetry, heroic couplets are accompanied by explanatory footnotes. Here he explains that the golden secret pertains to “the change of the wind from N.E. to S.W.” which, he conjectures, “depends on some minute chemical cause; which if it was discovered might probably, like other chemical causes, be governed by human agency…If this could be accomplished, it would be the most happy discovery that ever has happened to these northern latitudes.”

So Dr. Darwin’s golden secret is, in short, knowledge of what causes the winds to blow where they do, and (perhaps) the consequent ability to control the winds. What did Symmes have to say about it? There’s no answer in the promised treatise that was supposedly ready for the press: it never appeared. But since the distinctive contribution of Symmes to the idea of the hollow Earth is the vast holes at the poles, it would be natural to suppose that those holes play a role. Confirmation is available from Symmes’s follower James McBride, writing in his Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres (1826):

And the long continuation of winds, or regular monsoons, which occur in some parts of the earth, may be supplied by winds sucked into one polar opening and discharged through the other, thus performing the circuits of the sphere; without which supposition, it would be difficult to account for the long continued winds which, at certain seasons, are known to blow constantly for several months, more or less obliquely to and from the poles.

I don’t see any indication that Symmes, McBride, or Symmes’s loyal son Americus Symmes—who compiled The Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres (1878) on the basis of his father’s scattered writings—thought that knowing that the course of the winds is determined by their transit through the holes at the poles would facilitate their control, though. So presumably Doctor Darwin’s golden secret is just the cause of the winds blowing as they do, as far as the hollow-earthers are concerned. By the way, Symmes is buried in Hamilton, Ohio, under a monument (above) showing the hollow Earth.