Could Red Soon be Dead?

Radio Netherlands, Nov. 2

Blondes might have more fun, and gentlemen may well marry brunettes, but redheads are remembered. For while they have had a troubled history—being burned as witches, sacrificed to gods and condemned as unlucky or insane, to give just a few examples, there has always been an edgy glamour attached to women with red hair, from Cleopatra to Rita Hayworth to Julianne Moore.

A recent report by the Oxford Hair Foundation in the UK has caused shockwaves in the Netherlands: redheads, it says, are dying out, and could become extinct as soon as 2060.

The two main factors involved in this demise are genetics and migration. The gene that gives rise to red hair—and often pale, freckled skin—is recessive, which means it is easily dominated by genes for other hair colours. So if, for example, you have a brown-haired mother and a red-haired father, you are most likely to have a brown-haired child.

Out of existence

In order to have a red-haired child, both parents must be carrying the gene. However, you can be a carrier without actually having red hair yourself, which is why a red-haired baby can sometimes come as a bit of a surprise. With only around one percent of the world’s population naturally blessed with titian locks, the theory is that the gene is simply being diluted out of existence.

Erik Sistermans is a molecular geneticist at Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen:

“What’s happening now is that due to migration from other countries, there are less red-haired genes and more dark-haired genes coming in. But if you go to Ireland or England, and also some Scandinavian countries, you’ll see more people with red hair there than you will in China or Africa.”

Mostly found in Scotland

There are always exceptions to the rule of course, and it is possible to be a redhead and have darker skin that can cope with a hot climate. But it will come as no surprise to learn that rain-soaked Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world—around 13 percent—while Holland is still above average at around two to three percent.

Dr Sistermans, like some other experts, believes that 55 years is much too soon for redheads to die out completely.

“I think it will take longer. It will depend on many factors, including the amount of migration and the exact mingling of the different groups—if they don’t mingle, then you’ll still have red hair.”

Finding models

While looking for redheads to interview for Dutch Horizons, I stumbled upon an unusual art project. Bart Rouwenhorst is an artist who paints models (that’s people, not tiny aeroplanes). He had the idea of doing a series of 15 paintings of naturally redheaded women, but at first had some difficulty finding them:

“When you start really looking for something, you find out how rare it is. And no one is half a redhead—you’re either a redhead or you’re not.”

However, word soon got around, and in the end almost 300 redheads contacted Bart through his website, expressing their interest in the project. Since there was no way he could paint them all, Bart decided to take a group photograph, and invited all the redheads to take part.

Redhead sisterhood

The venue was the small town of Asten in the southeast of the Netherlands. All around the town—on the bus, in the streets, in cafes—there was a real sense of fellowship and sisterhood as redheads, all wearing green, acknowledged each other with smiles and struck up conversations.

On the stroke of noon, the flame-haired participants—together with dozens of Dutch press—congregated in the town square, which the mayor of Asten had had specially cleaned for the occasion. In fact, the whole town entered into the spirit, with local shops offering deals on henna shampoo, red wine, tomato soup and buns with orange icing. As Bart was hoisted aloft in a crane to take his photos, directing the ginger group below (very politely) through a loudhailer, opera singer Annelie Brinkhof (a redhead of course) let rip with an aria. All in all, it was quite an experience.

But what about red-haired men? While evidently they are vital for the production of future redhead generations, they are by no means an automatic choice of mate for red-haired women. And even though the list of famous male redheads is impressive—Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare, Vincent van Gogh—they can’t quite seem to shake their negative image, even with Robert Redford on their side.

Evolution

So if redheads carry on mingling with people with genetically stronger hair colours, could science intervene to help stop their extinction? And should it?

Dr Sistermans thinks that in, say, 80 to 100 years time it will be possible for genetic scientists to influence factors such as hair colour. But that doesn’t mean that they should:

“We are doing genetic research in order to cure people with genetic diseases. If you use it to change hair colour, in my opinion you are misusing the knowledge that you have. Then it gets very dangerous . . . what about big noses or small toes? Where’s the limit?”

Dr Sistermans believes nature should take its course:

“Things appears naturally and disappear naturally, that’s evolution. Of course it’s a pity, but we shouldn’t make a big problem out of it. There will always be people with red hair, they won’t disappear completely—every now and then, someone will emerge with red hair, so in the future it will perhaps be even more special and more beautiful.”

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