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.

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