Will redheads really become extinct?
In August 2007, many news organisations reported that redheads or "gingers," as the British and Australians call them, would eventually become extinct. Other news outlets picked up the story, citing the "Oxford Hair Foundation" or "genetic scientists" who claimed that there would be no more redheads by as early as 2060 [source: The Courier Mail]. It turns out that all those people were wrong. Redheads are here to stay and should be around well beyond 2060.
Doing the rounds
The story of redhead extinction has gone around the Internet before, most recently in 2005, with 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. Recessive genes can become rare but don't disappear completely unless everyone carrying that gene dies or fails to reproduce. So while red hair may remain rare, enough people carry the gene that, barring global catastrophe, redheads should continue to appear for some time.
Some of the articles discussing redhead extinction referred to the Oxford Hair Foundation as an "independent" institute or research foundation, but a Google search shows that the Oxford Hair Foundation is funded by Proctor & Gamble, makers of numerous beauty products -- including red hair dye.
In the most recent wave of redhead extinction warnings, some news outlets incorrectly cited the September 2007 issue of National Geographic as the source of the extinction claims. Others, correctly, cited that issue of National Geographic for the statistics it presented in a short piece on redheads. In fact, the National Geographic story provided some data about red hair in the world population, but it only said that news reports have claimed that redheads were going to be extinct. The piece did not explicitly back the claim. Instead, the article stated that "while redheads may decline, the potential for red isn't going away" Unfortunately the misconception about disappearing redheads is now widespread.
Experts who have been interviewed agree that the redhead extinction claim is bogus. David Pearce from the University of Rochester Medical Centre told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after the last round of redhead extinction news that the scientists behind the original claim should "check their calculator" [source: Seattle Times]. 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 didn't provide sufficient scientific evidence to prove its findings [source: ABC Canberra].
Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene. It's also a recessive trait, so it takes both parents passing on a mutated version of the MC1R gene to produce a redheaded child. 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 colour, carry the red hair gene.
If the redhead story sounds familiar to you, it might be because, according to some people, they're not the only endangered hair colour - the plight of blondes is also on the agenda. If this tells us anything at all, it’s that now’s the time for readhead fanciers everywhere to get out there and find their perfect mate – after all, time’s running out!