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Catch a Buzz With Two New Books About Bugs

Sverdrup-Thygeson urges us to “talk nicely about bugs” — but if there’s one insect that deserves our scorn, it’s the mosquito.

Unlike other insects, mosquitoes don’t pollinate plants or break down waste. Contrary to popular belief (even Sverdrup-Thygeson falls into this trap), they’re not a major, irreplaceable food source for other animals, either. In fact, as Timothy Winegard explains in his wide-ranging “The Mosquito,” about the only thing they’re good for is wreaking havoc.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animal on earth, and the competition isn’t even close. Since 2000, they’ve killed an average of almost two million people yearly, vastly more than snakes (50,000), dogs (25,000), crocodiles (1,000), lions (100) and sharks (10) combined. In fact, mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria, have killed nearly half of all 108 billion human beings who’ve ever lived.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Mosquito.” ]

Winegard is a historian, not a scientist (he teaches at Colorado Mesa University), and whereas Sverdrup-Thygeson’s book flits from topic to topic like a bee in an orchard, “The Mosquito” is more systematic. Winegard marches forward from antiquity to the modern day, showing how mosquitoes have repeatedly upended history. “More than any other external participant,” he writes, “the mosquito, as our deadliest predator, drove the events of human history to create our present reality.”

Topics covered include Alexander the Great’s campaigns, the rise of Christianity, the African slave trade, the Panama Canal, apartheid, and the Haitian and American Revolutions. In fact, much as Mozambique honors the AK-47 on its flag, according to Winegard’s telling, the United States and Haiti should probably honor mosquitoes on theirs. The bugs were that decisive in winning independence, devastating the invading European troops who (unlike native-born rebels) lacked much disease resistance. It’s not guns, germs and steel here — it’s all germs.

And we’re still dealing with the fallout of mosquitoes today. In Italy, China and the United States, the northern half of each country has long dominated the economy, while the southern half lagged. Why? Winegard argues that the warmer southern lands were historically prone to malaria, which killed many people and sapped the strength of survivors. Even in places where we’ve eliminated malaria today, those age-old patterns persist.

As these examples show, Winegard isn’t afraid of sweeping explanations, but his enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him. One chapter unpacks the American Civil War, noting that disease caused nearly two-thirds of Union deaths and three-quarters of Confederacy deaths. But dysentery, pneumonia and typhus actually killed far more people than mosquito-borne diseases during the conflict. Not every last event in history traces back to bugs.

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