Update on redhead "hoax"

By Razib Khan | August 25, 2007 3:39 pm

nicole_kidman1_300_400.jpgYesterday I posted on the resurrection of the “redheads going extinct” meme (as I noted, this story seems to cycle every few years). The current source is National Geographic Magazine, which doesn’t have the “article” online. I went to the bookstore and checked out the September 2007 issue, and a write up does exist about the redheads going extinct. Unlike the secondary sources it isn’t as sensationalist, and makes more than a passing nod to the Hardy-Weinberg logic from which the inference is derived.
That being said, the write up in National Geographic Magazine simply recycles older versions of this story which emerged a few years ago, and doesn’t add any new “data” or analysis. In other words, we have here a staffer who needed a short paragraph or two to fill up a page in National Geographic Magazine, so they googled around (or something that effect), and simply repeated claims made in the previous rounds of reportage. As I noted earlier, those claims were pretty much made up. So you have here a case where a non-story from a few years ago was picked up by National Geographic, and the imprimatur of such a high status publication repeating the story has resulted in the reemergence of the meme in the venues which originated it in the first place!
In any case, the numbers which are injected to add a layer of scientific plausibility were likely concocted by the original writers who repeated the meme. I am skeptical that even 1% of the world’s population has red hair; people of European descent form around 15% of the world’s population last I checked, so such a high world wide frequency implies that around 1 out of 10 people of European descent is a redhead. Doesn’t pass the smell test.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
  • Oshun

    Well, that’s a great relief. (Wonder if I could get a job a National Geographic? I am lazy and a whiz with Google.)

  • Scott

    Time to fire up those Letter to the Editor writing skills; someone needs to be canned.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan V. Post

    So… National Geographic Magazine editors are going extinct?

  • http://blog.sciam.com Christopher Mims

    As a journalist I’m not ashamed to admit that a) this sort of silly regurgitation of non-fact “facts” has probably (scratch that – DEFINITELY) been going on since the invention of the genre, and b) the blogosphere, and especially the science blogosphere, performs a valuable service as ombudspersons for the myriad organizations (like NatGeo) that don’t have them.
    I wonder though if this has been getting better or worse since the advent of the internet. You’d think it would make fact-checking easier… but then you’d be amazed how lax fact-checking at major pubs can be. Checking facts in a field that’s not your own (let’s say whoever wrote that graf in NatGeo had a degree in English) is 10x as hard as simply sniffing out falsehoods in a field you already know well – and too few people are paranoid and careful enough to do it right.
    For more on this phenomenon, check out this recent piece in Slate:
    ‘The average newspaper corrects very few of its factual errors, says professor.’
    http://www.slate.com/id/2172283/nav/navoa/

  • John Emerson

    The NG is much more a popular science magazine than a technical journal. I read it regularly between the ages of about ten and sixteen, but only casually since then. It’s probably a notch below the Smithsonian and Natural History, and two notches below the Scientific American, but better than almost every daily newspaper or general interest magazine except maybe (not sure) Harpers and the Atlantic. I’d give them a pass on this.

  • PennyBright

    Hmmm. European descent only 15% ? That seems a bit low to me, given imperialism, which had men from Europe all over the planet for a good long while. Do you perhaps mean people who are culturally European?
    I happen to know a very pretty coffee skinned Jamaican woman who is a red-head — it’s an odd but striking combination of features. One of her great grand fathers was a Scotch soldier.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Hmmm. European descent only 15% ? That seems a bit low to me, given imperialism, which had men from Europe all over the planet for a good long while. Do you perhaps mean people who are culturally European?
    15 is somewhat of a low bound, but not that much. do the numbers. i quickly added europe + the whites of north america & australasia and got 15%. the whites of latin america as reported by wikipedia push it to 18%. you can double check the calculations if you want.

  • Luna_the_cat

    @PennyBright — this is a trivial point, but…Scottish, please. A Scottish soldier. Scotch is something you drink, and ONLY something you drink.

  • John Emerson

    The soldier was Finnish, but drunk all the time (like so many of them). On Scotch.

  • Susan

    I remember having a conversation with a friend who was lamenting about the dissappearence of the “white race”. It’s funny, I know people who are really concerned about this and I know they’re not racest. I guess there’s this idea that, in the not so distant future, all human types will blend together to form this dull unifrom coffee coloured slightly aisan looking race. People seem to be afraid of this hypothetical future. I try to explain the nature of genetics and how, as long as there are always people carrying the red-haired whatever gene, there are always going to be red haired people popping up in the gene pool. Maybe it’s hard to grasp. To be honest, some of the most stunning looking specimens of humanity, that I’ve met, have had a nice blending of human genomes in their ancestory.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I guess there’s this idea that, in the not so distant future, all human types will blend together to form this dull unifrom coffee coloured slightly aisan looking race.
    that won’t happen because genetics is discrete in inheritance as you note, not continuous. the average might be blended, but the full range in phenotype will remain.

  • Paul

    “Doesn’t pass the smell test.”
    With Nicole Kidman I wouldn’t bother with the smell test and neither would you if you were honest.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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