It is easy to get the impression that humanity has entered a new era. It now seems that all the world’s troubles and glitches can be solved with cutting-edge science or a reboot from state-of-the-art technology. Everyday miraculous breakthroughs are achieved by brilliant minds across the vast oceans of academia. Everything is at our fingertips and anything seems possible. Within our many enterprises of discovery, we are exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life-forms on our sphere and beyond, and boldly navigating the unknown frontiers of space. We talk about populating other planets as though it is just a matter of time.
The stirring visions and rousing horizons of the heroes and legendary figures of history and the curious conquistadors of colonization, including Alexander the Great, Leif Erikson, Genghis Khan, Columbus, Magellan, Raleigh, and Drake, were no different. They also encountered the foreign fringes of Alexander’s limitless “ends of the world.” During their inquisitive ages of antiquity, as in our own, the trajectory of progress appeared nearly infinite. Even the great, narcissistic genius Sir Isaac Newton gravitated toward the notion that if we “have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
To this, Friedrich Nietzsche attached his own illumination, declaring that progress is made possible only by “each giant calling to his brother through the desolate intervals of time.” We have advanced to border on, and push the boundaries of, what now appears to be the infinite. It is no longer considered irrational or a lamp-rubbed “I dream of genie” wish to talk about earthly immortality. In our modern reasoning and worldview, “when” has supplanted “if.”
Yet, within the whirling, dizzying technologically twittering world around us, the humble mosquito reminds us that in many ways, we are not all that different from Lucy and our hominid ancestors or our African Homo sapiens progenitors. They, too, were embroiled in a war for survival with the mosquito and set us on our collision course with our deadliest historical predator.
Indeed, the more the modern world speeds up, the more it replicates those early, accidental encounters between humans, such as our Bantu yam farmers, and deadly mosquitoes. As humans migrated or were forced out of Africa, deadly pathogens, including mosquito-borne disease, tagged along.
Over time, our modes of transportation and disease transference broadened from solely our feet to include beasts of burden, ships, wagons, and planes, trains, and automobiles. With these technological advancements we have merely quickened the pace of our first stumbling steps and of the broader dissemination of disease.
While the mediums of microorganism conveyance may have changed, the spread of contagion remains relatively the same, except now the travel time has been drastically reduced and diseases are delivered from door to door in hours instead of months and years, or even thousands of years in the case of early human-disease migration and settlement patterns.
As paleopathologist Ethne Barnes observes: “Deadly viruses are being teased out of their slumbering isolation as wars, famine, and greed bring people into contact with them in greater numbers. Migrations and air travel bring people into contact with microbes that they have never encountered before.”
In 2005, for instance, 2.1 billion passengers flew the friendly skies. Five years later, the number of air travelers increased to 2.7 billion and ballooned to 3.6 billion by 2015. Global airports processed 4.3 billion passengers in 2018, a number expected to rise to 4.6 billion in 2019.
A complimentary choice of diseases, including SARS, swine and bird flus, Ebola, and our mosquito-borne maladies as demonstrated by West Nile and Zika, passes through airport security to globe-trot across the planet with an increasing number of passengers to an increasing number of destinations on a cyclical, never-ending, all-expenses-paid world tour.
Whether hitchhiking or freight hopping on (or in) the earliest human migrants leaving Africa, on a slave ship bound for the Americas courtesy of the Columbian Exchange, or on a 747 flight or Airbus A380, not much has really changed. Disease is enduring and embedded human luggage.
Ever since 1798 when Thomas Malthus postulated the existence of ecologically imposed limits to human demographics (or perhaps as early as 81–96 CE when John of Patmos penned his apocalyptic Revelation and its pale horse of Armageddon), paranoid doomsday promoters and self-proclaimed oracles have been predicting Malthusian plagues and famines, only to see the supposedly intractable limits to population growth pushed back by technology. And yet, something seems different this time. There were roughly a billion people on the planet when Malthus was writing (more than twofold what it had been consistently for the previous 2,000 years).
Today, the proliferating and breeding global population has more than doubled since 1970, to 7.7 billion Homo sapiens. If you are still living by 2055, your global superbug-infested neighbors will be in the range of 10 to 11 million. As our numbers increase, our resources diminish in relation.
Given that the mosquito is far and away our biggest killer, there are many that argue along lines against trying to eradicate mosquito-borne disease.
Both humans and mosquitoes are part of the global ecology and biosphere, existing within a natural and animate system of checks and balances. Creating a disturbance in the force by eradicating our top predator is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette. From a Malthusian worldview, given the limitations and sustainability of resources, the repercussions of unbridled human population growth might well lead to unimaginable suffering, starvation, disease, and catastrophic death—a Malthusian check by and of itself.
Alternatively, if it is equality and justice for all we are seeking, it is hard not to appreciate the urgent logic of the counterargument—the unconditional and absolute eradication of the mosquito and her diseases from the face of the earth. Currently, four billion people in 108 countries around the world are at risk from mosquito-borne disease. As our ancestors can attest, our battle with the mosquito has always been a matter of life and death.
At this moment, with disease vectors crisscrossing the globe at record rates, even as our species overshoots the ecological carrying capacity of the planet, it’s beginning to look as though our history-shaping confrontation with the mosquito is coming to a head.
Excerpted from the book The Mosquito a Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard. Copyright © 2019 by Timothy C. Winegard. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Dr. Timothy C. Winegard holds a PhD from the University of Oxford and is a professor of history and political science at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. Winegard served as an officer with the Canadian and British Forces, has lectured on CSPAN, and has appeared on televised roundtables. He is internationally published, including his four previous books, in the fields of both military history and indigenous studies.
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own.