BOOK REVIEW: The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

In Timothy Winegard’s telling, the mosquito is the world's deadliest predator, one that has killed more people than any other cause of death in human history by far and the “ultimate agent of historical change." No bigger than the size and weight of a grape seed, it is the mosquito that, much more than any other factor, has brought down governments, impeded the progress of history, “mustered armies of pestilence and stalked battlefields across the globe, often deciding the outcome of game-changing wars."

Winegard, a professor of history and political science at Colorado Mesa University in the United States, marshals an enormous amount of detail to prove his case. And on at least one point, he is dead right: “I think I can safely say that most of you reading this book have one thing in common – a genuine hatred for mosquitoes. Bashing mosquitoes is a universal pastime and has been since the dawn of humanity.”

Given the state of modern medicine, even in tropical climates, it is relatively easy to minimize mentally the potential for mayhem on the part of the mosquito. But as Winegard points out, 830,000 people died last year from complications of mosquito-borne diseases, a toll that has hardly varied from year to year for decades despite a temporary respite via the application of massive amounts of the pesticide DDT after World War II, and we know how that turned out. Of the 108 billion people who have lived on this earth since we emerged from the swamp, an estimated 52 billion of them have been dispatched by mosquitoes, he estimates.

The litany of wars whose destiny was altered, whose heroes were brought low, of entire peoples whose lives were blighted by the mosquito, as rendered by Winegard, is simply extraordinary, playing a role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, with the mosquito serving as the guardian of Rome’s southern flank by inhabiting the Pontine marshes to the point where invading armies died in such numbers as to render their invasions ineffective. The marshes protected Rome for hundreds of years with their malign inhabitants until Benito Mussolini drained them prior to World War II and turned them into agricultural land.

Mosquitoes, fossilized in amber, have been preserved dating as far back as 105 million years ago and appear from the evidence to have bedeviled the dinosaur. The asteroid that contributed to the dinosaur’s extinction left the mosquito untouched. Its picture is carved into a hieroglyph on the Temple of Ramesses III in Luxor. As long ago as the Warring States Era in China, a trusted emissary of the emperor refused to go to pacify an outlying southern province, fearing almost certain death from an area teeming with malaria. The emperor beheaded him. Generals from Alexander the Great through current ones have either seen the mosquito as a foe, decimating their own armies, or as – like the Romans – a friend, decimating those of their enemies. It was the mosquito, according to Winegard, that put paid to the Crusades. Its effect on the building of the Panama Canal has been catalogued to frightening effect by David McCulloch in his marvelous history of its construction, “The Path Between the Seas,” which described immigrant workmen arriving by boat in the morning and being dead of yellow fever within a day.

And, if you live in a tropical climate, as this reviewer does, you will finish this book with a new determination to stay away from them for fear not only of malaria but of dengue and yellow fever and a catalogue of other diseases including plague, typhus, African sleeping sickness and Chagas. Every nip from this pernicious little creature brings on a nagging fear that dengue or malaria is next. It is not the mosquito itself, of course, a delicate tiny creature whose bite is unfelt until it is gone and the sting begins, but the fact that carries these diseases. But disease and carrier are so synonymous that there is no sense trying to separate them. Surprisingly, sickle-cell anemia, the hereditary condition that blights the lives of Africans, eventually all too often requiring dialysis to supplant their ruined kidneys, developed by evolution as a guard against malarial diseases.

Perhaps the most distressing part of this book is the final chapter, “The Modern Mosquito and Her Diseases: At the Gates of Extinction.” That is because according to Winegard, the mosquito’s presence is as malign today as it was 105 million years ago. He cites an entirely new catalogue of ailments including the West Nile virus, which had its debut in New York and within a decade had spread across the United States to Canada, South and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific region., Another is Zika, which has resulted in microencephaly in hundreds of babies in Brazil and has since spread out of that country.

One of his heroes is Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has directed vast funds to the fight against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases, so far with limited success. The Global Fund supported by the Gates family has put US$10 billion into the campaign so far. However, the foundation estimates as much as US$90 billion to US$120 billion will be necessary to eradicate the diseases by 2040. It would not be safe to bet on success.

“Although in recent years we have somewhat dampened her onslaught,” Winegard writes, “she continues to inject her influence on human populations. As natural global warming, hastened by greenhouse gas emissions, consumes our planet, she is expanding the battlefield by opening new fronts and penetrating areas of operation formerly free of her mosquito-borne diseases. Her reach is growing, expanding both north and south and vertically into higher altitudes as previously untapped regions warm up to her presence.”

This is a minutely-detailed history of a pernicious enemy, one that in Winegard’s telling has affected nearly every major event in human history. It is elegantly written and promises to keep you entertained, if not fascinated, horrified, appalled and wondering where in your bedroom after you have turned out the lights it might be lurking. Then you will hear its telltale buzz near your ear and you will seek to bury your head beneath the sheets. But the odds are that it will probably find you. And then, if you have finished Winegard’s book, you can worry about what agues, fevers or other diseases might be awaiting you.