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A History Of The Mosquito, 'Our Deadliest Predator'


Timothy Winegard's new book is about a small, biting, annoying insect that has also had an enormous impact on humans. "The Mosquito" tells the story of what Winegard calls our deadliest predator. There are roughly 110 trillion of them, and they carry more than 15 lethal diseases. Winegard writes that mosquitoes have killed half of all the humans that ever lived and may have also played a role in the destruction of the dinosaurs. I started by asking Winegard what got him interested in the insect.

TIMOTHY WINEGARD: My teaching portfolio at Colorado Mesa University here in Grand Junction - it's quite diverse from Western civilization to American history to Indigenous studies. And just kind of leafing through all the textbooks and all the thousands of books that I read, I kind of look at history like a puzzle. And there was just a few pieces of the puzzle missing. And I had talked to my dad after I finished my last book, and he's an emergency physician. And we started talking about diseases, and malaria kind of kept coming back and coming back. And on a fateful grocery shopping trip to the local Safeway, I saw a giant advertisement billboard for Deep Woods OFF!. And then it - everything just kind of clicked together, and it was a no-brainer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really? It just occurred to you then and there that the thing that you had been missing in all these historical texts is the role of the mosquito?

WINEGARD: Well, it was a - more of a longer process than that, but I think we had been putting more pieces in the puzzle - between talking to my dad and other historians - to create a picture. And then, once I started into the preliminary research, it became apparent that the mosquito has been with us and has been a nuisance and a killer throughout our human journey and human odyssey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when you delved into this history, you found some I think pretty disturbing information. The mosquito is deadlier than Genghis Kahn and Stalin. She is a mass murderer.

WINEGARD: A lot of the research that I read, yes. There's been some statistical extrapolation that says roughly half of human beings that have ever lived - and we think that's roughly 108 billion - have succumb to mosquito-borne disease, primarily malaria because it predominately kills children under 5. And in - our ancestral birthplace is in Africa as human beings. It's also the ancestral birthplace of yellow fever and the various malarias.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it has this role in particular historical events that perhaps others might not have seen. For example, the mosquito helped with the spread of Christianity. Can you explain?

WINEGARD: Well, Christianity obviously was a slow process. And for, you know, the first 200, 300 years, Christianity was a very small persecuted faith. And early Christians prided themselves on - it was a duty to heal and aid the sick. So in Rome, which is surrounded by the Pontine Marshes, which were a malarial hotbed, you know, as a healing faith, Christianity attracted a lot of converts based on the fact that malaria was endemic around Rome and the Pontine Marshes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the thing that most surprised you when you were researching your book?

WINEGARD: Mosquitoes of Panama actually ended up with Scotland losing their independence. Long story short, Scotland, which was just coming out of a famine and a recession, wanted to start its own colonies in the Americas. And the original 1,200 or so settlers were just torn to shreds by mosquitoes. And the colony floundered and failed, and Scotland was left in massive debt. So England offered to repay the Scottish debt if Scotland would forfeit its sovereignty and be annexed to England, creating the Greater Britain, if you will.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write that the mosquito has no purpose other than to propagate her species and perhaps kill humans. So I'm going to bring you up to today now and ask, with the advent of genetic editing tools like CRISPR, can we, should we try to have them all die off?

WINEGARD: The mosquito we don't think serves any purpose. I mean, the males - because they drink nectar - do actually pollinate flowers and plants but not to the extent by comparison, for example, of bees. And they don't ingest waste like other insects. They don't aerate the soil like other insects. And while other animals do eat them, we do not believe they are an indispensable food source for other creatures on the planet.

So one avenue would be to CRISPR mosquitoes in a lab and release them into the wild, whereby that species produces only male, stillborn or infertile offspring, thereby eliminating that species of mosquito. The other avenue that definitely - that is more supported in the research is that we could CRISPR mosquitoes to simply make them harmless by making them incapable of vectoring those diseases thereby bringing down the disease but not the mosquito species itself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has this book and your research made you reprise everything you thought you knew about history?

WINEGARD: For sure. I think we sometimes look - and as I say in the introduction, we sometimes look at history as being driven by human agency, whether that's wars, politics, religion, trade, travel, human migrations. And we forget that, you know, we're only one species on this planet, and we share this planet with a swarm of other animals. And those animals impact our history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Timothy Winegard is a professor of history and political science at Colorado Mesa University. His new book is "The Mosquito." Thank you very much.

WINEGARD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.