The ID community isn’t Lönnig from their mistakes

The ID community seems to be bursting with peer reviewed papers at the moment, all clamoring for attention, and no doubt all being claimed by proponents as breakthroughs into the anti-ID world of academia. The latest of these1 is by Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig (who you may remember being on the editorial board for BIO-Complexity, the incredibly biased pro-ID online journal), and, of course, Casey Luskin has something to say about it:

A new original research paper on mutagenesis comprising 240,000 plants in the journal Floriculture and Ornamental Biotechnology favorably cites to “intelligent design proponents,” including Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, and Stephen Meyer, as advocating one of various legitimate “scientific theories on the origin of species.” The paper was authored by Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, a biologist at the Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Germany who investigates the origin of certain features of flowering plants, or angiosperms.

Yes, it has been published in an obscure journal, one that only keen ID proponents and even keener ID critics will bother checking out. Casey doesn’t provide a link to the paper, but I’ve managed to find one (PDF).

The paper is about the origin and mutagenic evolution of the Chinese lantern or inverted calyx syndrome (ICS) in Physalis, a genus in the plant family Solanaceae. Lönnig sets out four hypotheses for the origin of the ICS:

  • Hypothesis A: The ICS evolved independently in Physalis compared with the rest of the Solanaceae, but it is irreversible in accordance with Dollo’s Law of Irreversibility – in other words, members of Physalis can’t revert back to their non-ICS state.
  • Hypothesis B1: The ICS evolved independently in Physalis as in A, but is partly reversible through Darwinian mechanisms – the trait can be hidden, but not completely removed.
  • Hypothesis B2: The ICS is a plesiomorphic (ancestral) trait from the base of the Solanaceae family and it has been conserved in Physalis, but was lost in other genera that don’t show the ICS.
  • Hypothesis C: The ICS is a result of intelligent design, and appeared independently irrespective of phylogeny (maybe – see below).

Of course, as you might expect, hypothesis C is of the most interest to me. Sure, evolutionary hypotheses about the origin of plant traits are fascinating (sometimes – can you spot my barely concealed anti-plant morphology bias?), but the blatant inclusion of ID as a competing hypothesis trumps them every time. Now, how does Lönnig justify including ID? What positive evidence does he have for it? Paraphrasing Casey Luskin reveals an answer:

Lönnig notes the ID-based view can “be falsified by proving (among other points) that the probability to form an ICS by purely natural processes is high, that specified complexity is low, and finally, by generating an ICS by random mutations in a species displaying none.”

Lönnig seems to be taking the Dembski/McLatchie approach: ID is the default hypothesis for the origin of biological traits, and evolutionary hypotheses must be not just rendered plausible but explicitly demonstrated if they are to falsify it. The reasons that this is fallacious are numerous, most relating to the idea that in science no hypothesis lacks the burden of proof. The fact that this slipped by the peer review board is telling of just how unacquainted most biologists are to ID arguments – amplified by this journal’s relative obscurity, no doubt.

He also alludes to a non-pure version of ID2 as hypothesis C in this statement:

If correct – I use the conditional clause because the plant fossil record is, of course, still imperfect, not least for the Solanaceae – B2 would have been disproved and the origin of the ICS by multiple convergences would be strengthened for viewpoints A (irreversible) and B1 (at least partially reversible), whereas C could live with both options, although it tends by its very nature to favor multiple independent origins of the Chinese lantern.

Hang on, why would ID favor multiple independent origins of the ICS? How does Lönnig know this? Note that he also says C “could live with both options”, highlighting the inherent unfalsifiability of pure ID… yet he is promoting an non-pure ID? He seems to be floating between the two – making predictions when it suits him, but falling back on unfalsifiability at the same time.

To be honest, he doesn’t discuss ID in much detail, instead referring readers to a long list of pro-ID references, including papers and books by well-known ID proponents Michael Behe, William Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer. Was this perhaps because he thought he couldn’t sneak too much pro-ID speech by the editorial board, instead deciding to have it exist outside the paper in the form of citations? Maybe. But this is hardly an accessible paper to anyone except people already acquainted with ID, and was never intended to be one. The ID community loves being referencing in the literature, but the quality of those references are rather irrelevant when all they want is the ability to truthfully claim that they are mentioned. Only a few people will ever check up on the references ID proponents throw at them in order to prove a rhetorical point.

So, does Lönnig’s paper provide a strong case for ID? No, it simply repeats the common strategy of throwing some doubt on neo-Darwinian mechanisms and thereby claiming some victory for intelligent design via a negative argument. The fact that it has been published in a peer reviewed paper doesn’t negate its logical and philosophical errors and provides once more another example of the peer review process fundamentally failing to do its job. Papers like this, with Lönnig’s ID-inclusions, aren’t supposed to be published.

Once again, a touted “pro-ID, peer reviewed paper” hasn’t made a positive case for its favoured hypothesis. It’ll be interesting to see how much positive publicity this paper will get in the ID community, but it deserves no praise from the scientific one.

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  1. Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, “Mutagenesis in Physalis pubescens L. ssp. floridana: Some Further Research on Dollo’s Law and the Law of Recurrent Variation,” Floriculture and Ornamental Biotechnology Vol. 4 (Special Issue 1): 1-21 (December 2010).
  2. A non-pure version of ID is one that includes information about the intent and methods of the Designer, as opposed to pure ID, which is vague on those details.

4 thoughts on “The ID community isn’t Lönnig from their mistakes”

  1. Keep up the good work. If you read my earlier comment, comments over at my little blog are working fine, I was just confused.

  2. Yeah, exactly why this was allowed to take up 20% of the page count of a special issue on orchids is not clear. He cites a ton of the pop ID literature just to get it cited, it seems. And in passing cites the actual scientific literature (Hu & Saedler 2007) on the evolution of the ICS, which should answer his IC speculations pretty directly.

    Also published after retirement from Max Planck Institute, so Casey is doing some credential buffing. Nothing new, there.

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