In August of 2007, news outlets all over the world released a story that was shocking
in its implications: Redheads are dying out and could become extinct by the year 2060 (or 2100 depending on where you heard or read
the story). According to the Oxford Hair Foundation, this claim is due to factors of genetics and migration. The gene responsible
for red hair is a recessive trait, easily dominated by the genes for other hair colors.
The Oxford Hair Foundation was cited in several newspapers and radio news stories as an
independent institute in England, but is clearly listed as a partnership between Oxford Dermatology and the Proctor & Gamble
Corporation’s Hair Research division. This obviously eliminates their “independent status” as P&G is a for-profit corporation. P&G
makes numerous hair care products, including haircolor. In fact, the Oxford Hair Foundation website now redirects to the Proctor & Gamble Research website.
Further research reveals that this story is on its second time around. The story emerged in
2005, again citing the Oxford Hair Foundation, and making the same red hair extinction claims. At this point, the story (which was
mentioned in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle) was addressed by David Pearce of the University Of Rochester Medical Center.
Pearce stated that while red hair has certainly made the endangered list, there are approximately 4% of nearly 6.4 billion people
carrying the gene for red hair, which is too great a number to be wiped out completely in the next 50-90 years.
It was also pointed out by an Australian researcher of hair and skin genetics at the
University of Queensland on the Australian Broadcasting Company that the Oxford Hair Foundation didn’t provide sufficient scientific
evidence to prove its findings, and was quoted on ABC Canberra that “there’s no shortage of redheads”.
The facts of red-headedness are thus: Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene.
(The gene for red hair was discovered in the late 1990s.) The mutation is also a recessive trait, so it takes both parents passing
on the mutated version of MC1R to produce a redheaded child. This also means that as a recessive trait, red hair can skip a
generation (or more) and reappear when two parents – no matter what their hair color – carry the mutated gene.
And of course, so that blondes don’t feel left out, similar claims have been made regarding
blonde-haired individuals. These stories sometimes claimed to have the World Health Organization as their source, but the WHO (a
divisional organization of the United Nations) has never done any studies regarding the potential extinction of blondes (or redheads for that matter).
In fact, Snopes.com, a website specializing in debunking urban legends and internet myths
published an article overturning the blonde-extinction story. The website’s researchers also found similar newspaper stories about
disappearing blondes in 1961, 1906, 1890 and 1865, with claims that the extinction would occur in as few as 50 and as much as 600
years. Interestingly enough, some of the articles cited “scientific evidence” for the claims, while others stated simply that it
was due to the fact that men considered dark-haired women more desirable.