Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why Do I Prefer Redheads?

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a preference for redheads - though this blog is not an excuse for mere ogling! 

Red hair is caused by a mutation of the MC1R gene, which is also a recessive gene. Recessive genes can skip generations but many people can carry the gene without it being active. To even have a chance of producing a redheaded child both parents need to at least carry the recessive redhead gene (if one parent doesn't even carry the gene then all bets are off, no redhead offspring), this is why there are simply less redheads than brunettes or blondes (which are more dominant genes). It's thought that only around 1-2% of the population are redheads, and there has been recent speculation that some Neanderthals were also redheaded.

There have been reports / hoaxes / sensationalised headlines in the last few years claiming that redheads will be removed from the gene pool in X number of years, thankfully these reports are incorrect. The only way for redheads to be removed from the gene pool is not just for all redheads to die and/or stop reproducing, but for everyone carrying the gene (speculated as around 1 in 4 in Europe and the US) to die and/or stop reproducing! So thankfully, while redheads are rare, the likelihood is that they’re here to stay.

While redheads may have a massive aesthetic advantage (in my opinion!) over non-redheads, I am also equally appreciative of dyed red hair, I do not discriminate! The first time I remember appreciating a redhead was Gillian Anderson playing Dana Scully in the X-files, though considering this was the first instance, there was no pattern of which to speak, I think my preference became apparent with Alyson Hannigan’s character Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my attempts to warm to How I Met Your Mother were not helped by the fact that Alyson was no longer a redhead, though this in turn could be a blessing because I may have stuck with the rather turgid attempt at comedy otherwise), since then my bias has become much more apparent. Even non-redheads benefit from a streak of artificial red should they wish not to go the whole hog. I’ve noticed an increase in artificial redheads in the last few years, when I first met my wife there didn’t seem to be as many as there are now, I think this can largely be put down to the success of red headed celebrities like Anderson, Hannigan and more recently people like Christina Hendricks and internet geek queen Felicia Day, whose web series The Guild is a must see. Though being a redhead gives one an unfair advantage, it’s not a guarantee of beauty, but it’s an advantage nonetheless (and this is not to say that non-redheads can't be beautiful, far from it!). Of course, there are many different shades of red people can have, both naturally and artificially, here I don't think I have a preference, certain people will suit different shades more than others. Someone who thinks they don't suit red hair probably just hasn't found the right shade yet...

While being a redhead has no benefit in natural selection - in fact there’s good evidence that it would be selected against in, say, Africa, where the sun is very harsh and redheads tend to have pale skin. There is a good case for it to be more desirable to some in terms of sexual selection - and considering the sun never shines in Scotland, it could be a reason why the country has the highest concentration of carriers of the redhead gene.

It makes one wonder about the influence that colour has at the level of the brain, we cannot dismiss the importance it plays in our minds, as the excellent and recent BBC Horizon programme “Do You See What I See” showed, colour can affect us in many ways. It would be wise to point out, however, that while the colour red may give one a slight psychological advantage in sports, and even our ability to gauge time (Beau Lotto claims "Red makes us highly aware of our environment and so time slows down in your mind"), it’s down to our perception of a colour, not the colour itself (eg dying your red hair blue may affect your/our perception further still). And clearly, a healthy skepticism is wise amid such reports that are in their infancy.

It’s highly unlikely that character traits are linked to our physical appearance (eg “redheads are fiery and hot-tempered”), such stereotypes just happen to be true when people notice that someone who is a redhead happens to be fiery and hot-tempered, otherwise known as the Barnum Effect (this is one reason why silly people still look to astrology, see video below).

The topic of red hair makes me contemplate one of those important questions in life - why do we like what we like? I listened to a recent lecture by Paul Bloom who speaks about the matter. Though of course it's worth pointing out that you do not choose what you choose (eg we don't have freewill).

Bloom’s lecture mostly deals with how our values of pleasure and worth can differ based on knowledge and how the history of an experience or object matters, which is not something more basic such as preferring one colour over another (which presumably is the result of the brains processing of previous causal experiences and awareness of which I had no say), it’s interesting in a broader sense, and I’d favour the audio over the video as it includes the Q&A which is also good. Perhaps I put an exclusive value and history to redheads, there aren’t as many of them so the rarity is enchanting (the rarity is probably why they get teased, kids tend to point out differences).

Mark Twain said “when red-haired people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”, some people even insist that they’re “strawberry blonde”, those of the redheaded variety needn’t hide behind fallacy and should embrace their genetic makeup, not make excuses about it. And those who aren’t blessed genetically, give it a try! 

So the question of "why do I prefer redheads" remains unanswered (or perhaps unanswerable), if indeed I don't choose what I choose, perhaps redheads chose me (in a broader sense), rather than the other way around.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book review: Sam Harris - The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape (How Science Can Determine Human Values) by Sam Harris

This is the first of Sam’s books I have read but it certainly won’t be the last (in fact I ordered The End of Faith at the start of the week). The book is about the concept of a science of morality based on the well being of conscious creatures, made possible as we begin to understand more and more about everything that happens at the level of the brain. Using a baseline of the worst possible suffering for the longest amount of time (for everybody), we can see that all experience moves up or down this landscape Sam has created (if one does not want to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone for the longest possible time, then I don’t know what you’re talking about, and more importantly I don’t think you know what you’re talking about either). Everything we do that is worth talking about is something that alters our consciousness (mostly very little, other times hugely so) and anything that affects consciousness is happening at the level of the brain.

I had the pleasure of getting tickets for an evening with event that Sam and Richard Dawkins were doing at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in April earlier this year. I hadn’t yet read the book, in fact I only picked it up earlier that same day so I could get it signed afterwards. The talk was filmed and you can watch it here on youtube:

The talk is a good primer for the book (and while some people have attacked his idea as another form of utilitarianism, I think the tour he has done in support of this book shows he is not guilty of this), and of course some of his introduction is almost a direct lifting from it (as you would expect), but the book certainly goes into more detail. If I were to note a slight disappointment then it would be that I was expecting perhaps a bit more on the technical aspect of the brain given Sam’s expertise in neuroscience, though there is plenty about the brain and his FMRI experiments and it's these moments where the book is most compelling. Regardless, the book left me wanting more in that regard (better that way than bore me to tears), Sam writes with a razor sharp clarity and shows the fallacy of religious moral teachings admirably, if religion is ever right, it’s right by accident.

The criticism towards the book comes from a misunderstanding of the matter in my opinion, Sam has not written (or attempted to write) a book that has all the answers, merely opening the door and exploring how and why we should be able to deride moral values from science. Perhaps this humility is disappointing for some people. It’s a liberating idea and not one that should be met with scorn, he makes plenty of analogies towards a science of physical health, when Doctors tell us things like “smoking causes lung cancer”, we don’t picture this as hostile men in white coats telling us how to live our lives in some kind of Orwellian horror show. Indeed, physical health itself is difficult to define but we don’t doubt that a science of medicine is based on physical health, and so we should deal with moral science in a similar way. Sam points out the blurred lines between facts and values as processed by the brain (this is why beliefs matter so much), how we should not confuse a position between not having answers in practice and not having answers in principle, and how there will doubtless be many different ways to travel up and down the moral landscape regarding the same questions. Harris has responded to the most compelling criticisms of his book on his website -

It’s a huge topic that should be taken seriously, in my opinion, and hopefully The Moral Landscape is a means towards a rational dialogue on the matter.


I'd also urge you to read Sam's blog which never fails to make you think.