Atheist lawsuit in Illinois

Rob Sherman has filed a lawsuit over $2.3 billion worth of grants that are being improperly given or may be improperly given to religious organizations in Illinois.

Most of the grants challenged by Sherman, Illinois’ leading atheist, go to religious organizations — houses of worship, parochial schools and religious ministries. Clear, unambiguous language in Article X, Section 3, of the Illinois Constitution says that no grant of money shall ever be made by the State to any church for any purpose. Article X, Section 3, also strictly prohibits public funds from ever being used to help support any parochial school. In addition, Article I, Section 3, of the Illinois Constitution provides that no person shall be required to support any ministry against his consent.

The article isn’t meant to be an objective A, B, and C happened sort of news article, so I feel it does the job of pointing out all that is wrong with these grants in Illinois. Do read it all.

I do, however, have one qualm. After listing a number of different religions involved in the grants, the writer says this:

As you can see, Sherman is not just picking on one faith.

So what if he was? It’s nice to see that no religion is getting a free pass, but if he wanted to pick on one over the others, why not? Christianity is a primary problem in the United States today, so it makes sense to focus on it here. And then there’s Islam; it’s currently going through a mini version of the phase through which Christianity went in the Dark Ages (and, indeed, Christianity caused the Dark Ages), so it is important to pick on that religion if one is in favor of better liberty, better social justice, and better quality of life. So I agree that it’s good that Sherman is hitting all the evidence-less ideologies, but if he had one particular concern over another, I wouldn’t blame him.

Australopithecus sediba

Australopithecus sediba is a recent discovery of a new species that represents intermediate features of modern day humans and Australopithecus africanus. The discovery includes two well-preserved fossils dating back 1.95 to 1.78 million years ago, showing a mosaic of human and A. africanus characteristics. It is likely a descendant of A. africanus.

These new fossils, however, represent a hominid that appeared approximately one million years later than Lucy, and their features imply that the transition from earlier hominids to the Homo genus occurred in very slow stages, with various Homo-like species emerging first.

“It is not possible to establish the precise phylogenetic position of Australopithecus sediba in relation to various species assigned to early Homo,” wrote Lee Berger, a lead author of one of the Science reports. “We can conclude that… this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other known australopith species, and thus represents a candidate ancestor for the genus, or a sister group to a close ancestor that persisted for some time after the first appearance of Homo.”

Again, the new species is considered to likely be a descendant of A. africanus, but whether or not it is part of human lineage is less certain. Importantly, however, it represents at least a cousin that was evolving alongside our ancestors. (Phylogenetic relationships, in fact, are often based upon indirect ancestry.)

For more of the details about this discovery (such as the fact that it was bipedal or just how it was all so well-preserved), give Brian Switek’s post a look.

Australopithecus sediba

Australopithecus sediba is a recent discovery of a new species that represents intermediate features of modern day humans and Australopithecus africanus. The discovery includes two well-preserved fossils dating back 1.95 to 1.78 million years ago, showing a mosaic of human and A. africanus characteristics. It is likely a descendant of A. africanus.

These new fossils, however, represent a hominid that appeared approximately one million years later than Lucy, and their features imply that the transition from earlier hominids to the Homo genus occurred in very slow stages, with various Homo-like species emerging first.

“It is not possible to establish the precise phylogenetic position of Australopithecus sediba in relation to various species assigned to early Homo,” wrote Lee Berger, a lead author of one of the Science reports. “We can conclude that… this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other known australopith species, and thus represents a candidate ancestor for the genus, or a sister group to a close ancestor that persisted for some time after the first appearance of Homo.”

Again, the new species is considered to likely be a descendant of A. africanus, but whether or not it is part of human lineage is less certain. Importantly, however, it represents at least a cousin that was evolving alongside our ancestors. (Phylogenetic relationships, in fact, are often based upon indirect ancestry.)

For more of the details about this discovery (such as the fact that it was bipedal or just how it was all so well-preserved), give Brian Switek’s post a look.

Gene therapy for mouse vision

Gene therapy is generally a good thing. Just last year it was used to cure color blindness in spider monkeys. In that instance, an adeno-virus was used to deliver the correct gene into the primates; that’s often how it is done. However, there are drawbacks to this. For instance, insertional mutagenesis may occur. This is where an inserted sequence causes a change in the expression of a nearby gene. In many cases, this will cause cancer. It doesn’t always happen and not all viruses will be the right kind to integrate themselves into the host’s genome, but the possibility is a very real one. Fortunately for the spider monkeys, no side effects have been noted.

Another way to go about fixing faulty genes is to do what Cai et al. did and deliver the correct DNA via nanoparticles. They injected mice which had retinitis pigmentosa, a disease of the eye, with saline, naked plasmid DNA (i.e., not compacted in a nanoparticle), and with nanoparticle compacted DNA (plus a control group that received nothing). The correct gene, the Rds gene, did nothing when it was given alone (and, of course, the saline did just the same). However, the nanoparticle DNA did prove to have an effect. In fact, not only did it retard further degeneration of vision, but it even caused healing in the form of functional and structural improvements.

There are still safety issues that need to be fleshed out with more research, but this method of correcting faulty genes is both promising and pretty exciting. What’s more, it even has opened the avenue for some good zingers.

“Making the blind see was once called a miracle,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “As we have expanded our understanding of evolution, genetics, and nanotechnology, chances are that “miraculous” cures will become as commonplace as those claimed by faith-healers past and present.”

1. X. Cai, S. M. Conley, Z. Nash, S. J. Fliesler, M. J. Cooper, M. I. Naash. Gene delivery to mitotic and postmitotic photoreceptors via compacted DNA nanoparticles results in improved phenotype in a mouse model of retinitis pigmentosa. The FASEB Journal, 2009; DOI: 10.1096/fj.09-139147

Thought of the day

I have no idea why Andreas Moritz insists on making me post shit about him. Why. Why is he so genuinely dumb.*

*This is part question, part statement.