Back in 2007 National Geographic and other press reported that redheads were an endangered species, and that the gene that produces natural red hair would disappear from the human gene pool in as little as 60 years. Since then, the urban legend about natural red hair soon becoming nothing more than a memory abound. However, this is not true and people with natural red, auburn and copper hair will still be born for the foreseeable future.
Mutations and Natural Selection
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The origin of this urban legend is probably based on a confusion between a mutation that causes a recessive gene, and natural selection. A mutation is a gene that changes enough to code a different protein sequence than the original gene. Not all mutations have a downright positive or negative effect: Blue eyes are a mutation, as are the ones that cause terrible hereditary diseases or a natural mutation that gives carriers a better resistance to the HIV virus. Mutations happen all the time, in all species, though things such as some chemicals or radioactivity would make mutations (not usually positive) happen quicker.
Natural selection is, according to Darwin, the process in which mutations that aren’t favourable to the species eventually disappear in favour of others that have a reproductive advantage. For example, a gene that makes your bones brittle would probably disappear from the gene pool as individuals where that gene manifests would be less likely to reach adulthood and reproduce.
Being a redhead doesn’t affect the reproductive capability of the individual, or its survivability, and as such it’s not a mutation subject to extinction by natural selection. Redheads are not an endangered species.
What Genes Cause Red Hair?
There are several genes, all of them recessive, that cause red hair in humans. MC1R (Chromosome 16) is the responsible for the majority of redheads, about 74% of cases. However there are several others: HCL2 (chromosome 4), OCA2 and HERC2 (Chromosome 15) and ASIP (chromosome 20) among others.
2% of the world’s population are redheads, with another 2% being only carriers of the recessive gene. Those people won’t have red hair naturally, but can pass the trait to their descendants. While this trait is commonly associated with Ireland and Scotland there are redheads all over the glove.
Redheads have high levels of the pigment pheomelanin (which is reddish) and lower levels of eumelanin (the dark version of melanin that causes dark hair). This means most redheads have fair skin, lighter eyes and freckles but this is not always the case. Some redheads have golden skin, while others have alabaster skin and burn easily. Freckles happen due to exposure to sunlight without the right SPF, and are more common on very pale skin. Many redheads have curly hair (another recessive trait) but it’s again not always the case.
Types Of Redheads
From mahogany tones on dark brunette hair to ginger hair, redheads come in a variety of tones. Not all of them have the incredibly pale skin and freckles associated with ginger and copper hair, but it’s pretty common. From dark to light, redheads are classed as:
Very dark, brunette hair with red tones. Think Amy Adams natural hair color.
Very dark red, between mahogany and copper.
The typical shade associated with fiery redhead hair.
Lighter than copper, but still more orange than red.
The most uncommon shade of natural redhead hair, it only happens naturally in those with scandinavian and celtic ascent.
Also, most redheads will skip the grey and go from copper to strawberry blonde to white hair directly, due to the lack of eumelanin.
If both the parents are redheads, the chances of passing the trait to their children is very high, close to 100%. If one of the parents is a redhead, but the other isn’t, probability diminishes to 50%, provided the non-redhead parent has the recessive gen. Two people who have the recessive gene version along with a dominant expressed allele will have a 25% chance of having redhead children, but will have a 50% chance of passing the gene as recessive to their children who in turn could have redhead grandchildren.
It is very common for redheads to skip a generation, for example. If your grandparents had red hair, you most likely have the gene as well.
Over the centuries, many cultures have treated red haired people in a less than nice manner. From calling them unlucky (and sacrificing them to stop the bad luck!) to burning them on the fire, being a redhead is not always easy. Bright orange hair and freckles also make many redhead children the target of bullying. Also, there is no truth to the statement that redheads come back after death as vampires.
Scientifically, it has been proved that redheads are more resilient to thermic pain, and can endure higher and lower temperatures better. However, they are often very sensitive to UV light and can burn easily. This includes sensitive eyes, so most people with red hair use sunglasses often. If you are a redhead reading this, remember to wear sunglasses to reduce the likelihood of cataracts later in life.
Red hair tones are also associated with a higher resistance to painkillers, which means most redheads need up to 20% extra anaesthesia when receiving surgical treatment. They are also more likely to suffer from melanoma if they don’t protect themselves from the sun using high SPF. There is no scientific evidence at all about redheads having a fiery temperament or being more unstable than any other hair color, though being subjected to bullying and having the stereotype of the fiery temper thrown at you may cause some to indeed develop a temper.
Red hair is rare, but it’s not endangered and there is no truth to the statement that redheads are going the way of the dodo. Which is great because whether you have natural red hair or yours comes from a bottle, the tones of red or burnt orange are beautiful to see and something to be proud off.