Three Possible Locations for a Redhead Homeland

Judas was often portrayed as a redhead. But now the gingers are fighting back

"All hail! The red, orange and pale!", "Ginger and proud!" and "It gets redder": those were some of the slogans on display across Edinburgh on 10 August 2013, in what was probably the world's first Ginger Pride parade.


The march, part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, was organised by comedian Shawn Hitchins, himself a redhead. "In Canada there's not a lot of redheads, and for me as a really ridiculously gay kid, having red hair only heightened my sense of isolation because nobody looked like me, nobody lisped like me or burnt under the sun like I did", Hitchins told the BBC.

The Canadian chose the right place for his playful display of redhead self-respect. Scotland has the highest proportion of ginger-haired people in the world, with 13% of the general population endowed with red hair. Ireland, by the way, has the second-highest incidence of redheads, at 10%. In both Ireland and Scotland, over 40% of the population carry the recessive gene for red hair, meaning that Irish and Scots are significantly more likely to be red-haired than the average of 2 to 6% for other people of northern and western European ancestry.

But red hair is not limited to the northwest corner of Europe. It occurs regularly, albeit generally with lesser frequency, among Polynesians, Ashkenazi Jews, the Berbers of North Africa, and among the various peoples of the Middle East. Still, with an average occurrence of 1 to 2% across the whole of humanity, ginger is the rarest of hair colours. Which translates to between 70 and 140 million redheads the world over.

Because gingers are such a small, not to mention very visible minority, they have often been an easy target for taunts, discrimination and worse. Historical examples of 'gingerism' date as far back as ancient Egypt, where red-headed men were sacrificed to Osiris. Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, is often depicted as having red hair. In mediaeval Europe, red hair was frequently considered the mark of a witch, a werewolf or a vampire.

Even in more recent times, redheads were considered behavioural outliers - more temperamental and libidinous than 'normal-haired' people. A 19th-century survey 'proved' that 48% of so-called 'criminal women' (i.e. prostitutes) had red hair, to name but one now discredited example.

That is not to say there aren't any demonstrable peculiarities about redheads. While the average adult has 120,000 hairs on their head, redheads only have about 90,000. Strangely enough, redheads have a different sensitivity to pain than non-gingers: they are more sensitive to thermal pain (heat and cold), but less sensitive to certain other sources of pain (including electrical current). They also require a dose of anaesthetic up to 20% higher than others. And according to some sources, bees sting redheads more than non-redheads - a claim oft repeated but not corroborated anywhere.

So why does red hair even exist? Some scientist speculate that ginger hair (and the often accompanying lighter skin) evolved in dimly sunlit northern regions in order to enhance the body's heat retention and vitamin D production. But other scientists prefer to think of gingers as the result of 'genetic drift': red hair (and lighter skin) occurs in sunnier climes as well, but the reduced tolerance to UV rays means that gingers are less likely to survive and thrive there.

'Gingerism' hasn't stopped redheads from achieving great things. The list of famous gingers throughout history includes Cleopatra, Rurik (the Viking who founded a state the name of which refers to his red hair: Russia), Queen Elizabeth I, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (hence the name - meaning redbeard), Genghis Khan, George Washington (and at least half a dozen other US presidents), Mark Twain, Vladimir Lenin, Malcolm X (a.k.a. Big Red), Sylvia Plath, Winston Churchill and Woody Allen.

Some of these honorary members of the Red-Headed League are strange bedfellows indeed. It's hard to come up with any other club that would count both Lenin and Churchill among its members - or Genghis Khan and Woody Allen for that matter.

The geographic distribution of redheads across Europe is equally puzzling, as this map demonstrates. There are two ginger hotspots: the Celtic fringe of the British Isles (i.e. Scotland, Ireland and Wales), and an area deep inside Russia, somewhere between Yaroslavl and Kirov.

Is this a sign that Europe was once dominated by redheads, but that they were pushed aside by a migration wave coming from the Middle East - as the other zones of lesser redheadedness seem to indicate? Was it the milk-drinkers who did this? (see #618). Perhaps the habitual taunting of redheads is a distant echo of the ancient victory over the gingerfolk by the blonde and brown-haired invaders, comparable to the seemingly instinctive English reflex to ridicule the Welsh.

But maybe the redheads will have the last laugh. Shawn Hitchins was surprised by the genuine well of ginger activism that his march has connected with: "They've all been in touch with me. It's almost like I've opened a door and realised there was an actual party on the other side. One day this week I was approached by a priest who came over, grabbed my shoulder said 'I love what you're doing with your affirmation march' and gave me two thumbs up."

Could gingers become the next minority clamouring for a separate nation? They already have an annual Redhead Day - held every first weekend of September in or near the Dutch city of Breda. First held in 2005, the Redhead Day draws in thousands of visitors from dozens of countries. Redheads even have their own flag.

So how about a Redhead Nation - a Gingeristan? Scotland would seem like the natural gathering place for the world's redheads; but with a second referendum on independence from Britain a possible consequence of Brexit, the Scots probably don't want to complicate the issue for fear of losing their argument. Ireland as the world's official ginger nation? It would only cause a gingerer than thou fight with Northern Ireland.

Perhaps the most appropriate place to found a land for redheads would be the most mysterious patch of red on this map - the gingerest part of Russia - itself named after a redhead. Considering the endlessness of the Russian steppes, red-headedness is probably the most distinguishing feature this bit of Russia has got going for itself. So, to echo the slogans of two quite different but equally aspirational philosophical traditions: Gingers of the world, unite! Next year in Yaroslavl!

The Ginger Map of Europe found here on James McInerney's Science Exploratorium, a blog about science, society and serendipity. The picture of the ginger flag found here on Everything for Redheads, a website for and by redheads.

Strange Maps #625

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.