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Intelligent Design, Ahead of Its Time: More on W. E. Lönnig’s 1971 Thesis

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

Writing here back in April, I discussed the 1971 Masters of Science thesis written by botanist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig at the Free University of Berlin, which was remarkable in that young Wolf-Ekkehard openly advocated for intelligent design in this work. Wolf-Ekkehard would go on to earn a PhD from the University of Bonn and work as a geneticist for over 25 years at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne. He has continued throughout his career, and now in retirement, to criticize Darwinism and promote intelligent design in his writings, several of which have been published in scientific journals. My earlier post includes links to two recent interviews with Lönnig.

Standing Up to Cancel Culture

In his youth, Dr. Lönnig bravely opposed dogma that was almost universally accepted and perilous to question. Although his faculty advisor, the director of the botanical gardens and botanical museum of Berlin Dahlem, actually had high praise for his thesis, Wolf-Ekkehard would throughout his career be confronted by the “cancel culture” that is now so prevalent in our own country. Some of his battles with the cancellers are documented here.

Dr. Lönnig has now posted his thesis online here. I consider this to be an important historical document because it contains many of the arguments that are used by intelligent design advocates today, 50 years later. Though of course the thesis is in German, I have translated one particularly interesting section, where he discusses the “God of the gaps” objection to intelligent design, and criticizes methodological naturalism:

b) When we arrive at a place where we may temporarily be unable to progress and in this place insert God, we hinder the progress of science.

This objection is in principle valid. As church history shows, one has often enough inserted God into places where one did not know how to continue…places, however, that later proved only to be gaps in knowledge. In such situations scientific progress had to fight against the belief in God, at least with those who believed in a direct intervention of the Creator. In order to avoid this forever, one should never assume the direct intervention of God, and even in the case of phenomena we can’t understand [even if their organization points to an intelligent cause] we must never assume such an intervention, as even these phenomena may only be “not yet” understandable.

Although seemingly reasonable, this last conclusion is, as the following example shows, false. Let us suppose an indigenous tribe, who has never come into contact with an advanced civilization, has previously always used “supernatural powers” as an explanation for all events, but upon closer study has now regularly discovered that an “entirely natural” explanation has always been found for such events. Let us further suppose this tribe finally formalizes this discovery and asserts that “everything” must have a natural explanation, that is, an explanation consistent with their newly discovered laws of Nature. For the sake of argument, let’s insert some representatives of our advanced civilization into their region, let’s say landing with two or three helicopters, not in their immediate vicinity and unnoticed by the natives. Suppose the reason for the landing is a technical defect in one of the helicopters, whose crew is for safety transferred to another of the helicopters; the defective machine is left behind.

The story now gets interesting: our native tribe soon discovers this strange craft and now stands before the biggest puzzle of their history. At this point their demand that “everything” must be explained using their known laws of Nature must lead to comical miscalculations. Our entire tribe begins to ponder which natural laws could have caused this strange apparatus to come into existence. At this point, we can imagine to what clever ideas the tribesmen may resort. Some specialists among them have, for example, discovered that some of the metals which they have found in the helicopter are also to be found in some surrounding mountainous regions, and sometimes even in refined form, especially in the vicinity of volcanos. Thus the “volcano creation” theory evolves. To be sure, even after hundreds of years of intensive research they still don’t know how to explain in all detail how the development of the helicopter could have happened through forces of nature, for example, volcano eruptions. But they argue, based on their previous experience, that one must not allow anything other than natural powers to be considered; because “it is methodologically impossible to consider non-mechanistical factors as explanations for the origins of an apparatus.” 

We need not carry this example further. It shows, I hope clearly, that requiring adherence to a fixed method of research can lead to great errors. The justification, that earlier we have misinterpreted a large number of entirely natural phenomena by ascribing them to “non-mechanistical” factors, does not change this. When one confronts things that in our experience always point to consciousness, intelligence, and mind, that require planning and goal-oriented ordering of material to highly integrated systems — when these things furthermore not only cannot be explained through known laws of nature but even defy known laws (such as the principle of increasing entropy), and when attempts to clarify them “naturally” raise thousands of other difficulties, then there is no longer any justification for ruling out “non-mechanistical” factors in discussions of origins!

With regard to the dangers of interpreting mechanistical phenomena as non-mechanistically: this is a two-edged sword. The danger of interpreting non-mechanistical phenomena mechanistically is equally great. We should be on guard in both directions. In both directions we can hinder the progress of knowledge.