Monday, February 18, 2008

We Are Our Biochemistry, Says George Riddle

Cites His Uncle’s Work on Hormones and DNA


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The February 17 meeting of the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego featured a strange, intense look at a brave new world of genetic engineering from a speaker who had little scientific expertise himself, but whose uncle was one of the pioneers in the field in the 1930’s. The speaker’s name was George Riddle, and his uncle Oscar Riddle made the cover of Time magazine in 1939 for his work on prolactin, a hormone that controls the human sex drive. Oscar also published a book called The Unleashing of Evolutionary Thought — which his nephew acquired the rights to and had reprinted — which offered a far-reaching agenda for genetic manipulation that couldn’t have been implemented during Oscar’s lifetime (he died in 1952), but much of which is either possible or routine today.

George Riddle began his presentation by talking about his own life. He was born in 1949 in Stockton, California. His father, Edward Riddle, was a security person at the China Lake missile test range for the FBI, Secret Service and CIA. At 20, George married a Christian activist and “went into Bible college and missionary work.” When he returned, he went to the University of California at Riverside to study geology. After he and his wife split up, George did construction work for four years — three of them working for Frank Sinatra’s contractor (a job he recalled as the most demanding he ever had) — and then became a gem miner and later a gold miner.

“In 1985,” George recalled, “I met Doris Van Tassel, president of the world’s first UFO organization. She was in deep trouble and I got involved in it, and after she died I inherited 400 tons of unpublished UFO material.” Drawing on these files, he wrote two books and started marketing them through the then-new Internet. Then he did an Internet search on his uncle Oscar. “I found out what my uncle had done, and decided to dedicate myself to my uncle’s work and life. I went to my uncle’s publisher, Vantage Press, and met with the man who did the contract to publish my uncle’s book in 1951. We arranged to reprint the book.” For George Riddle, the Internet soon became not only a research tool but a source of income; he makes his living today designing, building and administering Web sites.

“I had been taught by my family that my uncle distinguished himself among other scientists,” George Riddle recalled. “My uncle’s specialty was the pituitary hormone prolactin. The pituitary is the master gland that controls all the other glands, and my father found the hormone that controls nesting behavior.” George said his uncle documented prolactin’s role in controlling the human sex drive. “Prolactin inhibits the activity of the sex gland, which is natures way of quieting the sex urge to make people able to parent. … Prolactin was very difficult to isolate because it affected our bodies in every way,” George explained. “They would give prolactin to a man and he’d have the same feelings as a woman.”

According to George, his uncle’s message went far beyond the effects of one hormone and one gland on human behavior. “The time has come for man to control his own biological destiny,” Oscar Riddle wrote — and George added that modern advances in DNA research give us the opportunity to eliminate at least three human diseases — cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s — just by learning to repair the DNA of a living human being. “You can pay a price to have a picture of your genome taken, and then they can repair it and you never have that disease again,” George claimed. What’s more, he added, the repairs will eliminate the disease from your germ line so your descendants won’t be at risk for it either.

George admitted that this message was a political hot potato when his uncle first talked about it in the 1930’s — and it remains so today. “In 1933 in Germany, someone was saying, ‘We can create a master race,’” George admitted (for some reason he made several such references but didn’t let the words “Hitler” or “Nazi” cross his lips), “ and my uncle faced tremendous opposition because he sounded similar. His argument was, ‘We have benefited so much from science, why can’t we apply that to our own bodies?’ In 1937 he went to a feminist meeting and said we could look in the womb and control a baby’s sex. He faced a lot of opposition from the church, because they felt these things should be left alone.”

According to George, his uncle “dealt with name-calling” because of the controversial nature of his ideas. “Three book companies wouldn’t publish his book because it sounded like Mr. H.,” he said — at least in part because Oscar insisted on expressing his ideas “without adulteration,” in an in-your-face manner exemplified by the title of the sixth chapter of Oscar’s book: “The Biological Inequality of Men.” George too has a penchant for in-your-face expressions; during his Humanist Fellowship talk he said flat-out that “we have a society that encourages inbreeding of defective DNA. You have all these defective people, and some of them are leading science and medicine.”

The basic message of Oscar Riddle’s work, according to George, is that everything we are — including what we think, what we believe and all the aspects of our consciousness religious believers refer to as the “soul” — is the product of biology. What’s more, the theory holds, each emotion, each feeling, each thought and every other manifestation of consciousness can be traced to a specific chemical and a specific site on the genome that produces it. “Our feelings are controlled by our hormones, by a molecule that’s gone through five million years’ worth of mistakes to get where we are,” George explained. “Now we can approach this and have an effect on it.”

George Riddle mentioned Susan Smalley, professor of behavior sciences at UCLA, as a modern researcher who is continuing his uncle’s work and expanding it with the benefit of today’s advances un genetics. Her specialty, George explained, is “the genetics of psychological disorders, gene identity and how it influences health and well-being. Is the brain identical to the mind, and what do the genetics tell about the connection between the two? Does changing your mind physically change the brain? We all know mind and brain are intertwined. Mind is what you experience and brain is the physical organism that controls and houses it.”

One of the most startling contentions of this branch of science is that outside stimuli and experiences can literally change the chemistry of your DNA and therefore the genetic heritage you not only carry within yourself but transmit to your offspring as well. (Could the much-ridiculed Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who won Stalin’s endorsement of his theory that learned behavior could change one’s genes, have been right after all?) “There is a program that is going to change your brain as well as your mind,” George said. “We mean that literally. What you hear will affect your brains, right down to the neurons and the genes that control them.”

George Riddle claims that we already know about factors that can affect the chemistry of DNA and the functioning of the central nervous system, including nutrition and magnetic fields. He cited research that said if pregnant women who were carrying fetuses at risk for Down’s syndrome were given “a certain amount of B-vitamins,” their babies would be born healthy. He also claimed that the reason magnetic fields affect animals (but not plants) is that chlorophyll and blood cells are virtually identical chemically except for one atom: where chlorophyll contains magnesium, which is unaffected by magnetism, animal blood contains iron.

Therefore, said George, “magnetic fields can affect the makeup of DNA. It causes DNA shifts. Every 10,000 years there’s a magnetic shift on the planet, and it affects us. The lattices between the two rungs of the DNA molecule respond to certain magnetic frequencies. … If you have control of the magnetic field around your body, you can produce certain frequencies and key into parts of our DNA.” George Riddle argues that by manipulating DNA through magnetism, nutrition and medicine, “at a certain time in our lives we can eliminate [the risk of] Parkinson’s disease.”

George Riddle argues that individual DNA profiling should be a routine part of medical practice, just as blood tests are today, “so that patients can be treated in a really specific manner. Most doctors are not up for that because they don’t want to give up control. … The best way [to implement Oscar’s ideas] is to inform people so they can do it for themselves” — so they can get their own DNA screened and make whatever “repairs” are now possible.

The question-and-answer period following George Riddle’s lecture was respectful but did raise some obvious concerns. One, especially in the U.S. with our system of private funding of medical care through for-profit insurance companies, was the likelihood that the benefits of genetic screening and “repair” will be available only to the rich — and over time the rich might use this knowledge to evolve into a new species, a “homo superior,” thereby creating not only socioeconomic but biologically determined divisions between classes. George’s answer was that the cost of a genetic screening is still relatively modest, about $500, though that screening can only give you a “look at the weaknesses” of your DNA, not actually repair them.

Other questioners asked if there could be adverse consequences from this technology. One person was concerned that scientists might make mistakes and modify the human genome in ways that would be destructive rather than constructive. Another person asked if this technology could be used to turn someone “bad” or “good.” “There are people looking to become more evil,” George conceded. “To become more ethical, you can develop your intuition. A lot of your ethics is learned.” He added that intuition is “almost like an instinct,” and that by using genetic techniques to make your intuition more sensitive, you could develop more empathy and therefore be a “better” person.

One audience member cited a lecture he’d seen on the Web site from a researcher who worked with fruit flies and led his audience to believe that scientists already know how to manipulate DNA in this far-reaching fashion. So far, he added, all commonly practiced genetic modifications have involved chemical alterations in the DNA sequence — and most of the tools used to splice a new gene into an existing genome have been quite crude. George Riddle agreed that the kinds of environmental and nutritional gene manipulations he and his uncle were talking about don’t yet exist, but the research to create them is going on and he expects rapid results.

Finally, one Fellowship member questioned the stridency of George Riddle’s presentation and said he’d be better off framing his ideas in the way author E. O. Wilson did in his book Consilience, which was an attempt to bridge the gap between religious and scientific understandings of the world. George’s reply was an intensely emotional one that revealed that his break with religion was the humanist’s equivalent of a born-again experience — only one that took him out of religion rather than bringing him to it. “I’ve had them brainwash me,” he said, “I’ve seen them brainwash other people, and I want to try to integrate ideas inside the humanist movement, to put the tools on the workbench.”