The Deadliest Hunter of Humans on the Planet? The Mosquito
In this introduction to his book “The Mosquito,” Timothy C. Winegard profiles the creature that has killed the most people in history, changed the course of war and empire, and survived every attempt to wipe it out.
We are at war with the mosquito.
A swarming and consuming army of 110 trillion enemy mosquitoes patrols every inch of the globe save Antarctica, Iceland, the Seychelles, and a handful of French Polynesian micro-islands.
The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least 15 lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities. In fact, our defense budget for personal shields, sprays, and other deterrents to stymie her unrelenting raids has a rapidly rising annual revenue of $11 billion.
And yet, her deadly offensive campaigns and crimes against humanity continue with reckless abandon. While our counterattacks are reducing the number of annual casualties she perpetrates, the mosquito remains the deadliest hunter of human beings on the planet. Last year she slaughtered only 830,000 people. We sensible and wise Homo sapiens occupied the runner-up #2 spot, slaying 580,000 of our own species.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed nearly $4 billion to mosquito research since its creation in 2000, releases an annual report that identifies the animals most lethal to humans. The contest is not even close. The heavyweight champion, and our apex predator in perpetuity, is the mosquito. Since 2000, the annual average number of human deaths caused by the mosquito has hovered around 2 million. We come in a distant second at 475,000, followed by snakes (50,000), dogs and sand flies (25,000 each), the tsetse fly, and the assassin or kissing bug (10,000 each). The fierce killers of lore and Hollywood celebrity appear much further down our list. The crocodile is ranked #10 with 1,000 annual deaths. Next on the list are hippos with 500, and elephants and lions with 100 fatalities each. The much-slandered shark and wolf share the #15 position, killing an average of ten people per annum.*
The mosquito has killed more people than any other cause of death in human history. Statistical extrapolation situates mosquito-inflicted deaths approaching half of all humans that have ever lived. In plain numbers, the mosquito has dispatched an estimated 52 billion people from a total of 108 billion throughout our relatively brief 200,000-year existence.*
Yet, the mosquito does not directly harm anyone. It is the toxic and highly evolved diseases she transmits that cause an endless barrage of desolation and death. Without her, however, these sinister pathogens could not be transferred or vectored to humans nor continue their cyclical contagion. In fact, without her, these diseases would not exist at all. You cannot have one without the other.
The nefarious mosquito, roughly the size and weight of a grape seed, would be as innocuous as a generic ant or housefly and you would not be reading this. After all, her dominion of death would be erased from the historical record and I would have no wild and remarkable tales to tell. Imagine for a moment a world without deadly mosquitoes or any mosquitoes for that matter? Our history and the world we know, or think we know, would be completely unrecognizable. We might as well live on a foreign planet in a galaxy far, far away.
As the pinnacle purveyor of our extermination, the mosquito has consistently been at the front lines of history as the grim reaper, the harvester of human populations, and the ultimate agent of historical change. She has played a greater role in shaping our story than any other animal with which we share our global village. Within these bloody and disease-plagued pages, you will embark on a chronological mosquito-tormented journey through our tangled communal history. Karl Marx recognized in 1852 that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” It was the steadfast and insatiable mosquito that manipulated and determined our destiny. “It is perhaps a rude blow to the amour propre of our species,” writes acclaimed University of Georgetown history professor J. R. McNeill, “to think that lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses can shape our international affairs. But they can.” We tend to forget that history is not the artifact of inevitability.
A common theme throughout this story is the interplay between war, politics, travel, trade, and the changing patterns of human land use and natural climate. The mosquito does not exist in a vacuum, and her global ascendancy was created by corresponding historical events both naturally and socially induced.
Our relatively short human journey from our first steps in and out of Africa to our global historical trails is the result of a coevolutionary marriage between society and nature. We as humans have played a large role in the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases through population migrations (involuntary or otherwise), densities, and pressures. Historically, our domestication of plants and animals (which are reservoirs of disease), advancements in agriculture, deforestation, climate change (natural and artificially encouraged), and global war, trade, and travel have all played a part in nurturing the ideal ecologies for the proliferation of mosquito-borne illnesses.
Historians, journalists, and modern memories, however, find pestilence and disease rather dull, when compared to war, conquest, and national supermen, most often legendary military leaders. The literary record has been tainted by attributing the fates of empires and nations, the outcome of pivotal wars, and the bending of historical events to individual rulers, to specific generals, or to the larger concerns of human agencies such as politics, religion, and economics.
The mosquito has been written off as a sidelined spectator, rather than an active agent within the ongoing processes of civilization. In doing so, she has been defamed by this slanderous exclusion of her enduring influence and impact in changing the course of history. Mosquitoes and her diseases that have accompanied traders, travelers, soldiers, and settlers around the world have been far more lethal than any man-made weapons or inventions. The mosquito has ambushed humankind with unmitigated fury since time immemorial and scratched her indelible mark on the modern world order.
Mercenary mosquitoes mustered armies of pestilence and stalked battlefields across the globe, often deciding the outcome of game-changing wars. Time and time again, the mosquito laid waste to the greatest armies of her generations. To borrow from acclaimed author Jared Diamond, the endless shelves of military history books and Hollywood fanfare lionizing famed generals distort the ego-deflating truth: Mosquito-borne disease proved far deadlier than manpower, materials, or the minds of the most brilliant generals.
It is worth remembering, as we navigate the trenches and tour historic theaters of war, that a sick soldier is more taxing to the military machine than a dead one. Not only do they need to be replaced but they also continue to consume valuable resources. During our warring existence, mosquito-borne diseases have been prolific battlefield burdens and killers.
Our immune systems are finely tuned to our local environments. Our curiosity, greed, invention, arrogance, and blatant aggression thrust germs into the global whirlwind of historical events. Mosquitoes do not respect international borders—walls or no walls. Marching armies, inquisitive explorers, and land-hungry colonists (and their African slaves) brought new diseases to distant lands, but, on the other hand, were also brought to their knees by the microorganisms in the foreign lands they intended to conquer.
As the mosquito transformed the landscapes of civilization, humans were unwittingly required to respond to her piercing universal projection of power. After all, the biting truth is that more than any other external participant, the mosquito, as our deadliest predator, drove the events of human history to create our present reality.
I think I can safely say that most of you reading this have one thing in common—a genuine hatred for mosquitoes. Bashing mosquitoes is a universal pastime and has been since the dawn of humanity. Across the ages, from our hominid ancestral evolution in Africa to the present day, we have been locked in an unsurpassed life-or-death struggle for survival with the not-so-simple mosquito. In this lopsided battle and unequal balance of power, historically, we did not stand a chance. Through evolutionary adaptation, our dogged and deadly archnemesis has repeatedly circumvented our efforts of extermination to continue her feverish uninterrupted feeding and her undefeated reign of terror. The mosquito remains the destroyer of worlds and the preeminent and globally distinguished killer of humankind.
Our war with the mosquito is the war of our world.
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 is the author of The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. He 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.