Good News For Redheads: You’re Here To Stay

[dusdin on flickr, cropped by Gridge, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Less than two percent of the world’s population have red hair. One report from August 2007 said that redheads, often called gingers by British people, “would eventually become extinct.” 

How Stuff Works explained where this idea came from: “The story of redhead extinction has gone around the internet before, with news articles again citing the Oxford Hair Foundation as a source. These articles work on the mistaken assumption that recessive genes — like the one for red hair — can die out….In one wave of redhead extinction warnings, some news outlets incorrectly cited the September 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine as the source of the extinction claims.”

Now scientists are saying not so fast, and National Geographic is setting the record straight.

The magazine writes, “Claims that redheads are a dying breed are not new, and some of them were clearly linked to financial gain, Jackson says.

One headline that started an uproar blared, “Redheads May Soon Join Polar Bears As Casualties Of Climate Change,” which is a serious stretch. Climate change is creating more extreme temperature, drought, and flood; but the possibility that it will impact UV radiation enough to alter Northern Hemisphere genetics––within the predicted few hundred years––is slim, says Zorina-Lichtenwalter. The source of this claim was Alistair Moffat, CEO of the now-defunct genetic testing company ScotlandsDNA.

Prior to that, the Oxford Hair Foundation (also dissolved) predicted that redheads would be extinct by 2100, with the gene variant that confers flaming hair slowly disappearing. “[The institute] was a front, funded by a hair dye and cosmetics company to generate interest in hair color,” Jackson says.

While recessive genes can become rare, they don’t utterly disappear unless every person who carries that gene either perishes—or does not bear children. And clearly that’s not going to happen.”

The mag also noted that red hair “dates to prehistory. Analysis of 50,000-year-old DNA revealed that some Neanderthals were pale-complected redheads. A famous 3,800-year-old Bronze Age mummy, known as the Beauty of Loulan, was unearthed from a desert cemetery in northwestern China with intact sepia-colored hair. From the fifth century on in what is now southeast Europe and Turkey, the mythological King Rhesus of the ancient Thracians was depicted on Greek pottery with carrot-colored hair and beard.”

Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans. It has been hypothesized that the light skin typically associated with being a ginger was likely an evolutionary advantage in far-northern climates where sunny days occur less often. One study “by Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza (1976) hypothesized that lighter skin pigmentation prevents rickets in colder climates by encouraging higher levels of vitamin D production and also allows the individual to retain heat better than someone with darker skin.”

So don’t worry, redheads. It looks like you’re here to stay. 

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