The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator Hardcover – January 1, 2019
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Timothy Winegard’s brand new The Mosquito is a great addition to the realm of microhistory in a couple of different ways. First, it’s surprising that this book has not already been written, considering the popularity of microhistory and the importance of mosquitoes in world history, as Winegard deftly explains in the book. Also, there is simply a great wealth of historical information in this book, all told through the lens of the mosquito but branching out in many surprising directions. I have not thought about mosquitoes the same way since reading this book, and that is part of the point. I don’t even remember Kurlansky’s Milk! affecting me in quite the same way. However (and this is a big “however” that I will deal with in detail below), I found several historical assertions or bits of information in The Mosquito that were either overstated or flat incorrect. This has really colored my perception of the book, and it has something I have been sifting through mentally for weeks now.
But first, the good. Winegard is a skilled writer that knows how to weave a good historical narrative. He also makes a great case for his main thesis, which is essentially that the mosquito, a tiny insect that can be swatted in an instant, might have had the greatest influence on world history of any non-human entity. Winegard states that some researchers have estimated mosquitoes are responsible for the death of almost half the humans that have ever lived. Even as diseases like malaria and yellow fever have either disappeared or been isolated to certain world regions, mosquitoes kill more humans per year than any other being, including other humans (if you, like Winegard, don’t count abortions, but I digress).
Winegard weaves the story of the mosquito through all* of world history, from speculation about whether mosquitos were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs to modern attempts to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases. The breadth of time covered is outstanding, considering the speculative nature of the subject as you go further back in history. Winegard is not afraid to speculate and give an idea of where the scholarship is on a specific question, like what killed the dinosaurs or the positive effects of the marshes on Ancient Rome’s defensive capabilities. He even has a very interesting theory about how mosquitoes aided in the spread of Christianity because the religion “preached care for the sick as a recognized Christian duty.” This analysis of the mosquito from every angle and its effect on several major movements and developments in world history makes The Mosquito a very useful source for anyone interested in history.
*(“All” is more a reference to the time periods the book covers and not the regions of the world. The Mosquito is very focused on Western civilization to the detriment of almost any discussion of Africa or Asia. There is a 10-page chapter on the Mongols, but that’s it. I got excited when one page had an illustration of Japanese treatments for mosquito-borne diseases, but there was no mention of Japan on that page or anywhere else in the book. However, I am willing to give Winegard a slight pass on the Eurocentric nature of the book because I’m sure it is more difficult to work with non-Western sources of this nature and he is writing a mass-market history book, not an academic one. I would have just loved to see China, India, Japan, or any African country get a little bit of love.)
One specific positive of Winegard’s book is his writing style. He is able to tell stories well and injects humor often in order to make his points. One example sticks out to me, when writing about Herodotus’ narrative of Egyptian treatments for malaria:
(Herodotus) also reveals that the prevailing Egyptian practice for treating malarial fevers was to bathe in fresh human urine. Having never contracted malaria, I can only assume that its symptoms are so unbearably severe that a pampering soak in sparkling, steaming urine issuing from your thoughtful and upstanding servants is worth a shot for some well-deserved relief.
Not only can that excerpt be laugh-out-loud funny depending on your style of humor, but the words he uses are evocative and almost disturbing, which is a good thing when you are describing the horrific things Winegard relays in The Mosquito.
For all these reasons, I wanted to love The Mosquito. And part of me did. But I had some serious problems with multiple portions of Winegard’s historical examples and analyses. So here comes the negativity.
I was rolling along very happily in the book until I reached the chapter on mosquitoes and the development of Christianity. Winegard makes several great points, including one about how Constantine’s decree did not make Christianity the official religion but instead simply proclaimed religious toleration for Christianity. But then he makes statement that is simply and completely incorrect. He writes:
In 325, Constantine went one step further at the Council of Nicaea. To placate the adherents of the diverse and assorted polytheistic and Christian factions, and end religious purges, he blended their beliefs into one faith. Constantine ratified the Nicene Creed and the concept of the Holy Trinity, opening the doors for the compilation of the current Bible and modern Christian doctrine.
OK. This lights a fire under me specifically, but let’s look at it factually. This connection between Christianity and polytheistic factions in Europe is pointed out often, and no doubt some syncretism occurred in areas large and small. Christian practices incorporated polytheistic practices all over Europe, the most obvious of which is seen in Western Christmas traditions, but syncretism between Christianity and European polytheism did not ever reach the level of universal church doctrine. Councils like Nicaea were convened to ensure this. Both points Winegard makes here, about the Biblical canon and the Trinity, are listed under “Misconceptions” in the Council of Nicaea article on Wikipedia. (Yes, I know, Wikipedia is not a great source for research, but major articles are reliable and it is a good jumping off point for research. If Winegard had consulted Wikipedia at all instead of whatever sources he is spuriously using here, he would have seen sources to rebut his narrative and would not have made this mistake.)The Biblical canon had, essentially but not officially, been formed far before the Council of Nicaea, and the source of the misconception that it was formed at Nicaea is a pseudo-historical account by Voltaire. And, although the doctrine of the Trinity was formally put forward by Christians at least as early as the second century, it was not officially decided upon in the Catholic Church until after Nicaea and as far as we know the Trinity was not discussed at Nicaea. The focus instead was on the deity of Christ.
A mistake in one excerpt isn’t a huge deal. Then, in the aforementioned chapter on the Mongols, Winegard mentions that they had begun to conquer large swaths of eastern Europe and infers that mosquitoes were a major reason that the Mongols failed to conquer western Europe. He makes no allusion to the real reason they turned back: Ogedei Khan died, and there was a struggle for power, so Batu and his army abandoned the war in order to join the struggle to elect a successor back in the empire’s center. Could mosquito-borne diseases be a reason that they never returned? Possibly. But the lack of detail hurts the credibility of Winegard’s narrative.
Then I encountered a very problematic passage that made me rethink a lot of what Winegard has to say. In the chapter on the American Revolution, he makes this statement:
In December 1773, shortly after the ratification of the Tea Act, a strategic yet spiteful band of the Sons of Liberty disguised only in blankets and lampblack (not in the mythical Mohawk Indian regalia commonly portrayed) heaved 342 chests containing 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor during their Tea Party.
Wait, the colonists weren’t dressed as Mohawks like I’ve heard for my entire life? This is big news, so I looked for a source. None in the notes in the back of the book. Google is up next. Can’t find anything. I can literally find no source to back up Winegard’s American-history-altering statement. Usually you can find a source on the internet that says anything, you just have to weigh competing sources to find the most likely answer. Not in this case. It’s possible I can’t find whatever source he is referencing here, but everything I could find upholds the fact that some of the Sons of Liberty were wearing Indian garb. Not all of them, and not all in full native headdresses as commonly portrayed, but definitely in Indian dress. (Hey look, I’m actually including a link to my source to back up what I’m saying, and the source includes quotes from actual eyewitnesses to the event.) I welcome Winegard’s rebuttal and would love to see his sourcing, but this really bothered me.
After the Boston Tea Party sourcing fiasco, I went back to a couple other things that stood out to me earlier in the book, specifically a story about Alexander the Great’s death. Winegard explained the scholarship around Alexander’s death as coming around to the fact that he died of malaria (a mosquito-borne disease), but my little bit of research turned up that still no one is sure of the cause, and a new study suggests a completely new cause and a date of death six days later than previously thought.
So this series of issues bothers me for two major reasons: 1) Winegard shows a tendency toward the earth-shattering cynical view that disregards what years of scholarship portray. While this is sometimes healthy and something I even tend toward at times, it becomes dangerous when the breadth of research doesn’t support and you don’t give any source for what you are saying. That means no one can check your facts and they just have to take your word for it. 2) These major factual errors mean it is difficult to believe anything surprising that is said in the 400+ pages of this book. You have to do the work to double-check, as I did many times but not all the time, in order to know if a statement is true or if it is poorly-sourced.
I’ve been wrestling with what to do with The Mosquito for weeks now. I really do think a lot of it is beneficial to an understanding of world history, as Winegard makes very good arguments that the mosquito is much, much more important to an understanding of major conflicts and world historical developments than it is given credit for. However, I cannot overlook the factual errors and misrepresentations within the text. Someone who knows world history better than me could probably find even more, and as a mass-market history book I don’t think most people would see the errors and question some of them. We will probably have people running around saying that the Sons of Liberty didn’t wear Indian garb to the Boston Tea Party, and that is just not true. But they’ll think it is because they read it in a history book from a major publisher. I hope someone else writes this book or there is a second edition after it is read and revised by several historians. But in its current form, I won’t recommend it to my students and I can’t recommend it to you, reader, unless you want to do the work of checking everything that doesn’t seem right.
I’m always a take-the-meat-and-spit-out-the-bones person, but sometimes the danger of getting hurt by the bones of “alternative facts” outweighs the benefit of the meat.
I received this book as an eARC courtesy of Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley, but obviously my opinions are my own.
In between, there is a litany of descriptions of the great wars of the Western world with the repeated refrain that the winning side was aided by General Mosquito. We hear about the Peloponnesian war, the Punic conflicts, the Crusades, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars, the war in Vietnam...all of this seemingly oblivious to the fact that history does not proceed towards modern America as its apex. Even more, the fact that wars are only a part of human history is similarly ignored.
If the author could have simply stuck to describing the effect of mosquitos in these conflicts it would have been a much shorter book. Instead, he retells all of this from a mile high perspective. It’s not so much that he gets things wrong as that it’s impossible to do justice to three thousand years of history in a book ostensibly devoted to another topic.
What could have been a genuinely fascinating look into the effect of mosquitos on human history turns into a history of Western conflicts. Not recommended unless you are a devotee of military history.
Top international reviews
The author seamlessly ties human evolution, human history, etc and how we were all influenced down through the millennia by the annoying, diseased, lowly mosquito.
After reading this book....
I'll shall have a bit more grudging respect for the annoying "skeeter" when I next whack it into oblivion
No es un libro de ciencia que trate sobre los descubrimientos epidemiológicos más recientes. Es un libro de historia.
Recomendado para los amantes de la historia y de nuevas perspectivas.