The curse of the gingers


Red hair. Freckles. Pale skin. Soulless. What good are they?

Seriously — I have a red-haired son and brother and cousins, and you’ve got to wonder why evolution has spawned all these strange color variants — there’s no known advantage to ginger-ness, and plenty of disadvantages.

The biochemical cause of these differences are known. Pigmentation is produced by the deposition of a complex light absorptive polymer called melanin in cells. We vertebrates produce primarily two forms of melanin, eumelanin and pheomelanin.

Eumelanin is a dark pigment; cells loaded up with it look black or dark gray. If you’re dark-haired, it’s because the keratinocytes are stuffed full of eumelanin, which is also an excellent barrier to UV damage.

Pheomelanin is a reddish-brown pigment. We all make it to varying degrees — nipples and lips get their reddish color from it — but some people make it in much larger quantities than they do eumelanin. Red hair is stuffed full of pheomelanin rather than eumelanin.

But here’s the thing: pheomelanin is a lousy barrier to UV. In fact, pheomelanin is prone to photodamage (exposure to light causes it to break down) that produces carcinogenic byproducts. It’s also synthesized biochemically by a process that consumes glutathione (GSH), an important cellular anti-oxidant. So making red hair actually depletes the body of a protective substance, and has the side-effect of producing carcinogens.


Chart showing the physiological activity of dietary cysteine. This amino acid is used for protein synthesis, and can be recovered by protein breakdown. It is also used for the synthesis of reduced glutathione (GSH), which is the main storage of cysteine and thus also acts as a source of cysteine. When the levels of cysteine are higher than required for these functions, especially for protein synthesis, excess cysteine occurs. This excess, which can be toxic, is partly eliminated by cysteine sulfoxidation, a process mainly catalyzed by cysteine dioxygenase (CDO) in which less toxic products than cysteine such as sulfate and taurine are formed. In birds, excess dietary amino acids are also diverted to the synthesis of uric acid, the main product of excretion in birds. Cysteine also reacts with dopaquinone thus participat- ing in the synthesis of pheomelanin that takes place in melanosomes. If cysteine incorporated into the pheomelanogenesis pathway comes from an excess pool, then pheomelanogenesis could represent an excretory mechanism of cysteine and an adaptive process that may explain the evolution of pheomelanin.

Just to add further insult, studies in birds have found evidence of a physiological trade-off: increased pheomelanogenesis (that is, birds with more red plumage) is correlated with reduced brain size. More pheomelanic birds are also more sensitive to environmental stress — they’re more fragile.

You see the problem: WHY DO GINGERS EVEN EXIST? It just seems to be a bad thing all around.

I can give you a couple of hypothetical reasons, though.

  1. Don’t assume that because a trait is deleterious it must be culled by natural selection. Red hair is not a serious detriment to survival; it could simply be that it persists as a part of a biochemical pathway that isn’t easily blocked, or that it’s disadvantages aren’t great enough to have led to its removal over time. Pheomelanin is all over the place among the vertebrates, though, so I suspect this isn’t the case; it seems to have some utility.

  2. Sexual selection. In birds in particular, pheomelanin is used as a marker for sex; you can’t get rid of it without losing bright, bold signals that males use to advertise their availability. Similarly, there’s nothing sexually unattractive about red hair in humans, and many people find it extremely attractive. Gillian Anderson and Ewan McGregor are good-looking people; their coloring helps distinguish them from others.

  3. And here’s another new idea: the pheomelanin pathway exists as a sink for excess cysteine.

That last hypothesis is interesting because it fits with a couple of observations, and also makes some predictions.

Why would you need a pathway to get rid of cysteine? Well, just on general principles you’ll often see pathways that balance the synthesis and breakdown of compounds in the body, but also there is some evidence that excess cysteine contributes to some diseases: In birds, there is clear physiological evidence that excess cysteine levels contributes to metabolic acidosis, thinning of egg shells, and growth inhibition. In humans, elevated cysteine levels are associated with rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus. There has not, however, been any evidence yet that being a ginger reduces the incidence of those diseases, and also note that these are diseases of the aging, and are less likely to have been a source of significant selection pressure in human evolution.

It’s also an open question that the authors of this proposal ask: “if pheomelanogenesis has adaptive value because it removes excess cysteine, do pheomelanic humans (i.e. phenotypes typically having red hair, fair skin, freckles, and green irides) avoid risk of diseases associated with excess cysteine more easily than eumelanic individuals?” This question hasn’t been answered yet, so at this point that third explanation is very much a tentative hypothesis looking for verification.

So, all you lovely red-haired people, there might actually be an advantage to your coloring…but what you really need to know is that you should minimize exposure to the sun!

But you already know that from experience, I’m sure.


Galván I, Ghanem G, Moller AP (2012) Has removal of excess cysteine led to the evolution of pheomelanin?: Pheomelanogenesis as an excretory mechanism for cysteine. Bioessays 34: 565–568.


I must include a counterpoint from Tim Minchin.

Comments

  1. Matt Penfold says

    Cancer is a disease overwhelmingly of old age, so individuals who develop cancer are no less likely to have had children. Any lost benefit from being around to help raise grand-children is likely to be small, since until recently it was unusual for people to live long enough to get the age where cancer was most likely to develop.

    Basically, cancer is not very visible to natural selection.

  2. Andy Groves says

    It’s also synthesized biochemically by a process that consumes glutathione (GSH), an important cellular anti-oxidant. So making red hair actually depletes the body of a protective substance, and has the side-effect of producing carcinogens.

    I would be surprised if pheomelanin synthesis had much of an effect on glutathione levels in cells, which are at millimolar levels.

  3. says

    Red hair isn’t seen as negative in all cultures. The vikings and scots thought it a good thing, and didn’t the vikings selectively breed the ginger cat because of its colour?

    Just because people with red hair are bullied now, doesn’t mean it was always so. It may have been a positive genetic trait for sex selection up until relatively recently, perhaps enough to overcome the other issues. Plus redheads come from northern climates with less sun exposure, so again, perhaps not a particularly negative trait.

  4. says

    Yeah, I think the phototoxicity is more of a problem.

    But hey, you’re not exactly one of us darker white people, are you, Andy? You’re just bringing that up to express your bias. </snark>

    But seriously, I would have liked to see some preliminary evidence that red-haired people have a lower incidence of those diseases. I suspect it’s going to be hard to extract, given the complexity of ethnic differences.

  5. says

    I don’t think it’s a negative trait now! South Park episode aside, I never saw my son or brother to experience any discrimination because of their hair color — when it gets right down to it, they’re white males.

  6. says

    I’ve never experienced any real discrimination from having red hair, though as I’ve grown older my hair has become alot less bright red, to the point of people even denying that I have red hair at all.

  7. redwood says

    I read on a different blog that redheads (like me) are more susceptible to pain. One woman said that her dentist took one look at her and immediately told his assistant to get more pain medicine. Others chimed in with their own similar experiences. This is anecdotal, however, and research seems to produce ambivalent results.
    My younger sister did die from melanoma at age 38, though, so sensitivity to sunlight and higher rates of skin cancer could be connected, though this is also anecdotal (yes, she had auburn hair and lots of freckles).

  8. raven says

    Red hair coloring can’t be that nonadaptive.

    Genetic studies imply that the Mammoths and Neanderthals also had some members at least with red hair.

    Hard to say why. It might be adaptive in high, cold northern latitudes to let the sun make vitamin D from precursors.

    Ancient DNA Reveals That Some Neanderthals Were Redheads
    ww.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071025143311.htm

    25 Oct 2007 – Neanderthals’ pigmentation may even have been as varied as that of …

    Ancient DNA suggests that at least some Neanderthals had red hair and pale skin.

  9. julietdefarge says

    Why are orangutans ‘ginger’?

    And lastly, how did redheads get to be called ‘ginger?’ I cook with every possible variant of the root, and none of it is reddish.

  10. arctic says

    To quote Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos, “Every Italian boy bows down to the freckles.”

  11. says

    The existence of discrimination against gingers is definitely going to depend on where (and when) you are. There’s a lot of “comedic hate” on the Internet because that South Park episode made people think it’s HI-larious to talk about how horrible gingers are, but there have been incidents in countries where people have been targeted for violence because of their red hair. Aside from some schoolyard taunting and hair oriented sexual harassment (I’ve lost count of how many times men have asked me about the color of my pubic hair), I don’t think it’s an issue in the US.

    I’ve seen a lot of speculation on why red hair persists in humans, but it’s interesting to consider the continued existence of pheomelanin in vertebrates at all. Particularly so when you consider how relatively common it is in some species and how relatively rare it is in humans. With the ease of breeding red rabbits and guinea pigs, I’d love to see further experimentation down this path.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pheomelanin is a reddish-brown pigment. We all make it to varying degrees — nipples and lips get their reddish color from it …

    “…all…”? Certain lips & nips are, visually, all chocolate.

    My (limited) understanding is that eumelanin-challenged phenotypes also glow a bit more brightly in the infrared – which makes us particularly attractive to mosquitoes. My personal field work supports this hypothesis.

    Less troublingly, it seems that Leah Libresco would give us up if the Pope so ordained.

  13. Greg Amann says

    I vote genetic drift. No stress big enough to select it out so it propagates.

  14. The very model of a modern armchair general says

    The correct answer is CLEARLY (B) – sexual selection.

    If you could all just form an orderly line, that would be great, thanks.

  15. says

    Redwood, I have heard the same thing, about redheads needing more anesthetics or painkillers than other people do.

    I’m very sorry about your sister. Melanoma is terrible.

    Caerie:

    I’ve lost count of how many times men have asked me about the color of my pubic hair

    Fucking ew. The old “carpet/drapes” line, I bet, which I’m sure they think is soooo clever?

  16. The very model of a modern armchair general says

    For me, the questions about pubic hair died off at about the age when pubic hair ceased to be something new and fascinating. Male privilege again, I guess.

  17. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    In the absence of contradictory data, sexual selection is not nearly as parsimonious an explanation as insufficient negative selection with a dose of drift.

  18. sc_5b5039dd39eec895ccc71934d4e6783f says

    You see the problem: WHY DO GINGERS EVEN EXIST? It just seems to be a bad thing all around.

    No doubt you’re simply being controversial for comedic/educational effect, but c’mon! Attractive red-haired ladies are the some of the most attractive ladies.

    (Am I just biased due to the possibility of my having some centuries-gone Celtic ancestry? Who knows…)

  19. npyundt says

    My understanding is that bright colors have the negative affect of making one more susceptible to predation, but that in an environment lacking significant predation bright colors tend to be indicators of sexual fitness.

    Also, that bright colors in males happen more often when the coloration is tied to the sex chromosome. The implication being that the bright colors don’t occur in the females.

    The suggestion being that since we no longer have significant predation (having killed off our predators) we should expect to see brighter and more varied coloration creep into our population over the generations.

    Thoughts?

  20. ChasCPeterson says

    some people make [pheomelanin] in much larger quantities than they do eumelanin

    OK, but it’s a lot more complex than ‘a gene for ginger’ (I know that’s my phrase, not yours).
    As I understand it, pheomelanin in lower quantities is also responsible for blond hair (as opposed to white, grey, brown, or black). There are two forms of eumelanin, brown and black (I don’t know if these are products of alternative alleles or diferent loci). None of these pigments are proteins, so they are not directly genetically coded. Instead a number of different enzymes are involved, and no doubt various upstream transcription factors as well. I’ll speculate that there are various multiple gene loci involved in the relative rates of synthesis of the various pigments and also in other genes that regulate the insertion of the pigments into hair as opposed to skin (we know about this kind of stuff from dog-breeding).
    So yeah, properly viewed as an integrated phenotype, the “ginger” is not a simple matter of ‘more pheo’. There’s also less of (two kinds of) eu-, at the very least (which in the lack of the extra pheo- would manifest as blondness).

    This kind of genetic complexity makes the shrug-&-invoke-drift hypothesis seem a lot less likely to me.
    Local sexual selection of the integrated phenotype seems more parsimonious to my (admittedly male-of-Scandinavian-extraction) way of thinking.

  21. barfy says

    PZ
    “When it gets right down to it, they’re white males”

    Are you fuckin kidding me?

    Both my son and daughter grew up ‘ginger’ and were teased by classmates and cousins about their pathetically pale skin. I have had to have conversations with both of them about how people who make fun of skin color are BULLIES.

    I have had to tell my brother and his wife that it is not OK for him or his kids to make fun of my kids.

    Both kids, 23 and 24, are, to this day, ashamed to go to a pool.

    My son wears long pants in 100 degree heat because he hates his legs.

    The Southpark episode had a demonstrably negative effect on both of their lives.

    You owe them an apology for minimizing the harm, with your stupid-ass comment.

    Yes, he has privilege he has not earned because of his skin color. Fuck you.

  22. Michael Zeora says

    Disclaimer – not a scientist in the strict sense (Computer Sci. Major)

    I find this intresting, coloring does indeed help with sexual selection which is fine and dandy and all, but I don’t think that was the primary reason for that trait to come about (just mearly it’s propogation)

    It’s concievable that this trait for redheads is in simular route to that of the blondes in which although we are less sun resistant blondes gained a bit more cold tolerance, but the coloration was simply due to the lack of melanin where the other traits under were able to make a better presence.

    I also wonder the color differencational ability of green verses the other eye colors, I remember a study from some years ago that stated that blue eyes where able to see differences in color “more/better” than our darker eyed counterparts, but I don’t think green-eyed individuals were included in such study.

    It would maybe be concievable that the redhair/green eye combo is mostly a package deal so maybe the redhair is the downside where as the green eyes have some benefit over the other eye colors.

    I know that the Sun isn’t my friend, but I didn’t know it was much more damaging to Redheads over the general populace. Although it didn’t surprise me due to the placement of appearence of this trait, as with the blonde and blue eyes happenstance.

    I know the Mythbusters did test the pain-tolerance of both the genders and that of redheads. It was Episode 142 “No Pain, No Gain” in which it actually given that test showed that Redheads actually have a higher pain tolerance than the general populace (of course that was in the given San Franciso area, and a modest sample size of 24)

  23. says

    What’s up with North Americans suddenly referring to redheads as gingers? I never heard anyone do so before a year or two ago. Hell, I don’t remember hearing UKers using it much either.

  24. ahwev says

    Gillian Anderson is actually a natural blonde, according to her imdb page. Isla Fisher is a redhead, though. But regardless, I believe your point still stands.

  25. says

    I’m a redhead, so this is really interesting to me. My parents and sister all have dark hair, and I’m the quickest to sunburn in the family.

    Ms. Daisy Cutter, I’ve heard about redhead-bullying being bad in the UK. I can add that it doesn’t seem to be bad in the US. Other than an occasional creepy “carpet/drapes” question, I haven’t had issues with being a redhead. I’m a woman though, and I think that kind of thing is worse for men.

  26. says

    One question I’d be very interested in seeing an answer for is why red hair is (relatively) common among mixed race people. I’ve seen this in my own family among people with Native American and European ancestry, but I know it also happens with people with African/European and East Indian/European ancestry. It seems as though the red is different from the average “ginger”, too.

  27. Drew says

    there is evidence that redhead produce more vitamin D than us dark hair people, which, in pre-industrialized societies would have given an added resistance to rickets in areas with low light exposure.

    There is also some evidence that I recall hearing that red-heads have increased resistance to Tuberculosis.

    Finally red-heads, for whatever reason, require greater doses of anesthetic during surgery, and some reports suggest that the pain threshold of red-heads is lower.

    You also can’t ignore sexual selection. It’s clear that there is a definite, and seemingly substantially large group that considers red-hair to be very attractive.

  28. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    This kind of genetic complexity makes the shrug-&-invoke-drift hypothesis seem a lot less likely to me.
    Local sexual selection of the integrated phenotype seems more parsimonious to my (admittedly male-of-Scandinavian-extraction) way of thinking.

    Complexly encoded traits should have greater variance attributable to causes other than additive genetic variance, and therefore have lower heritability. This decreases the ability of selection to act on these traits. Drift don’t care.

    Of course, it may be a combination of selection and drift. To support the former, I think one would have to demonstrate that the phenotype has spread through human populations much more quickly than could be explained by a mutation drift model. It’s not as if selection is never invoked without this kind of data, but when it is, those traits are of such an obvious advantage that it seems reasonable. Or at least plausible. Given that gingervitis* is (apparently) a recurrently derived feature in vertebrates, and that humans are far from dimorphic in the kinds of trait alterations associated with it, sexul selection doesn’t seem all that plausible to me.

    *ronhowardosis?

  29. ChasCPeterson says

    why red hair is (relatively) common among mixed race people

    Quick guess: brown and black eumelanin are alternate alleles at the same locus and the brown form is mostly European. I’d also guess that pheomelanin production is higher in Europe. There are recessive loss-of-eumelanin alleles of some kind in both original populations. Heterozygotes for eumelanin plus some extra pheomelanin from a different (set of) alleles on at least one side produces the red hair.
    /hypothesis

  30. sc_dbe4f56756aac88f5059bba7de7bc3d8 says

    I have an orange haired three year old, and just a few minutes before I saw this article I was attempting to explain to him why mosquitos want to eat more than his darker skinned brother.

    Of course, after reading the comments I’ve learned that “you’re too yummy” was not necessarily apt.

    It also is surely his age, but strangers fawn over my little orange man much more frequently (and embarassingly) than my two “normally colored” children (at any age).

    Maybe its a trait targeted at getting orange children more free candy.

  31. shaneevans says

    I thought that red hair was not caused by melanin but by another pigment called trichosiderin. Will I need to change my skin lecture?

  32. says

    To the aptly named Barfy:

    Yes, he has privilege he has not earned because of his skin color. Fuck you.

    Excuse me?

    Have the cops targeted him for “loitering” while walking down the street, or pulled him over for Driving While Ginger?

    Did he go to a school that was in extreme disrepair, with outdated textbooks, because most of the students were ginger?

    Can you show me some statistics proving that gingers encounter prejudice from educators, job interviewers, healthcare providers, landlords or real estate agents, or college admissions interviewers that significantly and collectively degrades their quality of life?

    Did he ever spot a sign that said, “Ginger, get your freckled ass out of town before the sun goes down?”

    Have there been any cases of gingers being shot down in the street the way Trayvon Martin was?

    Yeah. Thought not.

    Bullying sucks. I endured a lot of it. It’s not limited to people in oppressed categories. But it’s not always oppression. Fuck you for conflating the two.

  33. procyon says

    I had assumed that red hair had a negative connotation in England because it was considered “Irish”.

  34. Sili says

    ut note that Judas was depicted in the bible as being red-headed.

    Huh? I never noticed that. Chapter and verse, please?

  35. ChasCPeterson says

    Apparently ‘trichosiderin’ is an old name for the trichochromes or pheochromes, which are low-molecular weight, acid-soluble dimers(?) that derive from the breakdown of the larger polymers known as pheomelanins.

  36. chrislawson says

    npyndt,

    Bright colours are often warning signs that *reduce* predation. And there’s the counter-intuitive argument that florid displays can be improve sexual attractiveness because it’s a way of saying “hey, I’m so genetically impressive that I can carry around this enormous shiny peacock tail and still do pretty well”. If this theory is correct, then it may even make a big-tailed peacock *more* attractive in a high-predator environment.

    Sexual selection in evolution is a very complex subject and (unfortunately) often co-opted by people supporting their sexual prejudices.

  37. Sili says

    Judas is not described as a redhead in the bible.

    Thanks. Wouldn’t have thought gingerivitis was all the common in the 1st/2nd C Mediterranean.

    Mediaeval depictions on the other hand, I can easily see using such signs to mark the villains. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Judas depicted as left-handed either.

  38. says

    It was my understanding that we gingers gained a freckle for each soul we stole. So guess, technically speaking, we’re not soulless. At least not anymore. And I feel this process confers a huge advantage, in the game of life, over the bland browns and blonds who live day to day in fear of ginger soul stealers.

  39. chrislawson says

    Judas was portrayed as red-headed in mediaeval Spain and by Shakespeare, not in Scripture. This was probably because red-headedness was seen as a sign of bad character (see, it’s not just a recent thing!) and it was a way of portraying the betrayer in artistic shorthand. This led to the bizarre spectacle of Judas being represented as an evil Middle-Eastern Jew by giving him red hair(!) while the equally Jewish Jesus was portrayed as having dark hair to minimise his pictorial Jewishness(!!!). People are strange.

  40. says

    My aunt (An anaesthetist) told me that there are some clotting and platelet issues that are common amongst redheads. But that’s really it (I suppose they do burn in the sun).

    That being said?

    I come from a culture where “red hair” is good luck. A lot of Indians dye their hair red with henna. It’s considered good luck. I used to have red hair (dyed) myself.

  41. Janine: History’s Greatest Monster says

    I used to color my hair red. I wonder what that means?

  42. AlanMac says

    I was refused a job at a Goodyear plant because I was ginger (c.1970). I was told that there was just too high a probability that I would be develop an allergy to the raw rubber and quit. (?)

  43. Janine: History’s Greatest Monster says

    Nothing against what Avicenna said, I was not responding to Avicenna. I did not color my hair for luck.

    *snort*

  44. Janine: History’s Greatest Monster says

    Funny, AlanMac. At that point in time, lots of women were not hired for various jobs because they might get pregnant and quit.

  45. jfigdor says

    Another ginger checking in here. PZ, redheads do suffer a lot of abuse when we’re young (I was teased mercilessly in elementary school because of my red hair). However, you’re right that it isn’t like being persecuted as a black person because it stops happening when you get a little older. I can say that after high school, the red hair problem all together vanished. And apparently lots of women find red hair attractive. Who knew it would get better?

  46. nonny says

    I find ginger men very sexy. See Damian Lewis, for example.

    There’s an article here about redheads and pain tolerence. The evidence seems mixed, so far.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8195177.stm

    What’s interesting is that you get red variants in lots of different animals- horse, cats, dogs, cows. If it was really harmful, would it be so widespread?

  47. says

    Yesterday the youngest daughter went to see Brave, which is a celebration of gingerness if ever there was one. Certainly the folks in the movie didn’t seem all that impaired.

    Though I agree with Glen about the soulless issue.

  48. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I don’t see why it’s necessary to dismiss the bullying experienced by people who are part of groups that are, broadly speaking, privileged, but stand out or are disadvantaged in some other way. Especially on a thread ABOUT people who are part of groups that are broadly speaking, privileged, but stand out or are disadvantaged in some way, given that the usual concerns about derailing don’t apply.

  49. Amphiox says

    I thought pertaining to the issue of predation and coloration, at least specifically to the primate ancestors of humans.

    If the primary predators are mammalian, like big cats, then these are dichromats and they presumably wouldn’t really be that good at distinguishing red shades from brown shades, so it wouldn’t be the color but the vividness that matters.

    If the primary predators are birds of prey, then the red coloration probably would directly have an impact.

  50. Amphiox says

    With respect to bullying, particularly among children, I suspect there is a kind of “heirarchy of bully victimhood”, wherein gingers would be on the list, but not at the top/bottom.

    Bullies will target whoever is the easiest target available. So the likelihood of a ginger child becoming a target would depend on who else is in the children’s social milieu, as well as other aspects pertaining to all those children that may not necessarily be related to their coloration.

  51. jfigdor says

    @Amphiox I suspect you’re right in general. However, in some areas, redheads will probably make the top of the list, right up there with gay people and people of colour (especially in England, where apparently redheads are more persecuted).

  52. Sili says

    Nothing to apologise for. But good form.

    Now I’m curious if any of the many gospel writers, themselves, have equipped Juda(h/s) with traits that were stereotypically maligned in their own time.

  53. robro says

    Contrary to what fundamentalist Southerners think, pheomelanin, rather than eumelanin, is the “Mark of Cain.” There’s support from the usual suspect source (Wikipedia):

    “The Bible makes reference on several occasions to Kenites, who, in the Hebrew, are referred to as Qayin, i.e. in a highly cognate manner to Cain (Qayin). Some therefore believe that the Mark of Cain referred originally to some very identifying mark of the Kenite tribe, such as red hair…”

    So, as you see, we who are fair and reddish are this way because of the curse.

  54. robro says

    No, because the “luck of the Irish” is not good luck, and don’t even get me started.

  55. says

    With respect to bullying, particularly among children, I suspect there is a kind of “heirarchy of bully victimhood”, wherein gingers would be on the list, but not at the top/bottom.

    This is probably generally true when it comes to children, with some places having more anti-ginger sentiment than others.

    On the other hand, I think that people taking the South Park jokes and phrases like “beat you like a redheaded stepchild” as comedy and dismissing any possible hurt that could result makes things worse for redheaded teens. In my experience, it seems like most of the bullying I either witnessed or was subjected to was meant to be “funny” rather than out of hate. “Gingers have no souls” isn’t something anyone believes, but many people think it’s hilarious to taunt someone with it. Easy enough to shrug off as the idiocy it is when you’re an adult, but as a teenager (particularly a redheaded teenaged boy, as they always seemed to get it worse), that could be pretty devastating.

    Akin to racism? No, of course not, but still fairly hurtful.

  56. says

    Correction:

    “Gingers have no souls” isn’t something anyone believes,

    I agree with that sentiment, but that’s because no one has a soul.

  57. jfigdor says

    @Caerie:

    So true: “Easy enough to shrug off as the idiocy it is when you’re an adult, but as a teenager (particularly a redheaded teenaged boy, as they always seemed to get it worse), that could be pretty devastating.”

  58. says

    I have heterochromia – blonde and red-brown hair that kind of grows in stripes. Does that mean I have half a soul?

    Caerie

    I’ve lost count of how many times men have asked me about the color of my pubic hair

    YUCK. I’ve had that one too, although they usually sidle up to my better half and ask him instead because they know I’ll fucking punch them.

    Sili

    I seem to recall Thracians often had red hair, so it’s not impossible for the occasional redhead to have been hanging around Judaea at that time.

  59. IndyM, pikčiurna says

    I’m a redhead, and I always thought it was cool to be one, even as a child. It always made me feel kind of special. Then again, I wasn’t really ever bullied; at worst, I was called “carrot top”–but it always seemed like affectionate teasing to me. (I was teased MUCH more about being a “dexter”–a smart kid.) As an American adult (I’m 48), I was genuinely surprised to learn that there’s a lot of ginger bullying in the UK.

    Yes, I got the carpet/drapes question a lot when I lived in Tokyo (late 80s). Sometimes I’d get on a train or subway there, and a giant horde of tiny school children would point at me and yell, “KINPATSU!!!” (Kinpatsu = golden hair.)

    Whenever my mom took me to get my hair cut, it was guaranteed that all the haircutters would gather around to feel my hair and comment on its color and texture; e.g., “Some people would kill for that color,” “Can’t get THAT in a bottle,” and so on. As an adult, sometimes hair stylists stop me in the street in NYC and comment on my hair and/or offer to give me free styling. (Note: I’m not conventionally pretty, so it’s not that–people just seem to get off on my hair.)

    Another ‘benefit': I don’t have a single gray hair (I get an occasional white hair, which I pull out), so people think I’m much younger than I really am.

  60. magistramarla says

    I just got home from seeing “Brave”, the newest animated film from Disney/Pixar. The lead character is not only a redhead, but a woman! Talk about revenge of the gingers!

  61. cyberCMDR says

    I’ve always had a thing for red-headed ladies. I blame it on reading Heinlein when I was growing up. My current favorite? Karen Gillan (aka Amy Pond).

    I remember hearing that in ancient Rome, prostitutes would dye their hair red as an advertisement. After a quick Google of the topic though, I haven’t found any support for that. The ancients however did have their reservations about redheads however.

  62. Nerdette says

    I married a ginger man, and I hope that the genes sort themselves out so our girl(s) offspring will have those flaming locks. Sadly, my spouse also has severe male-patterned baldness (receding hairline started at 14, he’s been shaving since 22), so his gingerness is only blatant when he grows facial hair. So, another vote here for sexual selection.

  63. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Finding a trait attractive isn’t much evidence for sexual selection. Besides the fact that selection may not need to be invoked whatsoever, what people find sexually attractive is largely culturally determined.

  64. ChasCPeterson says

    what people find sexually attractive is largely culturally determined

    yeah, and ever since Darwin that’s been the leading hypothesis for explaining the kinds of large-scale geographic differences in human phenotypes that give rise to race concepts.

    In other words, culturally-determined preferences have well-known (or at least unfalsified suggestions of) consequences in geographic distributions of phenotypic variation. The ‘ginger’ phenotype in question is pretty well localized to maritime northern Europe. What’s the difference?

  65. kassul says

    I agree with that sentiment, but that’s because no one has a soul.

    @Caerie I disagree. I (like Daniel Dennett) have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.

    It’s not that fancy immaterial whatsitz made out of handwavium that theists say they have, but…

    brb, playing some soul music.

  66. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    What’s the difference?

    If I take your meaning correctly, culture and selection may be confounded.

    Fair enough.

  67. dennis says

    In Australia redheaded males will often be called Blue among friends. I have never heard it used as an intentional insult and have never heard a redheaded person complain it was an insult. A blue is also a nickname for a fight. I don’t know if there is a link.

    An Australian comic from the 1920s to the 1980s has as its main character a redhead called Ginger Meggs. I think blue was too dominant to give ginger a foothold in the nickname stakes.

  68. says

    Covert Bailey in his books about fat vs. fitness states that red-haired persons have 4% greater bone density, on average, than other Caucasians. That might translate into fewer, or less serious, injuries. Also, look where red hair is common: in the far north where getting enough UV light for synthesis of Vitamin D was probably much more of a problem than sunburn. There are two possible advantages that would occur at reproductive age.

  69. says

    In Australia redheaded males will often be called Blue among friends.

    I’m pretty sure that comes from the tradition of giving people “humorously” opposed nicknames. E.g. calling a redhead “Blue,” a skinny person “Tubby,” a short person “Stretch,” or a slow person “Einstein.”

    I’d have thought that different kinds of melanin would look more similar to each other. Eumelanin just has a couple of purines and an imidazole, but pheomelanin has lots of other stuff in there. Chemistry is fun.

  70. petrander says

    The Southpark episode had a demonstrably negative effect on both of their lives.

    You owe them an apology for minimizing the harm, with your stupid-ass comment.

    This comment is so over the top that I strongly suspect that Mr. Barfy is some misogynist/racist troll trying to find some dirt on PZ. So I don’t believe for a moment that his story is real. Pics or it didn’t happen.

  71. birgerjohansson says

    “heterochromia”

    That is so seriously cool. You are like Saruman of the many colours!

  72. Thomathy, Holy Trinity of Conflation: Atheist-Secularist-Darwinist says

    Yay! I may exist for a reason!

    ___

    Caerie, it’s not just guys who think they’re clever. It seems there is a segment of the population who, for whatever reason, are extremely interested in the exact colour of the pubic hair of red heads. They’re gross and stupid.

    A standard response of mine is to inquire if they dye their pubic hair as poorly as they do that on their heads. This works whether or not their hair is actually dyed, but rarely does it ever elicit the response I intend. They usually don’t even see the problem with asking that question. That’s when I just give them the ‘really, you’re that stupid and I’m disgusted by it’ look.

  73. petzl20 says

    @30

    barfy,

    there are some rude idiots on this blog who constantly conflate issues and, simultaneously, constantly accuse others of conflating issues.

    i don’t impugn your motives, nor do i accuse you of being a troll if i disagree with you.

    what’s so hard to understand, that someone is bullied in school because of their appearance?

    also, i love it how anyone who disagrees with PZ is a misogynist/racist/troll. they don’t have to display misogyny, racism, or trollishness, they just have to have disagreed with him, as adjudicated by his coterie of sycophants.

  74. Thomathy, Holy Trinity of Conflation: Atheist-Secularist-Darwinist says

    petzl20, that’s rich. Are you even familiar with barfy’s past posting here?

    Anyhow, no one is dismissing barfy’s story and PZ hasn’t commented on it. And barfy isn’t even disagreeing with PZ, he’s offering an anecdote that’s contrary to PZ’s.

    I was teased in school for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was because I’m pale, freckled and sported a mop of strawberry hair. That PZ didn’t see his brother or son to experience any discrimination does not invalidate my experience nor does it invalidate the experience of barfy’s children …and it certainly requires no apology from PZ to have related a single sentence story about his observation about his brother and son, since he didn’t actually say anything like what barfy is accusing him of. PZ did not ‘minimize’ trivialise the ‘discrimination’ bullying of red heads.

    The distinction is important, that between being bullied and being discriminated against. Of course, it’s been pointed out to PZ that red heads are discriminated against in places other than the US, so clearly his observations are not universal, but then it was an anecdote and PZ isn’t brain dead.

  75. Zeppelin says

    I’ve always filed prejudice against red-haired people as an Anglo-Saxon Thing…maybe because Scots and Irish people are disproportionately red-headed, and they used to be rebellious colonial subjects/unpopular minorities?

    I definitely wasn’t aware that there were clichés about readheads before I entered the online anglosphere. If it’s a thing in Germany I’ve never heard of it.

  76. says

    Well, the Bible may not have a chapter and verse about Judas being a redhead, but Judas’ hair colour is a Trivial Pursuit question; the answer states that Judas was a redhead.

    I’m another woman who gets the carpet/drapes question; I think both redheads and natural blondes are asked about that, though the frequency of the idiotic question has been greatly reduced since removal of public hair has become fairly commonplace.

  77. chigau (違う) says

    OleanderTea
    Thank you.
    The next time I’m stumped for a source of information, I am going to cite Trivial Pursuit.
    Genius.

  78. chigau (違う) says

    OleanderTea
    I was sincere.
    I played Trivial Pursuit for years and was always amused by the number of errors.
    We came close to full contact TP on occasion.

  79. majorpriapus says

    The authors never considered pleiotropy.

    Changes in allele frequency should be negatively correlated with pleiotropy – at least in theory.

    Perhaps the freckled-red hair alleles provide some other phenotypic advantages – perhaps even the behavioural level.

    Reminds me of an old joke;

    Mating call of the Blonde: “I feel so drunk!”
    Mating call of the Brunette: “Is that blonde bitch gone yet?”
    Mating call of the Ginger: “NEXT!”