Mosquito by Timothy Winegard

Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator     By Timothy Winegard Dutton, 2019

The mosquito has made headlines in the last couple of years as being responsible for spreading the Zika virus, but that virus was just the latest item in the mosquito’s arsenal of viruses and parasites – an arsenal which it has been responsible for the deaths of almost half of all humans who have ever lived. In The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator, author Timothy C. Winegard seeks to show the impact that the death and suffering spread by mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease has had on human history.

The book begins by exploring the mosquito’s evolution and how the females of the genus Anopheles and Aedes (the males do not bite) have been killing humans by spreading diseases for millennia. The chief of these diseases has been malaria, which “has careened violently across the landscape of world history leaving death and suffering in its wake.” Over time, humans evolved genetic defenses against malaria such as sickle cell and Duffy negativity which came with their own negative effects on our health. As Winegard moves on to describe the effects mosquito-borne diseases have had on the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Genghis Khan in the past and in the modern era those of the American and Haitian Revolution, the Civil War and the outcome of the invasion of Cuba among others, the reader can’t help but be impressed by how this tiny bug “proved far deadlier than manpower, materials or the minds of brilliant generals.” 

Winegard also details the role of mosquito-borne diseases in colonization by Europeans around the world, especially the Americas. Aided by human movement during the Columbian Exchange after 1492, Anopheles and Aedes along with malaria and yellow fever made their way to the Americas, devastating indigenous populations. Europeans brought Africans to the Americas to perform slave labor because they were less likely to die from malaria and yellow fever due to their exposure to these diseases in their native lands. It is amazing to think that without mosquitoes being vectors for these diseases, perhaps millions of Africans may never have experienced the horrors of the Middle Passage or plantation slavery.  

The author also shows humanity’s millennia-long struggle to find relief from from mosquitoes. Even though we tried everything from coffee to urine to fight the insects and their diseases, it wasn’t until the late 19th century with “final moves of the last global imperial scramble that the mosquito was finally unmasked” and we discovered its role in transmitting disease. From quinine and DDT, we have moved on to Artemisinin and vaccines made possible by the work of Bill Gates, WHO and other research organizations. With each new attempt to fight mosquitoes and malaria, they have evolved to meet our challenges, rendering many of our efforts ineffective even if we experienced some initial success. With the invention of CRISPR technology, it is now possible to send the mosquito into extinction. However, Winegard reminds us that while it may seem like a good idea to wipe out what may be our greatest natural enemy, there are still some questions about how to do it – and whether or not it should be done at all.

This book is well-suited for those who enjoy popular history, with Winegard writing an engaging account of the mosquito’s impact on the broader world. He endeavors to make the book relatable by referencing movies such as A Bug’s Life and Jurassic Park or by relating the story of NFL player Ryan Clark Jr to explain the pros and cons of sickle cell. There is also a touch of humor in his writing: “Please don’t feel singled out, special or view yourself as the chosen one. She [the mosquito] bites everyone.” However, there are times when I felt like I was coming to the end of a chapter because it read like it was wrapping up only for me to find pages of new information before the chapter’s end - almost as if I were reading a mid-chapter summary. But Winegard has written a generally fascinating account of humanity’s deadly relationship with the mosquito, and we are reminded that the mosquito is just as much a threat today as it was in the past. After finishing this book, the reader’s feelings of disgust toward the mosquito will be reinforced but perhaps also accompanied by a new begrudging respect for the small but without a doubt deadliest predator of the human species.

—Justin Staley is a young professional who enjoys reading and sharing his love for books through his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN_6Vf8AF0C_7AqQ811O2Ug