Review: The Mosquito by Timothy Winegard

Timothy Winegard’s history of our most constant pest

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• August 31, 2019 5:00 am


Here's an odd, interesting, and mostly useless fact: The word canopy, meaning an awning or covering, derives from kónops, an Ancient Greek word for mosquito. And here's another odd fact: The word canapé—the bite-sized bit of cocktail-party food—derives from the same root. It's mosquitoes, all the way down.

The origin seems to be the practice of draping a netting over a couch, to keep out bugs. The Greeks called the result a konópion, a diminutive of the word for mosquito. Down one path, the word entered Latin as a name for just the covering, carried into English as canopy. Down another path, the word came to stand for just the seating, which led the French to use canapé to name finger-food or hors d'oeuvres served on a bit of bread, as though sitting on a couch. Just to complete the circle, Modern Greek has borrowed kanapés back from French to name a type of sofa.

Perhaps the only thing this etymological roundabout proves is the entomological fact that mosquitoes have always been with us. And maybe, if Timothy Winegard is right in his new book, The Mosquito, the small insects—bloodsuckers in the Culicidae family of Diptera—have had an outsized effect on human history. Civilizations have risen and fallen, Winegard insists, in the endless fight against the pests.

Subtitling his 490-page story "A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator," Winegard notes the many deadly diseases carried by mosquitoes on their way from one mammal to another: yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and many others. Malaria tops the list—the disease that has probably killed, down through the millennia, more human beings than any other illness. The Mosquito offers the high estimate of 52 billion people killed by mosquitoes, half the people in the history of the world. The global death toll from mosquito-borne diseases is still 830,000 people a year. Winegard begins his account of human history by claiming that "we are at war with the mosquito." And he concludes his history by writing that even today "we are still at war with the mosquito."

This kind of simultaneously broad and narrow book—the explain-all-of-civilization-with-one-topic genre—was popular back in the 1990s. We had the whole of human history analyzed through the influence of salt. And coffee. And wheat. And cows. And all the rest. The genre seemed to die down 10 or 15 years ago, done in by oversaturating the reading market. But like mosquito populations, it was always ready to swarm again.

And so we get The Mosquito, which uses mosquitoes to explain everything from cultural collapse in the first Bronze Age to the disappearance of the Roanoke colony. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan? Killed by mosquitoes. The Crusades? Driven by mosquitoes.

As for Rome, Winegard makes the argument that the city flourished because mosquitoes in the Pontine Marshes discouraged invaders, and it floundered because those same mosquitoes carried new diseases to the Roman population. That's an argument, I suppose, if not a fully persuasive one. Which is better than Winegard's peculiar idea that the English barons compelled King John to sign Magna Carta because—ah, who would have thought?—of mosquitoes.

Still, at its best, The Mosquito offers intuitively satisfying accounts of the deadly creature's influence on history. Winegard's explanation for the strange success of importing African slaves to the New World forms a good example. Somewhere around 6,000 B.C., certain African populations along the Niger River acquired a genetic mutation that caused red blood cells to have a crescent-like sickle shape—and people with the mutation survived because sickle cells provided relative immunity to the malaria caused by mosquito bites.

That population also had the potential to suffer oxygen deprivation, because the same sickle shape that prevented malarial infections from taking hold in red blood cells also weakened the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to internal organs. The result could be bad, especially at higher altitudes, and The Mosquito devotes a powerful section to the story of Ryan Clark, the safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers who collapsed after a 2007 football game at Mile High Stadium in Denver and nearly died from oxygen-deprivation damage to his spleen and gallbladder, caused by the sickle-cell trait in his blood.

Still, a harsh Darwinian biology in early human history favored the mutation: Fewer people of childbearing age died from sickle-cell anemia than died from mosquito-borne malaria. In the Niger Delta, mosquitoes were the killers, not altitude.

One terrible result is that decreased mortality from mosquito-borne disease also made those Africans valuable as slaves in the lowlands of the Caribbean, Spanish Main, and southern regions of North America. Many still died, but the captive workforce generally survived better than others the brutal outdoor life in swampy, lowland areas. American slavery, Timothy Winegard argues, happened in part because of mosquitoes.

Even while mosquitoes have influenced human beings, human beings have influenced the insects—and that makes for even more terrifying portions of The Mosquito. Quinine was long the favored treatment for malaria, but it gradually grew less effective as the disease mutated, until the World Health Organization dropped it as the first recommended treatment in 2006. The mid-20th-century use of Atabrine has also faded. Deaths from mosquito-borne diseases have diminished, but they are still significant, and mosquitoes retain the potential to distribute new strains and even new diseases. Our medicines seem to remain effective for limited times.

Draining stagnant pools of water has helped lower mortality rates. Wide scattering of DDT proved the most effective weapon ever deployed in humanity's battle against mosquitoes, but Winegard suggests that even if we were once again willing to allow its environmental effects, DDT does not work as well as it once did. Humans have evolved in the mosquito wars, but so have the mosquitoes.

Gene editing seems to hold the greatest promise for eliminating the ability of the various bloodsucking species to carry diseases—or even to eradicate the most dangerous kinds of mosquitoes. But Winegard can't quite bring himself to embrace the idea. Tampering with genetics, he thinks, may open up a set of worse problems, beginning with the possibility that we will end up causing the evolution of even more deadly species of parasites.

And so the war goes on. That buzz you hear in the late summer? It is the drone of fighters diving down to inflict their damage in humanity's longest lasting and most costly battle. A battle we've been fighting since the beginning.

Published under: Book reviews