I am the modern-day dinosaur. The Internet sayeth, and thus it must be so.
I lumber around Omaha, my size 9 Adidas leaving fresh imprints in the wet soil. I tear apart huge chunks of flesh with my jaws and roar ferociously, at least when I eat dinner at Johnny's Cafe.
Paleontologists will one day dig me up because my people — redheads, gingers, carrot-tops — are going extinct.
We endure sunburns. We endure people who are positive we are Irish. We have endured some variation on my junior-high nickname: Fire Crotch.
And if that's not bad enough, our band of fiery-crotched brothers and sisters now is facing complete annihilation, according to a bevy of stories citing several important-sounding studies.
“Redheads could be extinct in 100 years,” blares the Daily Mail.
“Gingers extinct by 2060?” asks English-language newspapers in both Russia and India.
“Redheads Turned Down By World's Largest Sperm Bank,” reports the Huffington Post.
I didn't have the heart to fact-check that last headline, but after recently reading the latest batch of redheaded extinction stories, I did decide to call a Creighton University geneticist.
It's time to understand redheads' coming demise, I thought. It's time to understand the genetic asteroid headed my way.
“You aren't going extinct,” says Soochin Cho, a Creighton professor specializing in evolutionary genetics.
“There's no way we're getting rid of all the redheads,” Cho says. “It will never happen. Zero chance. I promise you.”
Let's set aside, for a moment, the fact that Cho laughed maniacally after he mentioned ridding the world of redheads.
Let's focus on this: No asteroid, genetic or otherwise, is hurtling toward the world's gingers. That extinction rumor floating 'round the Internet is just that, a rumor.
The real story, Cho says, is actually far more nuanced and far more fascinating.
“You are a mutant,” Cho says, and then he laughs so hard I hold the phone away from my ear.
Redheadedness is a recessive trait, and as you may have learned in college biology, that means both parents must be carriers of said genetic trait to produce a redheaded baby.
If only one parent carries this recessive trait, they cannot birth a redhead. But if both are carriers, there's a 25 chance the newborn will sprout red hair, and then a 100 percent chance he or she will be teased in junior high.
The recessive trait in question is the mutation of a gene that controls the production of melanin.
The mutated redheaded version, Cho explains, allows the production of pheomelanin but not eumelanin.
Here's what gets him really excited: No one really knows why these genetic mutants — er, redheads — exist in the first place.
One theory holds that in colder and cloudy climates, like Ireland, Scotland and Scandanavia, it's biologically advantageous to be pale-skinned. Pale skin allows in as much sunlight as possible, and in turn allows the body to produce Vitamin D.
Over time, the genetic mutation may have formed around the absence of eumelanin. Block that form of melanin, and you generally get a pale-skinned person. If you haven't noticed, we redheads are generally also pale as ghosts.
And then the mutation thrived, because redheads were seen as biologically superior partners in the cold, cloudy climates.
Translation: In Ireland, redheads were sexy. So we procreated with one another and non-redheads who happened to carry the recessive trait, and pretty soon roughly one out of every nine Irishmen had a carrot-top.
(To be clear, my people are Danish. The Scandinavian countries also produced their fair share of us. And also to be clear, this redheads-are-sexy vibe did not make it into U.S. junior high hallways. Trust me on this.)
This theory also explains why no redheads hail from Botswana or South Korea, says Cho, who is Korean-American. That genetic mutation would have been quickly crushed by natural selection in hotter and sunnier climates.
So, as the world becomes one big interconnected online dating site, it stands to reason that the number of redheads lumbering around will diminish, Cho says.
There are virtually zero Chinese who carry the recessive trait for redheadedness, meaning they will have no redheaded children even if thousands of Chinese mate with thousands of Irish.
But we won't disappear, the Creighton professor says. There are simply too many of us, and far, far more who carry the recessive gene for redheadedness even if they aren't themselves red-haired. If a brunette marries a blonde, no one will know they both carry the recessive gene until they have a redheaded kid.
“Even if we don't allow you to get married, it will still exist! It is essentially impossible to get rid of it!” Cho says, and he laughs hard yet again.
He seems weirdly obsessed with my people, and so I get suspicious and . . . sure enough, Professor Cho had never seen a single redheaded person in the (pale) flesh until he moved to the United States 15 years ago.
When he first laid eyes on one, during his post-doctoral program at the University of Michigan, Cho admits to staring and being a little confused. Redheads didn't look redheaded to him. They should be orange heads, he thought. Or maybe orange-yellow heads.
And then one day Cho attended a university picnic, and he saw a orange-headed colleague in the late-afternoon sun.
“The light was coming through her hair sideways, from the setting sun. It was passing through her hair, I don't know, like capturing or emphasizing, bringing out the red tint.
“And I thought, 'Wow, it's red.' It was a pretty interesting moment.”
So, world, we aren't going extinct. You can't get rid of us. And, every once in a while, between the teasing and the sunburns, we will stand in the setting sun, and the light will pass through our hair just so, and we will dazzle you.
At least until it loses all pigment and turns shock white by the age of 40. But that's a different column, for a different day.
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