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Redhead race against the evolutionary clock

Erin_2008.jpg

"Erin" (2008) is one of Julia Baum's redhead portraits. (Courtesy of Julia Baum)

When she heard that redheads may disappear forever, Julia Baum grabbed her camera.

“I didn’t know if the extinction rumor was true,” said the redheaded Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer. “But I wanted to preserve the legacy of redheads. It got me thinking about how unique redheads are. You go through life feeling different. People just say stuff to you on the street, like, ‘Hey, red!’”

Baum, 25, soon found out that the rumor’s science was flimsy, but it only made her more excited to continue creating portraits of the flame-haired and fair-skinned. Her project, “A Rare Breed,” was exhibited at the New York Studio Gallery last year.

The panic began in 2005 when a study predicted that redheads could become extinct within the next century. Scientists were quick to debunk the theory, pointing out that the study was conducted by the Oxford Hair Foundation, which is funded by beauty giant Procter & Gamble and stood to profit from a run on red hair dye. A subsequent National Geographic story further fanned the misconception that redheads are dying off, prompting legions of them to document the last of their kind and consider how their unusual looks have forged a shared identity.

While it may seem silly to link the genes that control hair color with any sort of disposition, one’s appearance inevitably generates a set of expectations. Redheads are expected to shock, fly off the handle, deviate sexually, keep people on their toes—and they often do, thanks to self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Red hair is caused by sugar and lust,” wrote Tom Robbins in his modern-day fairy tale “Still Life with Woodpecker.”

Actually, red hair is caused by inheriting two mutant genes that control pigmentation, but sugar and lust are a frequent result. Luckily, none of these traits are going away anytime soon.

“Redheads are definitely going to go down in number over time,” said Dr. Barry Starr, a geneticist at Stanford University. “But they’ll be around forever.”

A short lesson in genetics can explain why redheads will fade from the population, but not disappear. Red hair happens when someone inherits a nonworking copy of the melanocortin-1 receptor gene from each parent, Starr said. (Since it’s a recessive trait, just one parent with the redhead gene, no matter how fiery, is not sufficient.) This mutation originally helped increase the body’s ability to convert sunlight to vitamin D, but it has outlasted its evolutionary usefulness and may now be more likely to result in skin cancer than prevent rickets.

Redhead genes are concentrated in pockets of North America and Europe, where relatively insulated populations have reproduced for centuries, keeping the redhead population artificially high, just under 2 percent globally. As globalization makes borders more porous, two carriers of the gene will be less likely to meet and have a child—a distressing notion to redheads who hope to pass their unique hair color on through the ages.

At least, they figure, they can document red hair for future generations.

“For the most striking of redheads, there is no comparison,” said Jenny Wicks, a London photographer. “There would be no adequate way to describe that bright red hair to someone who had never seen it.”

Wicks shot “Root Ginger,” a collection and now a book (Pistol Publishing, 2009) she describes as “a photographic tribute to a genetic trait that is frequently talked about as fast disappearing.”

Her photos also explore how society treats a minority group she describes as the last bastion of political incorrectness. “Gingers” are marginalized far more in Great Britain and Canada than they are in the U.S., but growing up as someone who looks different is never easy.

With no red-haired role models but Axl Rose to look up to as a child, Michael Feld dressed up in every uniform and superhero costume that involved a hat so that he could pretend he didn’t stick out. When Feld read the extinction story in National Geographic, he set out to make a documentary about the last generations. His research revealed the holes in that theory, but he decided that exploring what it meant to grow up as a redheaded male was just as interesting.

“I always got attention wherever I went, whether I wanted it or not,” said Feld, now 24, a masters of fine arts student at the University of Southern California. “I used humor as a way to deal with it. I wouldn’t be the same person at all if I grew up with brown hair.”

Feld’s 26-minute film, “Better Red than Dead,” investigates that identity. Feld spoke with redheads who had all sorts of different feelings about their tresses, from those who dye them a different color to avoid attention to a woman who wears an array of red wigs to hang on to her identity as she loses her beautiful hair to alopecia.

Feld interviewed hundreds of redheads for his film and only found one couple who both had red hair.

“A lot of people with red hair don’t want to date each other,” he said. “You look like brother and sister.”

As much as redheads might want to thwart geneticists’ calculations and see their genes expressed in their children—there are redhead dating services and even a DNA test designed to boost the gene pool—they might rather date a carrier than a fellow redhead. Aversion is a less scientific but surprisingly universal obstacle to redhead procreation.

People unconsciously seek out mates whose genes are different than their own so that their children will be less prone to recessive diseases, and few genetic markers are more conspicuous than matching red tresses. On a social level, many redheads just feel that dating each other is unacceptable—and icky.

Feld, who has “big, red, curly hair and a red beard” said he tried dating a redhead for about a week and swore never to do it again.

“All the stereotypes were true,” he said. “She identified as a redhead, and so do I. She was fiery and had a bit of a tempter. It was just too much.”

E-mail: ksh2119@columbia.edu