I recently had a conversation with a crazy red-headed friend of mine about his crazy red-headed ex-wife and why their crazy red-headed daughter is so crazy. You know the stereotype: redheads are supposed to be sharp-tongued, hot-headed, sex-crazed nutjobs. This led me to wonder: Are redheads actually nutjobs, and if so, why would that be true?

My first instinct is to say that the stereotype is bunk. It fits a pattern of maligning every genetic phenotype for the purpose of convenient pigeonholing, and holds no more water than saying that all blondes are dumb, or that big-handed men are well-endowed. The world population of redheads, currently estimated at 1%, would seem to have no more nutjobs in it than any other hair color, and there are plenty of level-headed gingers in the world. The recessive gene that gave us Caligula was the same that gave us Queen Elizabeth I.

Though as far as “sex-crazed,” we can only fantasize.

(In the interest of full disclosure: While not a redhead per se — my hair color was once described by a hairdresser friend as “medium maize” — I come from a redheaded family and even express the gene in the form of a perfectly ginger beard when I go too long between shaves. So as a below-the-ears redhead, I’m not exactly neutral. However, I can say objectively that my immediate family is composed of sharp-tongued hot-heads of which I am one. As for the sexual proclivities of redheads, I’ll decline to comment because, hey, that’s my sister.)

Cultural stereotypes aside, I’m intrigued by the fact that a gene for coloration could carry with it a gene for some other effect. For example, the efficiency of some birds’ immune systems are linked to plumage color. And as Darwin noticed, albino animals are more prone to deafness. So is it possible for the redhead gene to carry with it another gene which might influence behavior? Actually, yes.

First: A Natural History of Redheads. Red hair is caused by the pigment phaeomelanin, which is in turn caused by a mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) protein which is controls what type of melanin our cells produce. So, essentially, redheads are mutants. But the reason for the evolution of this mutation is unclear. It is found in people worldwide, even in Africans, Aborigines and Persians, but of course it’s most prevalent in Western and Northern Europeans, where it is expressed by 2-6% of the population. One theory posits that the defective MC1R receptor was successful in Europe for the same reason white skin was: pale people absorb more heat and more ultraviolet radiation, which can make all the difference in sun-forsaken countries prone to Vitamin D deficiencies. Essentially, the MC1R mutation served to make your whites whiter. (The Neanderthals possessed the ginger gene, too. Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a club-wielding caveman Ron Howard.) The only problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence for positive selection in this environment; blondes get sunburns just like redheads, so the recessive gene shouldn’t have given any advantage to our freckly forefathers and should thus have been squelched.

Also, it can’t explain why Carrot Top’s ancestors weren’t violently erased from the genetic line.

A second proposal is that red hair was promoted not by competitive selection, but by sexual selection. (Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a berry-picking, wolfskin-clad Christina Hendricks.) As a fan of redheaded girls as much as the next guy with a pulse, I’m more inclined to trust this hypothesis. After all, phaenomelanin is also the pigment responsible for the red coloration of the lips, the nipples, the head of the penis, and the vagina. The secret to your good looks, my redheaded readers, is your vagina-colored hair.

Sexual selection for the mutated MC1R receptor among early hominids.

But what the mutant MC1R receptor also carries is a different relationship to pain. The same MC1R receptor that receives the melanocyte-stimulating hormone which colors your hair also receives another, more popular hormone: endorphins. (The two hormones are structurally similar.) A 2005 study concluded that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain, while another found that redheads feel more pain at the dentist and needed 20% more anesthesia than blondes or brunettes. However, another study was said to prove that redheaded women have a higher pain threshold than blondes and brunettes, at least when the pain was noxious (such as electric shocks) and not thermal (such as a curling iron). So, which is it? Are redheads pansies or bad-asses? Are they both? Are they neither? And if red hair really does effect pain thresholds, would that say anything about a common behavior?

As if this article couldn’t get ridiculous enough, let’s make an awkward segue into the “zoological mystery” segment of our program: What if the answer to redheaded temperament and licentiousness could be found in those ultimate redheads, the orangutans?

Follow my twisted logic here. The MC1R gene is responsible for pigmentation in all mammals, and a mutation in it serves to make pigs pink and red pandas red. There’s even reason to believe there were a few ginger-colored woolly mammoths in the world. So do orangutans, a great ape like us, possess a greater tolerance for pain, or a weaker one, and are they hot-headed sex-crazed nutjobs?

A Natural History of Orangutans: They are the only great ape native to Asia, found only on the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. They are also the least social ape, traveling through the forest solo or in small mother-child units, but this has less to do with antisocial behavior than with the relative scarcity of fruit in their homelands. Unlike the omnivorous chimps or salad-munching gorillas, bulky frugivorous mammals such as orangutans have to space themselves out or risk starvation. But when the forest produces a glut of fruits, orangutans are happy to share it with each other, and congregate in some numbers for mostly-peaceful reunions. These social events help the otherwise solitary orangutans retain a culture. Like other apes, they possess language. But what sets orangutans apart from chimpanzees or gorillas is their capacity for tool use. Orangutans are arguably the best tool-makers in the world besides us: they teach each other to use sticks to extract insects or seeds, how to use certain plants as medicinal balms, or how to curl leaves into cups to drink water or roll them into primitive megaphones for better communication. They even use leaves as toilet paper, and have the capability to make tools for making other tools, a quantum leap forward in intelligence.

Yeah yeah yeah, but are they nutjobs? Survey says no. At least, not more so than any other territorial animal. They have skirmishes at the borders. Immature males try to forcibly breed with females and are either rebuffed by the females or by local dominant males. Nothing out of the ordinary for apes. And as for pain tolerance, we fortunately have not hooked orangutans up to electrodes or curling irons to test it. The MC1R gene in orangutans, it turns out, is mutated differently than in humans: we produce red hair via different pathways. So, why is the orangutan orange? Is it to absorb sunlight in the dark forests of Borneo? Or is it sexual selection, with redder hair producing a favorable effect on the ladies?

It’s neither. Counterintuitively, orange fur acts as camouflage. Just as in the ocean, where the water absorbs all red light close to the surface, rendering red animals effectively invisible, so too does the vegetation of the forest canopy absorb red light first. Because orangutans travel in the lower levels of the canopy and the understory, below the tall emergent trees which filter out red light from the spectrum, their reddish coats actually make them hard to spot.

As for human redheads, science is still unclear as to what a diminished or increased tolerance for pain might have to do with anecdotal evidence about emotional instability and the libido. Until then, you can draw your own ill-formed conclusions. My investigation of aggression and reproductive vigor in orangutan communities has only taught me one thing: that redheads in the rainforests of Sumatra are effectively ninjas.

In other conclusions: Va va voom.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

12 responses to “Gingers

  • Awf'ly Wee Eli

    Thank you thank you thank you! I’m a ginger, and all my life I’ve struggled with thermal regulation. I knew about redheads having pain tolerance issues, but I thought the heat problems were just me.

    I also understand we’re extra-appealing to mosquitoes.

  • quantumbiologist

    Ah! Finally, a redhead to speak up for the research! So you’re of the mind that redheads have a lower pain threshold. How do you do with electric shocks?

    • Awf'ly Wee Eli

      I’ve avoided them fairly well so far, but, interestingly, I am *terrified* of them – far more than drowning, falling from great heights, or any other nasties of modern life.

      I notice that I react less violently to blunt force trauma – a knock to the noggin or a finger slammed in a door – than non-gingers around me. Where I turn into a writhing pile of agony is when sustained pain is involved: anything where a needle has to stay in my arm for an extended period of time is a nonstarter.

  • quantumbiologist

    Well, the only study that said redheads have a higher pain tolerance was specifically for redheaded women. Maybe redheaded women are Amazons and redheaded men are weaklings? I’d like to think so.

  • DRD

    Comparing responsiveness to anesthesia with tolerance for pain may seem intuitive, but they may in fact be different mechanisms. One could, for example, have a high pain tolerance yet – separately – still require a massive amount of anesthesia to become insensate.
    Think of Scottish football fans in a cold driving rain, and then think of the amount of barley-based anesthesia they can tolerate.

  • quantumbiologist

    Well, I don’t dwell on it in the article, but the MC1R receptors have a hard time receiving both melanocortin and endorphins. Since novocaine works by releasing endorphins, it stands to reason that redheads need extra novocaine because many of their endorphins aren’t binding with some of the receptors. If there’s an anesthetic that works via a different pathway than the release of endorphins, I don’t know about it. (And someone should fill me in.)

    But I get your point. How much pain you can tolerate is different from how much pain you feel. And yes, as far as the stereotype goes, I wonder if the redheads of Scotland are trying to self-anesthetize with brewskis.

  • Orangutan Orange

    […] Gingers « The Quantum Biologist The MC1R gene in orangutans, it turns out, is mutated differently than in humans: we produce red hair via different pathways. So, why is the orangutan orange Is it to absorb sunlight in the dark forests of Borneo? […]

  • jake taylor

    I have Irish relatives on my father’s side who are redheaded and manic-depressive, prone to alcoholism, etc. all the “fightin’ irish” stereotypes are true, they love nothing better than a good stiff competition.

    I have read that melanin is required in the inner ear and that’s why cat’s with white markings on their heads (ears) are deaf.

    Apparently melanin also absorbs light and quantum mechanics indicate this energy could then go somewhere in the brain or body and could potentially have an effect, like a filter.

    I came across an article about the red colouring of birds being linked to their aggression, here:

    Aggression reason for Red-headed scarcity


    …The experiment placed six males each in unfamiliar enclosures measuring 2.1m3. The only variable was the relative ratio of red-headed to black-headed birds in the controlled environment. In the first enclosure there were no red heads, in the second enclosure there were two, in the third enclosure, four red-headed birds and in the fourth enclosure there were six.

    The study found that the red and Black-headed Gouldian’s hormonal and immune systems responded very differently to their changed environment. While isolated, birds showed similar hormonal levels. These changed dramatically when birds were introduced to socially competitive environments where food had been limited.

    As the number of red-headed versus black-headed males in the enclosure increased, so the testosterone levels of the birds changed but in opposite directions. A value equivalent to 5 x their isolation rates. Black-headed males hormonal levels decreased by almost the same amount as red head males levels increased.

    Greater numbers of red heads in the enclosure also led to correspondingly elevated levels of cortisone in the red-headed birds, equivalent to eleven times the isolation rate. This effect was not seen in black-headed males. Red-headed Gouldians also exhibited lower immune response levels.

    The study concluded that red-headed birds dominated their black-headed cousins when competing for scarce resources such as food and nesting sites but the trade off is increased stress levels which negatively affects their health by lowering their immune response levels possibly

    explaining the abundance of the black headed populations which outnumber red heads by more than 2 to 1 in the wild.

    Black headed Gouldians constitute approximately 70% of the wild population with red heads making up about 30% followed by the extremely rare yellow heads which number less than 1% of recorded wild populations…

    Thanks for your interesting blog. Keep us updated if you learn more.

  • meagan

    Novocaine does NOT work by releasing endorphins! It’s a local anesthetic based on the structure of cocaine (novo-caine, get it?). In fact, I’m pretty sure no painkiller/anesthetic works by ‘releasing endorphins’, opiate medications work by mimicking them.

    Interesting article though. As a redhead I find I’m a total wussy.

    Oh, also, Ms. Hendricks is a blonde. She dies her hair.

    • quantumbiologist

      Wait, where did I say that novocaine releases endorphins? If novocaine released endorphins, I would be licking novocaine right now, for fun. My understanding of endorphins is that they are simply released by the body to counteract physical pain and mask the effects.

      • meagan

        3 posts above this one?
        ” Since novocaine works by releasing endorphins, it stands to reason that redheads need extra novocaine because many of their endorphins aren’t binding with some of the receptors.”

        September 24th, 2010 at 11:43 am?

        I actually went through your whole blog post thinking I was being an insane redhead until I got to the commetns section. 😉

        Maybe it was just a phrasing error.

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