In August 2007, many news organizations reported that redheads or "gingers," as our British and Australian friends call them, would eventually become extinct. Other news outlets and blogs 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.
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."
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 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. Others, correctly, cited that issue of National Geographic magazine for the statistics it presented in a short piece on redheads.
In fact, the National Geographic magazine story provided some data about red hair in the world population, but it only said that "news reports" have claimed that redheads were going extinct [source: National Geographic]. 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" [source: National Geographic]. Unfortunately the misconception about disappearing redheads is now widespread.
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 color, carry the red hair gene.
If the redhead story sounds familiar to you, it might be because, according to some people, it's not the only endangered hair color. On the next page, we'll talk about the plight of blondes.
Will Blondes Become Extinct?
Before there were the redhead extinction stories, there were the blondes. In September 2002, numerous major newspapers and television news programs claimed that blondes would be gone within 200 years. A BBC News article at the time cited "German scientists" who said that blondes would be extinct by 2202. The article also claimed that the research stated that Finland, with its high proportion of blondes, would be the birthplace of the last blonde. The claim was based on the fact that blonde hair is a recessive gene and that more men were choosing dyed blondes -- so-called "bottle blondes" -- over true blondes. Other articles repeated the same facts about the future extinction of blondes but sourced them to the World Health Organization (WHO).
A dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh was one of many people to take issue with the claim. Jonathan Rees said that the gene for blonde hair would only "disappear" if there were some inherent evolutionary disadvantage in being blonde, which isn't so, despite the many jokes to the contrary [source: BBC News]. He added that blondes may become less common but that they will not disappear entirely [source: BBC News].
The Web site Snopes, which specializes in debunking rumors and urban legends, published an article overturning the blonde-extinction story. They cited a Washington Post piece showing the story was overreported. Snopes also found similar newspaper stories about disappearing blondes reported in 1961, 1906, 1890 and 1865. The story from 1961 claimed 50 to 140 years remained before blondes disappeared, while the 1906 story said they had 600 years left. Most of the articles cited scientific research that in one way or another claimed that men considered dark-haired women more desirable.
As the Washington Post pointed out, the World Health Organization never produced a study about the eventual extinction of blondes. But no news organization that initially wrote about the story contacted the WHO to confirm the results of the supposed study. (One television producer contacted the WHO but didn't wait for confirmation about the study before running the story.)
The Washington Post eventually traced the story to a German women's magazine named "Allegra." That magazine used as its source an apparently non-existent anthropologist working for the WHO [source: Washington Post]. In the end, most of the newspapers and TV stations that carried the story were forced to correct their reporting.
For more information about redheads and blondes -- who are far from extinct -- genetics and related topics, please check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How does your body know the difference between dominant and recessive genes?
- How can children from the same parents look so different?
- How Gene Pools Work
- Could gene therapy cure baldness?
- How Hair Replacement Works
- How quickly does hair grow?
- Why does the hair on your arms stay short, while the hair on your head can grow very long?
- What is a gene, and what is genetic engineering?
- How DNA Works
More Great Links
- "Blondes 'to die out in 200 years.'" BBC News. Sept. 27, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2284783.stm
- "Extinction of Blondes Vastly Overreported." The Washington Post. Oct. 2, 2002. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A30318-2002Oct1?language=printer
- "Gingers extinct in 100 years, say scientists." The Courier Mail. News.com.au. Aug. 23, 2007. http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22289183-2,00.html
- "Red Alert." National Geographic. September 2007. Page 14.
- Flanigan, Robin L. "Will rare redheads be extinct by 2100?" Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The Seattle Times. May 9, 2005. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2002266852_redhair09.html
- Kittel, Nicholas. "Redheads not disappearing: Assoc. Prof." ABC Canberra. Jan. 15, 2007. http://www.abc.net.au/canberra/stories/s1827248.htm
- Mikkelson, Barbara and Mikkelson, David P. "Blonde Extinction." Snopes. March 8, 2006. http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/blondes.asp
- Miller, Larry. "Britain's Persecuted Redheads." CBS News. July 14, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/07/13/london/main3055185.shtml
- Starr, Barry. "Ask a Geneticist." http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ask.php?id=173