This summer the Pope and I came to an understanding. If you account for a Supreme Being, he said, the Vatican doesn’t have a problem with evolutionary theory. He went further to suggest that to view “life in terms of an ‘ongoing creation’ is a scenario that makes increasing sense, scientifically and theologically.” Reading that statement made me smile. I’d like to think Pope John Paul II came to this conclusion during one of his famous daily moments of prayerful isolation-a conviction evolving from the depths of some spiritual kipuka. Hawaii, in its great physical isolation, has emerged as a testament to the great creative powers of evolutionary process. To acknowledge this path, you must delve into isolation.
Isolation is a fundamental force that propels the creation of new species. Hawaii, perhaps unlike any other place on earth, has some powerful forces of isolation. Look at a map of the world, find Hawaii, and you’ll see its surrounded by ocean. It’s the most isolated island group from a continental landmass. Study its geography and you’ll find over a hundred and twenty islands, each one separate from the other. Look at the topography of the islands independently, you’ll discover an astonishing array of landforms with physical barriers such as lava flows, volcanic craters, deep valleys, vertical cliffs, narrow ridges, erosional gulches, and mountain summits. Each barrier with the potential to isolate some organism unable to move beyond. The Hawaiian Islands are a massive isolating mechanism. This mechanism creates genetic pressure which bubbles forth new life. Perhaps the most obvious example of this process on the Big Island is within our kipuka.
Kipuka is a hawaiian word for a piece of older lava flow, often with lots of vegetation, surrounded by newer lava. These kipuka are often called islands within an island. On the Saddle Road above Hilo, from mile marker 17 through mile marker 23, kipuka stand out as mounds of dense forest amongst sparsely vegetated lava flows. Imagine yourself a small little insect with slight powers of flight. You are an individual part of a genetic pool within a large forested area. One day Mauna Loa erupts and sends lava down the mountainside destroying all in its path. By Pele’s design the front of the flow splits and two separate toes move forward a mile or so. Eventually, the two toes come back together in a single mass and continue to course downhill. You find yourself caught in the patch of forest spared as the flow diverged. Unable to fly across the lava fields, you and a small handful of your kind are isolated from the rest of your genetic family. As you and your remnant band breed, the tiny gene pool available to you may have some mutation that reveals itself. Perhaps some deeply hidden recessive gene that produces wilted, non-functional wings occurs in your offspring. Fortunately, without any predators to stalk these helpless offspring condemned to a life on the forest floor, they survive. With only each other to breed with, this flightless deformity quickly becomes prevalent within the group until all of your progeny are born flightless. Over time other changes occur until the gene pool is very different from its ancestral stock. Within the kipuka a new flightless creature has evolved.
This kipuka process is just one avenue of isolating creationism. As an original founder first colonized the islands, its gene pool also went through transformations. From here it is not hard to understand that Hawaii produced such things as giant, flightless geese, carniverous caterpillers,flightless flies, mintless mints, briarless greenbriars, tarless tarweeds, and nettleless nettles. Here in Hawaii, we have arguably the finest examples of evolutionary biology within the plant, bird, and insect world. Hawaii is a crucible of creation. Biologists use wonderful jargon for these evolutionary processes: adaptive radiation, genetic drift, genetic bottleneck, genetic shift, genetic recombination, founder effect, Sewall Wright effect, propagules, speciation. Somehow, I think I enjoy “ongoing creation” best. As I read the papal decree, an image of the Pope Mobile bouncing across the remote Saddle Road passed through my head. And I envisioned in the solitude of some isolated kipuka a tiny bit of ongoing creation.