Sunday, March 29, 2009

endangered species

Maybe all those strange looks I’ve been getting lately are indicative of a general concern for my survival. Apparently, most people think redheads are going the way of the dinosaurs by 2060 – as hapless victims of our own recessive genes.

In August and September 2007, several news organizations reported that redheads are headed for extinction in the foreseeable future. Other news outlets and blogs picked up the story, citing the “Oxford Hair Foundation” or a conveniently vague category of “genetic scientists” who had set a specific date for this Armageddon: apparently, there would be no more redheads by 2060. Some news outlets lent credibility to the argument by pointing the finger at National Geographic’s September 2007 issue as being the source of the extinction claims. Others cited that issue of National Geographic for the numerical statistics it presented in a short piece on redheads.

The reasoning behind this theory? The articles employ the assumption that recessive genes, like the one for red hair, can “die out.” Dominant dark-haired and dark-skinned genes, spread far and wide by the inevitable racial intermingling of the future, will simply override the recessive ginger gene until it ceases to exist. Apparently, in order to save ourselves, we redheads must retreat to a secret isolated location and breed furiously to keep our poor besieged genomes in high concentration. I vote Maui! Let’s kick everyone else off and plant a carnivorous hedge to protect our borders!

So, now that you’re shaking under your carrot-top, here comes the truth. The National Geographic story provided statistical data on red hair in the world population. However, it only said that “news reports” have claimed the possibility of redhead extinction, and did not explicitly back that claim. On the contrary, the article noted that “while redheads may decline, the potential for red isn't going away.” Phew.

On the scientific side of things… Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene. Since it’s a recessive trait, it takes both parents passing on a mutated version of the MC1R gene to produce a redheaded child. Because of this, red hair can easily skip a generation, hidden behind dominant traits that have overridden it. It can then reappear in subsequent generations if both parents, no matter their hair color, carry the ginger gene.

Basically, recessive genes can become rare but can't disappear completely unless every single individual carrying that gene dies or fails to reproduce. So while red hair may appear infrequently, enough people carry the gene that – barring global catastrophe (or an invasion of giant killer guinea pigs à la South Park) – redheads should keep on kickin’ for a long time to come.

If you're still not convinced, experts agree that the redhead extinction claim is bogus. David Pearce from the University of Rochester Medical Center told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2005 (after a previous round of redhead extinction rumours) that the scientists behind the claim should “check their calculator”. Rick Sturm, a researcher in hair and skin genetics at the University of Queensland, told the Australian Broadcasting Company that “there's no shortage of red-heads” and that the Oxford Hair Foundation failed to back its findings with sufficient scientific evidence.

Speaking of the Oxford Hair Foundation… the articles citing it as a respectable source pass it off as an “independent” institute or research foundation, but a simple Google search indicates that the Foundation is funded by… Procter & Gamble. Yeah, that Procter and Gamble – manufacturer of beauty products galore, including red hair dye. What a sneaky ploy! Hey, everyone, hurry up and become a redhead before they go extinct and everyone knows your colour’s not real!

So fear not: though I might have gone grey by then, I will still be around in 2060, and hopefully so will you.

Damn, I was sort of excited about Maui.


  1. I think a world without redheads would be quite dull, and yay guinea pig attack!

  2. Redheads don't gray. Their hair turns white. I am 70 and still mostly red.