BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’ by Timothy C. Winegard

c.2019, Dutton
$28 ($34.95 Canada)
485 pages

A dentist’s drill on “fast.”

Or maybe a string of four-wheelers heading up a hill, or a busted wind-up toy car? Or, or, wait — it’s more like an electric guitar stuck on high C, right by your ear. How else would you describe the whine from the creature you’ll learn about in “The Mosquito” by Timothy C. Winegard?

No doubt about it: we are outnumbered.

There are, says Winegard, more than 100 trillion mosquitoes in the world at any given moment, in every cranny of the planet, “save Antarctica, Iceland, the Seychelles and a handful of French Polynesian micro-islands.” For us, that’s a really bad number: just since the turn of this century, the diseases that mosquitoes carry have caused some two million people to die.

And we can’t do much about it. Neither could the dinosaurs, who were on the mosquito menu millions of years ago. When dinos died by asteroid, mosquitoes merely switched dishes, thereby surviving “to inject death and disease into humanity throughout our history” and to become the number-one killer of humans.

Humans were aware of mosquito-borne diseases at least 5,200 years ago, though they didn’t know that mosquitoes were at fault. Sumerians wrote about malaria, and blamed it on gods; scholars say that the Bible alludes to malaria-as-plague. Greek soldiers were repeatedly laid low by “some form of hemorrhagic fever” spread by mosquitoes, and monsoon rains helped mosquitoes kill 1,500 people during the First Crusade. Winegard says that one of Columbus’s men likely was “person zero” in bringing malaria to the New World, causing “genocide by germs” within groups of indigenous people. In 1647, a Dutch slave ship from West Africa brought yellow fever to Barbados.

Malaria alone, he says, “takes a life every 30 seconds,” although mosquito-borne diseases aren’t the killers they once were. During the Civil War, mosquitoes played a part in the war itself but also in civilian life, alone causing thousands of deaths and millions of dollars in economic damage.

Not until after the war did scientists recognized the culprit …

According to author Timothy C. Winegard, mosquitoes exist specifically to torment you. They serve no other purpose — not as food, not to pollinate, they’re not even pretty to look at. They’re here to bite and reproduce, and if that isn’t enough to make you scratch, then slap your hands on “The Mosquito” and learn more.

Unable to extricate human history from that of the insect, Winegard embraces the connection in this book by following a basic timeline of death and destruction throughout the eons. This is hard history — we learn or are reminded of battles, travels and worst-laid plans of men — but it’s also a story filled with wonder that a creature so small can wreak havoc on beings so big. You almost have to respect that, despite your natural loathing for the critters.

Certainly, history buffs and science lovers will enjoy this book but it’s also a heavier-duty, gee-whiz tale that’s totally absorbing. If you’re ready to learn, look for “The Mosquito.”

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