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Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig: An Intelligent Design Pioneer

Photo: Wolf-Ekkehard and wife and dog in his back yard in Köln, by Granville Sewell.

In 1971, some 25 years before ideas of intelligent design became widely known, Dr. Theo Eckhardt (1910-1977), Director of the Botanical Gardens and Botanical Museum of Berlin Dahlem, and professor at the Free University of Berlin, wrote:

With pleasure I would like to report: finally a Master’s thesis in which a young man turns decidedly against a “sacred cow” (neo-Darwinism or the theory of descent in general) and demonstrates the sore points of a doctrine, which for most minds is thought of not just as a theory, as a great synopsis, but as an impeccable and almost completely proven fact. His personal opinion on the whole issue can be found clearly expressed in two sentences at the end of the entire work: “The cybernetic systems realized in technology presuppose design. What conclusion could be closer to the truth than to postulate this also for the origin of the world of organisms?” (p131). Now it is of course not true that Herr L. is out on a limb by himself with his viewpoint. He can already in the first chapter list a number of renowned botanists and zoologists who also consider neo-Darwinism to be inadequate. At this point it must be noted that Herr L. not only knows by name and citation the relevant literature, even in the area of zoology, but in an excellent way has actually worked through it, even when it consists of large volumes…. Herr L. basically draws the same conclusions as my own botany teachers, Karl von Goebel and Wilhelm Troll, have drawn from their life’s work, and which Troll once so aptly formulated: “…it is the same basic phenomenon of unity in diversity, that on the one hand suggests physical processes, on the other hand suggests something greater than the sum of its parts (Gestalt), and in a higher sense allows one to recognize Logos in the Bios.”  

Herr L. was Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, well known to readers of Evolution News, who would go on to earn a PhD in genetics at the University of Bonn and to serve as a research scientist for more than 25 years, studying plant genetics and mutations, at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Köln. For a half century now he has been criticizing Darwinism and promoting intelligent design. Here is a 2018 German TV interview (with English subtitles) with Lönnig, and here is a recent interview in English, with Italian subtitles. 

Cambrian Explosion and Darwin’s Abominable Mystery

In his thesis of 1971, he had already discussed such topics as the origin of the carnivorous plant Utricularia, and quoted Darwin in this context: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (pp. 31-32). Also the Cambrian explosion and Darwin’s “abominable mystery,” the origin of angiosperms, were considered in detail (pp. 53-68). Moreover, Schützenberger’s objections to neo-Darwinism from the Wistar Symposium’s Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution was quoted at length (p. 70). Additionally, the relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for evolutionary questions was discussed (pp. 71-73).

In his M.Ed. thesis (1974) he demonstrated, in front of a group of prospective teachers, how the pros and cons on the topic of evolution could be taught in high school in eight lessons of 45 minutes each. His method was continued by Professor Schreiber who was leading the seminars.

In 1991 in Tübingen he discussed evolution with Diether Sperlich, professor of population genetics at the university there, followed by an open discourse with the audience. Almost the entire biological faculty was present (one of Lönnig’s friends counted 330 persons). The outcome was a success for design as even Sperlich admitted.

Samples of Lönnig’s Writing

Although now retired, Lönnig is still a prolific writer, and a sample of his recent writings includes:

His web page contains many more writings on Darwinism and ID, many of which have been published in scientific journals. One peer-reviewed scientific article he co-authored on carnivorous plants is highlighted beginning at the 21:50 mark of my 2020 video “Why Evolution Is Different,” as it deals with both the phenomenon of convergence and with irreducible complexity. The carnivorous plant traps are all nice examples, like Michael Behe’s mousetrap, of irreducible complexity.

What his writings all have in common is great attention to scientific detail. As Marcos Eberlin says, “The devil is in the details”: Darwinism sounds superficially plausible until one looks at real plants and animals with their irreducibly complex details — then the idea of gradual development falls apart. Much of Lönnig’s writings are responses to claims made by Darwinists, often in direct correspondence with them. Although, as discussed in the last few minutes of the Italian interview, some of his critics have lashed out at him, even tried to silence him, he has never shied away from direct debate with his critics. He always responds with calm scientific arguments, not anger. As his advisor commented above, Lönnig is a prolific reader, too, and has become an expert on many other areas relating to evolution, including zoology and paleontology.

The History of Intelligent Design

Probably because he has never traveled in the United States (though he attended his daughter’s wedding in Mexico), he is not as well known here as other personalities in ID research. But my friend Wolf-Ekkehard is one of the most credentialed and knowledgeable ID proponents in the world and certainly one of the pioneers.

Dr. Lönnig adds, in an email to me: “Concerning commendations or praise for my humble self, I would prefer to focus the reader’s attention on the absolutely brilliant, ingenious, and wise creator of the universe and life. However, I agree that for the topic of the early history of intelligent design, these notes on my scientific career in connection with ID are clearly relevant.”