This blue planet of ours is a wet one — swampy, boggy and sweltering. For millions of years, mighty beasts like the dinosaurs thrived in tropical muck, and alongside them were mosquitoes, tiny bloodthirsty nuisances looking much like they do today, weakening once-fierce creatures with so many parasites, bacteria and viruses.
Such is the eponymous villain buzzing throughout Timothy C. Winegard’s “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.” The mosquito is no mere backyard annoyance to be swatted away. It’s a flying general that has waged war against every species arrogant enough to climb to the top of the food chain. Though humans are still standing, Winegard’s book is a sprawling account of way too many lost battles, from ancient times to the present day.
For starters, Winegard argues that malaria took down King Tut circa 1323 BC, and that ancient Rome would never have become a forceful presence had it not been surrounded by the Pontine Marshes, 310 mosquito-riddled square miles of “fear and horror” that discouraged invaders.
He contends that the Magna Carta was ultimately signed because Westerners couldn’t survive the mosquitoes in the Mediterranean. European slave traders came to prefer Africans because of their immunity to the mosquito-borne diseases plaguing the New World. And those two vanished settlements in the swampy American South, Jamestown and Roanoke? I’m sure you can guess what Winegard blames for their demise.
While the mosquito was changing human history, it also was changing some human bodies too. In a riveting chapter, Winegard relays the story of Ryan Clark Jr., a starting safety in the NFL. “Midway through the season, he and the [Pittsburgh] Steelers headed to Denver to play the Broncos and lost in a heartbreaker — brought down by a last-minute field goal. A disheartened Clark boarded the plane for the long flight home. Just before takeoff, he experienced an acute stabbing pain under his left ribs.” The pain was so intense that he had to be rushed to a hospital for terrifying complications from sickle-cell disease.
Seventy percent of the NFL’s players are African American and therefore potential carriers of the sickle-cell trait. This genetic mutation, which turns round red blood cells into a crescent (or sickle) shape, first affected farmers on the Niger River delta nearly 8,000 years ago as a defense against mosquitoes. (Parasites harboring a brutal strain of malaria can’t stick to the unusual shape.) Sickle cell also prevents oxygen from reaching vital organs — and in Denver’s high altitude, Clark’s spleen and gallbladder withered. He survived, but 100,000 Americans struggle with the disease each year.
The only thing more toxic than the mosquito may be our attempts to fight it off. Winegard noted that quinine was used to battle mosquito-borne malaria for years but that became less and less effective. By World War II, soldiers instead were given atabrine to ward off the effects of mosquito-born diseases, which sort of worked but also caused yellowing of the skin, vomiting, diarrhea and permanent psychosis. Mosquitoes have evolved to defeat pretty much every weapon we’ve thrown their way. Even DDT, which temporarily stamped out malaria-carrying mosquitoes in numerous nations (while giving us cancer and poisoning the environment) is no longer effective.
Desperate for a cure, Nazi Germany tested antimalarial drugs on those imprisoned at Dachau during World War II; out of 1,000 involuntary test subjects, 400 died of either the drugs they were given or mosquito-derived illnesses. Winegard adds that even Americans performed dangerous antimalarial experiments on inmates as late as the 1960s.
Today, we’re left with “superbug”-laden mosquitoes, and the only treatments that seem to work are both exorbitantly expensive and need constant improvement to keep up with the pests and the many diseases they carry.
Who will win this battle? It would be easy to come away from Winegard’s gripping book thinking we might as well give up now. After all, “Ravenous mosquito swarms … can drain half the blood from an adult human in just two hours,” he writes. Someone still dies from malaria every 30 seconds worldwide, and there are plenty of other diseases to worry about: Zika, dengue fever, yellow fever and more. Winegard, who teaches at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, recalls colleagues and students left paralyzed after being infected by West Nile virus in their own backyards.
Yet the annual death toll from mosquito-borne diseases is down to “only” 830,000 people (from 2 million just a couple years ago) due to medical advances. The Gates Foundation is looking into promising solutions like gene-editing, which won’t kill mosquitoes or the diseases they carry but instead will prevent them from picking them up in the first place.
Winegard warns of the risks of tampering with genetics — chief among them, what if we screw up something else? Yet even in the face of a warming planet, Winegard seems to think humans stand a chance, if we keep in mind a quote often falsely attributed to Darwin but actually penned by a professor writing about Darwin’s work in the ’60s: “It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent. … It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
“The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator”
Timothy C. Winegard
Dutton: 496 pp., $28
Wudel’s writing has been published in McSweeney’s, Tin House and more. She was previously the deputy editor of Good Magazine and Upworthy.