About Redheads

Sandy was not only his name but his nature too. He was a Saunders, a name that came down from Scotland via Ireland, as it had for one of my grandparents.  He was also a blazing redhead, his hair as hot as the Red Sand Beach on Maui.  When Sandy wasn’t being called by his nickname he was a “ginger nut”.  Remembering our friendship in school, I wonder if we ever offended him, and hope that he knew that naming him after a favorite cookie (called ginger snaps in America) was a token of chumminess. I envied his handsome thatch, which stood out in a class of browneys.

According to ScotlandsDNA, a company that mines genetics for Scottish ancestry, redheads are more common in Scotland and Ireland than anywhere else, although greater numbers call America home.  The northern climate is kinder to people with light skins because they are less exposed to the damaging ultraviolet rays of sunlight. But the fewer rays that penetrate the “dreich” weather make vitamin D more efficiently in them than in darker-skinned folk who have a higher risk of vitamin deficiency and rickets, making them less fertile too. That seems a likely explanation for why redheads originated in north-western Europe, and perhaps for their occurrence among Neanderthal people.

I won’t venture to write much about other skins except that the bottom of a red Irishman looks the same color as a blonde Swede’s (that’s what I am told). But the similarity is deceptive because after they are both exposed to strong sunlight the Celtic posterior is much more likely to burn, matching his hair. The difference is in the genetics. For eons while they stayed at home, photosensitivity barely mattered for Celts, but after moving to sunnier climes or when skinny-dipping in Ireland’s new nudist beaches they’ve had to lather on SPF.

Skin is shielded from damage to its DNA by two types of melanin pigment: either brown-black or red-yellow, which is the more abundant type in redheads.  The dark stuff has a SPF of around 13 in African Americans, four times more effective as a sunscreen than in the average White. But a dark skin does not afford anyone absolute protection, and the sun’s rays are not the sole cause of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae star, died with the disease, and so did my Indian friend in Edinburgh.

Skin pigmentation is controlled by the hormone melanocortin, or MSH for short. The hormone works by engaging a protein called MC1R on the surface of pigment cells which in turn sends a signal to fire up the internal machinery, rather like turning a key to start your car engine. These cells are called “incontinent” because they extrude pigment they manufacture for pick-up by neighboring cells, including those that grow hair.

The MC1R gene has over 10,000 DNA units (nucleotides).  If this genetic code is changed by only one unit there is usually no effect, but changing one of three specific units dramatically reduces the amount of dark melanin made, causing hair to be colored from red to gold.

Two reds, one brown and one blonde born to parents with red and brown hair

Two reds, one brown and one blonde born to parents with red and brown hair

These DNA variants are called SNPs (pronounced “snips”) which, genetically speaking, are mutations. I prefer to avoid the word “mutant” in sociological contexts because it can sound pejorative. Besides, SNPs are abundant in environments in which they are well-fitted, so we should regard those for hair color as “good genes”.  Red is the rarest natural color because the genes are recessive, meaning you need to inherit one from both parents to be a redhead.  Forty percent of Scots carry at least one of the SNPs, but only 13% have red hair. When cells have two copies of the gene the “key” doesn’t fully turn in the MC1R lock.  In most of us brown pigments hide the red; it is like green leaves whose reds and yellows are out of sight until the chlorophyll disappears in fall to give a wonderful display.

So much for biology, what about sociology?  Redheads have often gotten a raw deal, but there is absolutely no shortage of brains and beauty or star-power among them – Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Lucille Ball, and Nicole Kidman to mention a few off the top of my head.  Artists love their hair, splashing canvases with red pigments to signal a subject’s beauty, passion, and heat.  Dazzling red hair is the first thing you notice in the painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the mythical Lilith. It is a study of timeless

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood @ http://www.metmuseum.org

concupiscence, modeled by his mistress, Fanny Cornforth, and the artist was so enamored that he composed a sonnet to celebrate Lilith:

…And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old …

The opposite side of the coin for red hair reads like an ABC of prejudice – abuse, bullying, and condemnation.  Gingerism still stalks England’s streets, more often as a sour joke but sometimes violently. Some say that hard attitudes and feelings are the smoldering ends of ancient feuds.

Late Sixteenth Century England was becoming more cosmopolitan, and Londoners were growing more suspicious of foreigners.  Shakespeare shrewdly cast Othello as a noble and distinguished man of color who became bewildered by the malice of enemies he didn’t deserve in his adoptive country: …Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme…  The Bard never singled out redheads for persecution or mockery. Had he done so his own head might have been laid on the block because his queen was one of them and had made red hair fashionable in her life time.

Human color prejudice contrasts with colorblindness in animals. In our teens, Sandy and I would watch badgers when they emerged in the twilight from underground dens in the woods.  Occasionally, there was an adorable cub with a red coat (called erythristic) born in a litter of black and white cubs. The badger family was oblivious to the difference because its main sense organ lies at the end of a long snout. But I guess that a badger fed on garlic or sprayed with Chanel might, ahem, be badgered.

Emily is a seventeen-year-old family member who lives in Sewickley, PA. She told me that it is easier to be red in America than in England, and easier still as a girl.  She gets plenty of compliments about her flowing red tresses, and any other remarks she wisely shrugs off.  Red makes her feel special, and the color “pops”.  On the other hand, her Dad had to put up with school bullies because of his red hair, although old ladies fawned over the cherubic boy.

I sometimes wonder how Sandy feels about his hair now. If he was bullied at school, did he have the satisfaction later on of seeing redheads born into the families of those who formerly brow-beat him, because some of them were doubtless carriers of the red gene? Did a girl fall in love with his “ginger nut”, or did he marry a strawberry blonde and make more gingers together? I imagine he feels differently about his nut after passing a sixtieth birthday because it grows paler by the year. Perhaps he would even be happy if we called it an angel cake.

Next post: Serendipity or Chance

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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