The Rarity of Red
In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that gene mutation causes red headedness. Specifically, it’s a variant of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), one of the key proteins that determines hair and skin color. The mutated gene is recessive, so in order for someone to have red hair, she has to inherit two copies of the gene, one from each parent. Lots of people, especially those with Northern European ancestry, carry one copy of MC1R, but relatively few carry the two copies required for flaming tresses. Red hair can occur in any ethnicity, but the greatest concentration of redheads originates in Northern Europe, near the U.K. Scotland has the highest percentage of natural redheads, with 13 percent and Ireland is a close second, with 10 percent. Only about 2 percent of people in the United States have naturally red hair.
If red hair is so rare, why does it occur so often in the same geographic area? Some biologists think that it’s an evolutionary adaptation. In cold and dark climates, fair coloring lets the skin absorb more light, which encourages the body to retain heat and produce more vitamin D. Also, for most of human history, people didn’t stray very far from the place where they were born and intermarried with people with similar genetic traits. When there were plenty of people carrying the gene, their children were very likely to get two copies of the mutated MC1R. Now that people migrate more, carriers of MC1R are more likely to intermarry with non-carriers. That’s good for genetic diversity, but maybe not so good for the survival of redheads in general.
For the past few years, there’s been a rumor that redheads are going extinct, but that’s not exactly true. Because of intermarriage, the numbers are declining, but there will always be redheads, because there will always be carriers of the MC1R gene. It might be less likely that one carrier will meet another and have redheaded children, but it’s always a possibility. In fact, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine a future where everyone knows exactly what’s in his or her genome, and MC1R carriers can choose to have children with fellow carriers, maximizing the likelihood that their children will have red hair.
A Redheaded “Knockout?”
The mutated MC1R gene has some other surprising effects. Although doctors and medical practitioners have long speculated that redheads were harder to sedate, a recent study from the University of Louisville determined that redheads really do require more anesthesia during surgery.
The researchers ran an experiment where they put women under sedation, and then tested their response to pain. The redheaded patients required 20 to 30 percent more anesthetic than other women to achieve the same level of sedation. Scientists at the university also tried to replicate the experiment with mice, and found that animals with a MC1R mutation required more sedation, too. They theorize that the mutated gene somehow has implications beyond hair color, and perhaps affects hormones or enzymes involved in our neurological system.
The Siren Song of Red Hair
Throughout history, redheads have been mistrusted and maligned. In medieval Europe, the infamous witch-hunting manual, Malleus Maleficarum, instructed that red hair and green eyes were marks of a witch, as were freckles, which redheads tend to have aplenty. This belief might have stemmed from the general consensus that redheads were evil, wanton, and hot-tempered. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are often portrayed as redheads, as was Lilith, Adam’s first wife who insisted on sexual equality. Even Jonathan Swift, in his 1726 classic Gulliver’s Travels, characterized redheads as being wanton and promiscuous.
There might actually be some truth to the myth of the lustful redhead. A recent study by a sex researcher in Hamburg, Germany found that women with red hair had sex more often. Another survey in England duplicated those findings, and reported that redheads had sex an average of three times per week, compared to twice per week for blondes and brunettes. For these studies, it didn’t matter whether the women’s hair was naturally red or Natural Instincts. Of all the women who color their hair, 30 percent choose to become redheads—more than the 27 percent who go brunette and the 26 percent who go blonde. Some scientists theorize that these women are capitalizing on the perception of the fiery redhead to signal to men that they are looking for partners.
Even if redheads do have to endure a lifetime of sunburns and being called “ginger,” their hair doesn’t just make them stand out, it makes them incredibly unique. Some famous fiery redheads include Queen Elizabeth I, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, and Vincent Van Gogh. More recent redheads include comedienne Lucille Ball and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Not exactly a bad crowd to be associated with, if you ask me. If this is the company that redheads keep, then I’m off to the salon.