Today I was watching the evening news report from abc when they mentioned an alarming piece claiming that natural redheads are going extinct due to – get this – global climate change. Seriously. It’s not entirely abc’s fault. Around July 5, 2014, articles like this and this started popping up all over UK news sites, and abc seems to have reported what others have made news without vetting the source.
This report can be traced back to a single person, indeed he is the only named “expert” cited in any of these reports. Mr. Alistair Moffat is the current chief of a company called BritainsDNA, which does DNA analyses for people interested in delving into their ancestry. Moffat hopefully has more business sense than scientific acumen however given his statements on the relationship between the redhead gene and climate change. (Although there are those who question BritainsDNA techniques in general.)
He starts off with what is likely a substantiated statement: “We think red hair in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England is adaptation to the climate. We do not get enough sun and have to get all the Vitamin D we can.” There has been some work that suggests that red heads (or perhaps just pale-skinned people in general) may be more efficient at absorbing Vitamin D from the sun. So far, he’s said nothing outlandish. But then Moffat falls apart. He claims: “If it was to get less cloudy and there was more sun, there would be fewer people carrying the gene.”
That is just not how natural selection works. The people who are carrying the gene don’t vanish just because the gene is now useless. A person can live a perfectly happy, fulfilled (reproductive!!) life without pinky toes, an appendix, or palm lines but we still have them. The key point is that warming of the climate will not lead to diminished reproductive success among people who carry the redhead gene. If there is a redhead extinction in the works (and there probably is not), it would have nothing to do with climate change.
The best part of the entire story? This isn’t even the first time Moffat has gone off book like this. Moffat — who majored in Medieval History, by the way, not Biology — has embarrassed himself and his company by claiming that they’ve located “Eve’s grandson” (you can listen to an interview with him here in which he also inaccurately claims that 97% of men with the surname “Cohen” share the same marker). The quip about Eve’s grandson makes slightly more sense in context, but still seems like a deliberately misleading soundbyte.
Bottom line: The report about climate change leading to a redhead extinction is bad journalism and worse science. Unsubstantiated reports like this one hurt the scientists who are doing serious research on the effects of climate change. The fact that stories like this are picked up and distributed is a testament to the scientific illiteracy found among many journalists. It’s important for people to cry “foul” when they see this sort of nonsense spouted as fact so that news sites understand that they cannot get away with such sloppy work.