Historian Timothy C. Winegard's 'The Mosquito' a fascinating history of a small but mighty menaceHistorians in the News
tags: books, The Mosquito, Timothy Winegard
If your summertime activity includes slapping away noisy insects while enjoying a fat beach book, you might relate to Timothy C. Winegard’s entertainingly educational new opus, "The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator” (Dutton, 496 pp., ★★★½ out of four stars).
Winegard’s study marshals scientific facts and millennia of historical background about the droning pest we all encounter and which has killed nearly half of all human beings who’ve ever lived, profoundly altering our world along its bloodsucking way. Transmitting often lethal diseases including malaria, yellow fever, West Nile and Zika, the mosquito has been sprayed, sequestered and, as always, slapped at, yet she has prevailed (only females of the species bite), inflicting untold – and now, thanks to Winegard, told – damage.
Winegard, a professor of history and political science with a PhD from the University of Oxford, informs us humanity is much to blame for the insect’s resilience, citing “the relatively recent shift from small hunter-gatherer clan-based cultures to larger densely populated settled societies based upon the domestication of plants and animals during the Agricultural Revolution.” This flowering of civilization only expanded the insect’s living space. Clearing land and adding irrigation provided new waterways that maximized the mosquito’s ability to spawn.
Loaded with statistics and, often, scientific jargon that may slow the less committed reader, the book nonetheless charts some remarkable relationships. For example, the sickle cell blood trait that can afflict people of African heritage provides hereditary immunity to malaria – basically, the disease can’t fasten to the sickle-shaped blood cell. Thus, around 8000 B.C., the Bantu plantain and yam farmers of West Africa, “armed with their immunological advantage and iron weapons, slashed south and east across Africa,” dominating non-immune populations while the chemicals released by yams, it turns out, reinforce their genetic resistance to malaria.
Indeed, Winegard’s research establishes malaria as civilization’s most influential disease, playing a key role in the fall of Rome, the Crusades, the American Revolution and the Vietnam war, felling soldiers exposed to swamp-bred mosquito hordes. Alexander the Great succumbed to mosquito-borne sickness, while the malarial scourge was as much a player in the American Civil War as cannon and rifle fire.
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