Extinction Fears of the Red-Headed Homo Sapien




About 4% of the world’s population possess the recessive gene for red hair, and actually 2% are redheads, as a result of a mutation that arose in Northern Europe several thousand years ago. Scientists have been divided in their opinion about whether the red headed population is headed for extinction in an age of global mingling.

Jacob Silverman reported his findings in Are redheads going extinct:

Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R (melanocortine 1 receptor gene)… Because it’s a recessive trait, red hair can easily skip a generation. It can then reappear after skipping one or more generations if both parents, no matter their hair color, carry the red hair gene.

That is a slightly reassuring view, as it implies, that the gene will stay in the population. But most genes are clustered in certain populations, and intermarriage in communities ensures that the prevalence of recessive genes do not get diluted. But with increasingly multicultural populations in the West, where red hair genes are mostly concentrated, some scientists are afraid, redheads as a phenotype could become extinct within a 100 years.

Leading the redhead preservation brigade is the social networking site Redhedd.com, which insists on dating and breeding amongst redheads exclusively, to preserve mankind’s red heritage. It is aggressive in its stance, compared to more moderate devoted sites like Redhead Passions and Realm of the Redheads, and proclaims in its manifesto that its primary object is to “save the redheads.”

“In order to save redheads we have to mingle redheads with redheads, to concentrate the two genes that make red hair”, instructs the site founder in 2007 — Steve Warrington of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Last August, National Geographic ran the story where “ginger” was predicted to be extinct in a 100 years or so. The gene initially had a positive survival effect by increasing the body’s ability to synthesize Vitamin D in the presence of sunlight, particularly in the northernmost latitudes with relatively less sunlight. But in the era of dietary fortification, it has lost its usefulness, and even makes carriers more prone to cancer and heat and cold-related pain.

But for those red head preservationists not to be put off by such trivial counterarguments, statistically the best place to preserve their heritage is Scotland, where apparently 40% of the population carry the gene and 13% actually have red hair.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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