Book of the week
The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator
Never underestimate that tiny insect whining in your ear, said Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy. “The mosquito, far and away mankind’s deadliest enemy, has killed half of all the people who have ever lived.” Per the calculations of historian Timothy C. Winegard, 52 billion people in all have died of malaria, yellow fever, and other mosquito-borne diseases, making the tiny pest the malevolent Zelig to our own species’ long journey through the ages. Winegard “finds no shortage of pivotal events to pin on the little critter.” The rise of Rome into an empire was aided by the invader-proof malarial swamps that surrounded the city. Mosquitoes also ended Alexander the Great’s campaigns. And they were major contributors to the British defeat at Yorktown. Though Winegard’s book is sometimes florid and sometimes repetitive, it “serves up an eye-opening, deeply alarming, and absolutely engrossing view of humanity’s most tenacious foe.”
“There is very little of human history mosquitoes have not touched,” said Brian Bethune in Maclean’s. Though we’ve only known for a century that it is the mosquito, not “bad air,” that spreads malaria, humans have been in a fierce battle with the disease since the dawn of agriculture. About 8,000 years ago, when Bantu farmers in West Central Africa expanded their territory, the malaria parasite was waiting for them, and it proved so deadly that our bodies developed emergency genetic defenses, including sickle-cell anemia, a disorder that defends blood cells against the parasite but regularly results in death at about age 23. Five centuries ago, mosquito-borne diseases carried from the Old World to the New helped wipe out 95 percent of the Americas’ indigenous population. And because Africans had greater immunity to the illnesses than white indentured servants, millions of Africans were enslaved to serve as the New World’s labor class.
Winegard sometimes gives the mosquito too much credit, said Brooke Jarvis in The New Yorker. His case for the mosquito’s role in the drafting of the Magna Carta, for example, relies on “a cascade of contingencies” stretching back centuries. But we who live in rich, temperate corners of the world are foolish if we presume that the mosquito has had its day in the human story. Climate change is expanding the reach of the genus and the diseases it carries. Though we think we are in control of our future, “the entire time that humanity has been in existence, the mosquito has been proof that we are not.” ■