Is Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham part Vulcan?
The recently released trailer strongly implies that Sonequa Martin-Green’s character, Michael Burnham, has ties to Vulcan, but to what extent? Is she a human who spent part of her childhood on Vulcan, or does she actually have Vulcan DNA?
Most people will be quick to claim, “But she doesn’t have pointed ears!” And that’s true. They are quite rounded, as you can see.
Spock’s ears were pointed after all, right? Spock was a human/Vulcan hybrid and for all intents and purposes, was frequently described as having Vulcan physiology. But that’s not the end of the story. When discussing Spock’s blood in the TOS episode “Journey to Babel,” Nurse Chapel points out, “It isn’t true Vulcan blood either. It has human blood elements in it.”
So there really are some human elements lurking within Spock. To use genetics terminology, genotypically (DNA wise) he’s half human, but phenotypically (appearance wise), he looks Vulcan. Most of us learned Mendelian genetics in high school biology where we did fun Punnett squares and learned things like brown eyes are dominant to blue eyes and black hair is dominant to blond hair. Using these rules, we might assume that a Vulcan’s pointed ears are dominant to a human’s rounded ears and call it that, but the truth is, very few traits are actually inherited by the patterns we learned in 10th grade science class.
At this point I should probably backtrack and explain all the reasons why a naturally-occurring Vulcan/human hybrid just doesn’t make any sense. Whether or not two species can interbreed depends on quite a few factors like chromosome number and genetic similarity. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46 – one from mom and one from dad – and we have genes in predictable locations so that when the genetic material combines, we essentially shuffle our DNA for the next generation without scrambling it into nonsense. In order for hybrids to occur, ideally they should have the same number of chromosomes and genes in similar locations. Chromosome number isn’t actually a game changer though.
Mules are made from the crossbreeding of a female horse (which has 64 chromosomes) and a male donkey (which has 62 chromosomes). When sperm and egg combine the result is a mule with 63 chromosomes, which unfortunately renders mules sterile due to the odd chromosome. While horses and donkeys are different species, from a genetic perspective, they’re remarkably similar.
This guy will never know the love of his own children, poor bastard.
This obviously isn’t true for humans and Vulcans. They might look relatively similar on the outside, but just look at what canon tells us about Vulcan physiology: a three-chambered heart located where the liver should be, a midbrain capable of telepathy, and copper based blood don’t exactly make Vulcans right next to chimpanzees as our evolutionary cousins. (And that blood should actually be blue based on the oxidation state of copper in hemocyanin but I’m already getting into the scientific weeds here.)
So for Vulcans and humans to even have babies in the first place is a remarkable feat of genetic engineering that wouldn’t even be remotely possible with modern technology, but it’s Star Trek, right? It’s sci-fi and it’s the future and we’ve got to suspend some belief. Check. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use what we do know about genetics and speculate about patterns of inheritance between humans and Vulcans.
Firstly, Spock isn’t the only example of offspring between humans and Vulcanoid species. Sure, Romulans may be considered a separate species from Vulcans, but on a genetic timescale, the split seems to be very recent (much like we see with wolves and dogs) and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t easily interbreed with one another. So for all intents and purposes, we might consider a cross between a human and Romulan to be quite similar to a human and Vulcan. Canon offers us at least two examples of human-Romulan hybrids: Sela, the daughter of Tasha Yar and her Romulan captor, and Simon Tarses, a Starfleet crewman who was one-quarter Romulan but tried to pass his slightly pointy ears off as a Vulcan throwback.
I wonder how much they had to pay Denise Crosby to wear that wig?
If we were sticking to what we learned about genetics in high school biology, we would expect Sela to have inherited her father’s dark hair rather than her mother’s light hair. Think about it: aside from Sela, when was the last time anyone saw a blonde Romulan? But it would appear that genes for hair color in hybrids seem to be playing by a different set of rules than what we would predict in humans. So coming back to the ears, both of these individuals lend weight to the theory that pointed ears do predominate in Vulcanoid hybrids, but… Crewman Tarses’ ears are less pointed, suggesting pointed ears might be an example of something called polygenic inheritance. It’s a pretty simple concept, actually. Mendelian genetics taught us that things exist in binary, either yes or no, this or that, brown eyes or blue eyes, but as I’ve already explained, so few traits actually work that way. One of the most obvious examples in humans comes from skin color.
Have a dose of melanin. It’s gorgeous!
There’s no one “skin color” gene. Scientists have actually identified at least eight genes that contribute to skin color that can interact with one another in various ways to produce a spectrum. Most people recognize that biracial children often end up with a skin tone somewhere in between their parents; this complex chart shows how eight different genes for one trait can lend to incredibly beautiful and diverse variation. It also demonstrates how people who end up on Maury because they swear they could never father a dark-skinned baby are scientifically illiterate turds. This graphic is an approximation, but you can see how it is uncommon but entirely possible for two people with intermediate pigmentation to have a very light-skinned or a very dark-skinned child, depending on the roll of the genetic dice.
Based on Crewman Tarses’ slightly pointed ears, it’s easy to imagine that ear “pointiness” (a very scientific term) might fall along similar patterns of inheritance if it can be diluted over generations rather than simply being present or absent. So could Michael Burnham have Vulcan ancestry and round ears? Once the biologist in me ignores the sheer madness of a Vulcan/human hybrid in the first place, I’m willing to say yes.
Now let’s have a lookie-loo at Michael Burnham’s eyebrows.
Tweezed to perfection
I’m willing to believe that could be the result of Vulcan DNA rather than a fashion choice.
Lastly, there’s this very brief scene in the trailer that implies that this woman and this child are the same person. Tell me that isn’t the Vulcanest haircut you ever saw?
Seriously, it looks like the Beatles threw up all over her head.
Sure, she could just be a human who has accepted Surak’s teachings at some point in her life, right down to the shellac-styled hair, but I think it’s clear that whether or not Michael Burnham is descended from Vulcans, she at least spent a chunk of her childhood in their company. So while the canon is still out on whether she actually harbors any Vulcan DNA, but I don’t think it should be ruled out strictly based on the shape of her ears.