For the last time, redheads are not going extinct

Pictured: Your great-grandchildren?

As a redheaded science journalist, I hear this "fact" a lot. Reality is, though, we aren't going anywhere. Yes, as Cara Santa Maria points out at Huffington Post, redheads represent only about 1% of the world's population. And this hair color is related to a recessive gene. Both your parents have to have a copy in order for you to be a redhead, so a redheaded person can have non-redheaded babies. But that's not the same thing as going extinct. Because here's our little secret: We redheads are stealthily infiltrating the rest of humanity. Only 1% of humans are redheads, but 4% of humans carry a copy of the gene that makes redheads. You could be a carrier and not even know it. So could your spouse. Two redheads are unlikely to make a brunette, but two brunettes can make a redhead. Good luck wiping us out. *Insert evil laughter here*

You can learn more about this at Cara Santa Maria's Talk Nerdy To Me vidcast, but I'll add a little piece of anecdata, too. My parents are both brunettes. So were their parents. I am largely an anomaly on both sides of my family. In fact, besides my brother and I, the only other redhead in my Mom's entire family (that anyone remembers) was her grandfather. And yet still, we rise.

How Stuff Works also has a great debunking of the redhead extinction myth

Some more info on how redheads are in yer genome, gingerin' yer descendants from the Stanford University Tech Museum

Image: Four shades of Red, part II, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from e3000's photostream


    1. I essentially am doing just that; my wife is a redhead too, so I expect that our kids will be redheads.  Or possibly true blondes (ie, blonde through old age without darkening to brown like many do), but my biggest worry is albinism…  We already go through sunscreen like crazy.

      Neither of my parents are redheads, and neither of her parents are either. None of my aunts and uncles are either, and none of my grandparents were. We don’t know about her grandparents, but there are cousins in both of our extended families that are.

      Needless to say, if kids aren’t redheads, I want to meet the mail man…

  1. Whew, that’s good to hear, it’d be a shame to lose redheads.  

    I wonder if I carry that gene.  My paternal grandfather was called “Red” and I was told he had red hair.  My paternal grandmother is Irish but had very dark hair which most of her children got.   Two of my dad’s brothers ended up with light hair, kind of a light red almost blonde color, that might have come from my grandfather.  

  2. As a strawberry blonde guy with a ginger wife, one more-blonde-than-strawberry son, and another uber-ginger son, I can only say, MWAHAHAHA!

    1.  Not necessarily. Human mobility has increased dramatically in the past century or so, so previously isolated communites have intermingled. That’s a relatively new thing.

      1. Well yeah, but the underlying assumption behind the myth is that dominant genes can erase recessive ones.  If that were true, you just wouldn’t see any recessive traits at all.

        1. If there’s a genetic basis for liking gingers, then babies will be born who inherit both ginger and ginger-liking genes.  It’s possible that this highly ginger sub-population of people will eventually give rise to a whole new species.

          1. It makes sense that we should be attracted to people who look different from us, redhead or otherwhise.  That instinct would serve to encourage genetic diversity in a population.  One reason why we might associate exotic with sexy.

  3. I’m a ginger and one of my sons is BRIGHT FLAMING RED ginger. I heard this business of redheads being extinct within 50 years at the hospital when I gave birth. So, you’re predicting my kid will die before he’s 50 then? Such a load of horseshit.

      1.  Pretty much…  Back when I was free to do so, I would have said, “have them deloused and brought to my chambers!”

    1. Funny thing, personal taste. Whereas you have a “no,” I would have put “especially yes”–if I were that kind of person to post such a thing. Which I’m not. Because this is science.

      I suppose taking a poll is right out.

      1. As a 4Chan luker I’ll just say HHHNNNNGGGG….

        I will say from what what I’ve seen of redheads they do seem to either be higher than average in beauty (like facial symmetry and aestethics) or lower than average.  I rarely see an average looking redhead.

        I’m not a redhead and neither is my wife (even though we both find the hair color to be attractive), but I expect my children to be born with bright blonde curly hair that changes to brown and wavy.  My mother and wife both had this (and I find it odd.)  There is a picture of my wife when she is 3 or so and I just tell her I’d never guess that was you simply based on the massive amounts of curls and blonde.

        1. Don’t you think this has to do with the fact that *being* a redhead isn’t average in the first place?

          It’s amazing how much red headed people change when they dye their hair, for instance.

  4. My mom was blond and dad has brown hair, yet my sister has lovely red hair. You never know. Red hair only looks good on women though, so I’m glad that particular gene skipped me.

    1. Red hair only looks good on women though

      Yeah, right.  Please tell that to this guy.  Or explain why everyone is swooning over Prince Harry.

      1. I’m with Antinous here. I think maybe red headed men just aren’t attractive to straight men. Heh… go figure.

        1. Somebody surveyed some gay men a couple of decades ago on hair color preference. The results were that men with dark hair preferred blonds and blonds preferred redheads. I doubt that it was a scientific survey, but it seems reasonable based on attraction to rarity.

          1.  Maybe she and Gillian Anderson go to the same colorist.  It’s been my observation that the people that looks the best with the fake red tend toward the strawberry blonde in their natural hair color anyway, so that their skin tone is more complementary to red hair.

  5. Last time I watched The Little Mermaid with my kids I noticed that King Triton had daughters with blonde, brown, black and red hair. It occurred to me that it must be genetically unlikely for one set of parents to produce such variety, at least if mer-people inherit genetic traits the same way that humans do.

    Anybody else know if that’s even possible, or did Disney manage to slip in a “non-traditional family” under the radar?

    1. I guess you’re too young to remember the Farkel Family on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, which managed to be multi-racial but genetically pure thanks to their neighbor, Fred Berlfle. 

    2. There’s more genetic diversity with mer-people, I’d expect. From the picture they have fishy bits down below, so I’d guess merfolk would reproduce like fish, with King Triton carpet-bombing fishy spooge all over previously-laid eggs.

      At least the ones that weren’t harvested for mer-caviar. Now that’s all I want to think about merfolk reproduction. 

  6. This is fun!

    My dad and all his siblings (and parents) were Reds.  None of his four kids were Reds (brown). When my daughter (his first grandchild) was born he exclaimed proudly, “It’s a Redhead!”

    So we named her after him. (The Gaelic version of his nickname…Little Red).  None of the other grandkids turned up trumps.  I like to think that he liked my kid just a wee bit more than the others.  : )

    Oh, and my kid has the rarer Red Hair/Brown Eye combo.

  7. It’s good to see none of the usual red head sour grapes on Boingboing. I see so many sites (and real people) who seem to think “I was not blessed with red hair THEREFORE GINGERS ARE EVIL.” The rest of us just have to face facts. Red heads are the stuff of classic paintings for a reason.

    1. Note I love redheads. “Red heads are the stuff of classic paintings for a reason. “eh not exactly a good thing most notable paintings of redheads of the 19th century in France were painting often of prostitutes esp Lautrec.

    2. Red heads are the stuff of classic paintings for a reason.

      And yet, film hasn’t caught up.  See: real Katherine of Aragon vs. Hollywood Katherine of Aragon.  She was red-blonde like much royalty of the time.

      1.  Have you seen the BBC Henvy VIII? The woman playing Katherine is clearly strawberry blonde. Henry was too. (As were most of his Plantagenet ancestors.) But why does Hollywood seem to always think Spanish = black hair and eyes?

        1. But why does Hollywood seem to always think Spanish = black hair and eyes?

          Particularly bizarre given that Spain has mostly been ruled by Bourbons and Habsburgs.  Even the House of Trastámara (Fernando II and Ysabel I) were Burgundians.

  8. I am curious about “partial redheads”– I would never be called a redhead, but when I grow a beard it is most certainly reddish, in contrast to by brown/blonde top.  I know of no redheads in my family.

    1. I’m also one of those weird cases – red beard (can’t even call it reddish, it’s just red), blond hair with brown sideburns.

      Don’t know of any redheads in the family, my father has brown hair, my mother had light blonde hair.

      1. Myself, all of my brothers and at least one cousin have ginger beard. We assume it comes from my redheaded great grandmother. But apparently my great grandfather may have had red in his beard so I’ve always been curious if its a different set of genes. The odd part is the unevenness in it. The right most quarter of my mustache is more red than any other part of my face.

    2.  I have the reddish beard and colouring, though my hair is dirty blonde/brown. I usually wear a baseball cap and have on a few occasions been accused of being a ginger. My Mom’s side of the family has the redheads, with my Aunt and Grandmother, so it wouldn’t shock me if my wife and I have a redhead as on her side of the family I have a ginger nephew.

    3. My husband is like this – red beard when it grows in (but his hair is sandy blonde). But his father and sister are redheads so it’s clear where it comes from.

  9. Not only are we not going extinct, but we are on the ascendent.  Caruso (god help us) used to be our Brando; now we have Fassbender and that guy from Homeland who looks like a ginger Steve McQueen.

  10. The ‘redheads are evil’ crap is just another example of how ludicrously, idiotically, mind-numbingly stupid humans manage to be. It’s the beginnings of the sort of prejudice that builds into racism – somebody that looks a bit different to me/us must be inferior/evil/out to steal my wimmin therefore we must keep them down. Red-hate certainly extends to frequent bullying and ridiculing. 
    I wonder what it is that has kept (so far) red-hate from going fully nuclear; perhaps that red hair is a trait that occurs within a population rather than being a visible marker for a visually distinct population from “for’n places”.
    The sad part is that even if all humans looked essentially identical, sounded the same, smelled the same and voted the same, some people would still manage to find some aspect to hang hatred upon. Gotta keep those scummy boingers down! Reddit websites for Reddit users!

      1. Err, no. My hair is (still, much to the annoyance of many other people of my advanced years) very dark brown.
        I was attempting, with apparently no success, to point out that humans are disgustingly prone to vilifying anyone different and that such behaviour stretches out into the evils of racism (and the depressingly long list of other X-isms that pollute our cultures) with alarming ease.

    1. This interchange from some unremembered book has stuck in my head for years.

      Human:  But you don’t have a soul!
      Genie:  I am a soul, you idiot!

  11. Maybe no extinction from genetic dilution, but what with a thinning ozone layer extinction from skin cancer is a distinct possibility for those palefaces.

    Genetics is cool, both my wife and I are brown/brown but with a blue eyed parent each. My son is a blue eyed blond. classic Mendelian 25% chance.

  12. It does seem like the term “redhead” is going extinct, though. More and more Americans seem to be using the Briticism “ginger.” Can’t imagine why, as “redhead” is such a great word, and “ginger” originally only applied to pale red hair (what Americans typically called “strawberry blonde,” which is also a great phrase).

    1. I’m with you.  Ginger does not describe the full spectrum of redheads.  And why in the world have we picked up that one particular Britishism in the past 10 years but almost no others?

    2.  Matt, I suspect that the population of Americans who have begun using the term “ginger” is highly correlated to the population of Americans who are BBC America cable-channel havers.

        1.  Ah, South Park. That could explain it. It’s responsible for a lot of pop culture references I am mystified by ever since I stopped watching it in 1998.

  13. As we learned in population genetics class, it almost impossible for a recessive allele to be eliminated from a population. Even recessive lethals will stick around (think sickle cell). They just keep circulating around in the background and every once in a while the find a copy of themselves in the individual they happen to be inhabiting that generation.

    1. It doesn’t hurt that this particular recessive allele actually has a large number of fans who find it more sexually attractive than the dominant alleles. I can’t say for certain that sickle-cell fetishists don’t exist (this being the Internet and all). But as long as there are redhead fetishists, I suspect that this allele will keep spreading through the population. 

      1. Did you ever encounter a super intense redhead fetishist in Vancouver ? He would approach me — and talk to me while looking at my hair the way other men would talk to my breasts. He never had any recollection of speaking to ME — but he approached me several times when I had my natural red hair as well as when my hair was dyed cherry red.  Serious compulsions, there…

          1. No…but he looked like a very weird grade 10 english teacher I had who was hard of hearing — except that it wasn’t him.

      2. You do know that having both recessive sickle-cell genes is bad in that you get the disease, but having  just one copy makes you more resistant to malaria, right? That’s why that one sticks around and is found most commonly in the regions it is.

        EDIT p.s. another redheaded dude here with a redheaded sister whose parents were both brunettes. My dad’s mom had red hair.

        1. The same scenario goes for cystic fibrosis and respiratory diseases such as TB and others (I’m too lazy too Google for the ref. right now.)  

  14. What’s the deal with the recessive redhead gene in other species, like pigeons and cats ? There’s tons of orange cats, but only a few red or mixed red pigeons ? Any animal geneticists out there want to explain or link ?

      1. Where I live there are a surprising amount of orange female cats — like enough of them to be common. Local cat rescues will attest to this. Tortoisehell cats are almost always female, as are calico cats — although there have been extremely rare males that turn up once in a blue,blue, blue moon. More info about cat colors and genetics here:

    1. We could always fake it with hair dye. I have a sneaking suspicion that China actually ran out of giant pandas years ago but they’ve been maintaining the illusion by painting polar bears.

  15. Apparently some of the few times I’ve been more cad than gentleman, I’ve been talking to redheads. I blame this, of course, on the fact that they are all WITCHES.

    But less seriously, if you believe that redheads are NOT aliens/witches/whatever, have a look at famed photographer/master of color, Joel Myerowitz: (I don’t think there’s any nudity in the book.)

    1. Then I’m the anti-ginger, because I need significantly LESS anesthesia.

      Big props to the medical team yesterday who finally got it right.  Hence my ability to type and, you know, THINK today.

    2. I do not have this problem but my husband (who is fair and grows a red beard but is not redheaded) does. It’s taken us many years and much harping with doctors to get them to understand that NO, that dose will not be enough to control his pain and YES you will need a larger dose of anesthesia.  It’s a pain for him. Literally.

    3. Anecdotal Quip:  I’m a half ginger (Strawberry Blonde) and I once woke up in the middle of stomach surgery.  “Heyyhhh…  deh’s a tooob in mah mowt!”  Quick intervention from a surgical nurse, “Try to go back to sleep sir.”  My reply and last memory of the event, “Oookaaay”.

    4. The literature seems to be divided on the matter. However, when I went in for reconstructive spine surgery, I asked the anesthesiologist for her opinion (i’d been telling people this factoid because I took pride in it (as a ginger), even without peer-reviewed proof). Her response was a smile and  “Yeah, I know all about your kind.” 

      Personally, I’m immune to most opiod painkillers. They are virtually ineffective. Local/general anesthesia seems to work ok (thank god for small favors, when you’re having your C1 rebuilt with titanium). I don’t know if this is gingerdom-wide, though, or just some quirk of my biochemistry. 
      I’ll hazard a layman’s guess and say that painkillers don’t work because I already have a high pain tolerance because of sluggish nociceptors, so there’s nothing to fix with anesthetics.

  16. Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium, bitches.

    If there’s no selective pressure on a population, allele frequencies will remain the same.

  17. Dominant/recessive is relative;  the system is not binary.  Mendel faked his data.

    I have some sooper-ultra-recessive genes, so despite my lack of redheaded ancestors my (biological) son is red haired, like his mother.

    1.  On googling “Mendel fakes his data” I’ve found that there seems to be a lot of controversy on this point.  May I ask what convinced you that it was so?

      1.  I worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences for a while, and used to have boisterous arguments with the rest of the staff.  I was one of two people (out of 400) who had a college degree that was not in a natural history field, but they told me that I’d have to pay for my own cards if I wanted them to say “Unnatural Scientist” under my name.

        I frequently got called a Lamarckist, and accused of cribbing Wilson and Dawkins (I had never read any of the three, until I got told I was quoting them) and was once called a communist in front of the entire staff assembled.  But it was all in good fun, except possibly the communism incident; it was (and no doubt still is) a lively intellectual community.  I learned most of what I know about taxonomy there.

        So anyway, the answer is that the late Dr. John Hendrickson convinced me it was so.  I am not qualified to try to convey his explanation, but I am qualified to say he was a brilliant statistician and entomologist (with doctorates in both fields) who agreed with R. A. Fisher’s statistical analysis.  You will note the argument against Fisher’s claims seems to consist of “Mendel was my hero therefore he would not lie” which is not a very nuanced argument.

    2. Although single-gene dominant/recessive is pretty rare, Mendel’s experiments were valid.

      However, it is true that his results were statistically “too” perfect — far too close to 75% dominant trait/25% recessive trait to be statistically likely. However, this is an example of confirmation bias/wanting to prove something you know is true which, while unfortunate, remains prevalent in all branches of science today.

  18. As another flaming ginger who is the spawn of two very dark-haired brunettes (one of whom happened to be in a genetics fellowship at the time of my birth), I’ve always been told that my red hair isn’t a classic Mendelian recessive trait, but is the result of a more complex combination of multiple genes or alleles.

    According to my mother, when I was born my father the genetics fellow calculated that the odds of having another redheaded child (after my birth confirmed that both parents carried the genetic material necessary to create it) was roughly 10%, whereas a classic recessive gene would have had a 25% chance. 

    I’d love to better understand why this is (I know next to nothing about genetics and my father has long since supplanted whatever he discovered in that fellowship with other bits of information).  But it seems consistent with the experience in my family, where the vast majority of relatives have brown hair of varying shades, but every generation or three a flaming redhead pops up.  My mother’s grandfather was supposedly strawberry, and my father’s great grandfather too.  I also have two second cousins (both with extremely dark hair and dark haired spouses) who have flaming redheaded babies, and one of my own kids is strawberry blonde.

      1. When Winona Ryder was filming The Crucible in 1996, she described small town New England as the most ethnically pure place that she’d ever been where people spoke English. And that’s not even very far from major multi-racial metropolises.

        1. We’ve got several pockets of the same sort here in the Detroit metro.  It’s unnatural how undiverse those areas are.

        2. I do genealogy + DNA research in my spare time.  Trust me, that statement is truer than you think.  Pretty much everyone in the US who has early colonial ancestors are related to each other multiple times.  The ones who never even moved away from the colonial areas?  Hah!  Amazing they don’t all have extra appendages.

          1. Some of the 17th century houses in Massachusetts only went from the original families to public trusts on the last half century. They were still living in them with jury-rigged water and electricity.

          2.  Some of them do!  There’s a little nest of polydactly just northwest of me, and I know a girl with eleven toes, all of which are rather cute.

  19. I have no citation for this, but in one of the Population Genetics classes I took the prof mentioned that humans tend toward positive assortative mating (ie, people tend to mate with other people that are similar to themselves: race, class, etc), except for one characteristic. Redheads tend to marry each other at a rate lower than one would expect based solely on randomness.

  20. I’ve never understood this “extinction” notion, nor the weird hatred of redheads. I think red hair is lovely. One of my kids is a redhead, with gorgeous hair. Maybe those of us who like the red are just not vocal enough.

  21. I am interested in the way that red hair isn’t all one color.  My strawberry blond daughter has large streaks of blond, brighter red, and brown in her hair, and my auburn son has a band of brighter red from ear to ear along his hair line.  My third child just has *bright* red hair, no strange streaks.

    Edited to add: I wonder if it’s related to the freckles? It makes sense that our hair pigmentation would be as uneven as our skin pigmentation, right?

    1. Isn’t most people’s hair unevenly pigmented (honest question)?

      Mine is. It’s not red, it’s not even red-toned. I have that silver/ash/light-brown hair that starts out white blond and gets dark. If I pick up a section there are pale ash blond streaks, gold streaks, and more brown streaks. 

      Also, despite my very non-red hair I come from a family that is known to produce the odd ginger or russet. I’d never heard that redheads were “headed for extinction” but I had heard they were connected somehow to green eyes.

      1. Possibly “most” people, if most people have ginger/blond/ash/brown hair.

        Once you include people with dark hair, you’ll see that dark hair gets pretty uniform.

        1. Yes, but.  There’s a lot more variation in dark hair than is often realized.  For example, my children have copper highlights which can only be seen in direct sunlight; under most lighting conditions their hair is very similar to — but slightly darker than — Selma Hayek’s.

  22. Hardy-Weinberg.  The fact that an allele (e.g. the redhead gene) is recessive has nothing to do with its frequency in a population.  An allele that is dominant is no more likely to stick around than an allele that is recessive.  What matters is whether there is selective pressure against the resulting trait.

    The only way the redheads would go instinct is if they are somehow less likely to mate than folks of a different hair color.

    A possible explanation for the change in the frequency of redheads is gene flow.  If redheads were more geographically colocated in the past (thereby making it more likely for two recessive copies in offspring) and are now more mixed in the global population, there would be less visible redheads in the population BUT there would be the SAME percentage of redhead genes in the population.

  23. I come from a family with many ginger members, and aspire to date one myself someday. I don’t fetishize it, I just adore it. 

  24. My youngest kid is a red-head. The amount of attention she gets from random people is unreal – way more then her older brother and sister (not red heads) ever got.
    I hadn’t heard the thing about red-heads declining as a portion of the population until we went to Maine this year – a couple of people a day would comment on her hair and mention that “red heads will all be gone in two generations” or something similar. I was baffled.

  25. I’m clearly late to the game here, but Maggie, I think you’ve got some of your numbers and/or facts wrong. If the prevalence of the redhead phenotype (i.e. people with red hair) is 1%, and it is a truly recessive single-gene trait, then by the Hardy-Weinberg equation, the prevalence of the heterozygous genotype (those who carry the redhead gene but don’t have red hair themselves) should be 18%, not 4%. Unless I’m misremembering my basic genetics.

  26. Still Life With Woodpecker, anyone? Tom Robbins novel dealing with *the trouble with redheads*?
    or Ann Rice’s *Queen of the Damned*?
    C’mon, Reds have some great past and future! BTW – gingers all thru my family, just sayin’

    edit to say – i’m freakin’ bald. OY!

    1.  Also, loved how Robbins’ novel (Sill Life With Woodpecker)  equated red hair as a product of sugar and lust! woohoo!

  27. If asking if those are my great grand daughters is a reasonable question, I must be older than I thought!

  28. I’d say the redhead gene is probably a lot more prevalent than imagined. Both my wife (who’s Chinese), and quite a lot of my Chinese friends have natural red highlights that are very noticeable in the sunlight.

    1. You do know that “Ang Mo” means red-headed devil?  Refers to the “matsale” (mad sailors).  Malaysia particularly had lots of intermingling!

  29. What about blondes?  Are they going extinct?  Redheads are nice, but with such vibrant and contrasting colouring I’m convinced their genes are super-strong, but I’m a little concerned for the future of the Scandi look.

    Next time I’m on a surf trip, I’m going to cut my hair short and go red, see what happens!

  30. I didn’t know this was something I should be worried about…and now this is SOMETHING I’M WORRIED ABOUT. Dammit.

  31. I’m sorry Mz. Koerth-Baker, but this time you’re wrong.  Red hair really is going extinct.  Every time I go to the barber I look down at my lap and see clippings of grey instead of the red I used to see.

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