Timothy Winegard wrote The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.
Timothy Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator is a perfect example of the intriguing subgenre. Microhistory is a relatively new trend that takes a specific subject and tracks it throughout the history of the world. Mark Kurlansky wrote Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and Milk!: A 10,000-year Food Feud. Book Riot has a terrific list of 50 must-read microhistories. A book that loses credibility as you dig deeper is tethered to a terrific subject and stirring information.
The good first. Winegard knows how to make a good historical narrative. His main thesis is 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. According to Winegard, some researchers think that mosquitoes are to blame for half the deaths of humans. Even as diseases like malaria and yellow fever have disappeared or been isolated to certain world regions, mosquitoes kill more humans each year than any other being, including other humans.
The Mosquito is a great addition to the realm of micro history. It is surprising that this book has not yet been written, considering the popularity of micro history and the importance of mosquitoes in world history. There is a lot of historical information in this book, all told through the lens of the mosquito, but branching out in many surprising directions. Since reading this book, I have not thought about mosquitoes the same way. I remember the same thing as you do, affecting me in the same way. Several historical assertions or bits of information in The Mosquito were either overstated or flat incorrect, and this is a big “However” that I will deal with in detail below. This has changed my perception of the book, and I have been sifting through it for weeks.
The book covers time periods but not the regions of the world. The mosquito focuses on Western civilization to the exclusion of any discussion of Africa or Asia. There is only a 10-page chapter on the Mongols. There was an illustration of Japanese treatments for mosquito-borne diseases on one page, but there was no mention of Japan in the rest of the book. Winegard is writing a mass-market history book, not an academic one, so I am willing to give him a slight pass on the Eurocentric nature of the book. I would love to see China, India, Japan, or any African country get some love from the other side.
Winegard weaves the story of the mosquito through all of world history, from speculation about whether mosquitos were responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs to modern attempts to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases. Considering the speculative nature of the subject, the breadth of time covered is outstanding. 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 marsh on Ancient Rome’s defensive capabilities. He believes that mosquitoes aided in the spread of Christianity because the religion preached care for the sick as a recognized Christian duty. The Mosquito is a very useful source for anyone interested in history because of its analysis of the mosquito from every angle and its effect on several major movements.
The practice of bathing in fresh human urine was once used to treat malarial fevers. I can only assume that the symptoms of Malaria are so severe that a soak in sparkling, steaming urine from your servants is worth a shot for some well-deserved relief. Winegard has a writing style that is positive. He makes his points with humor and stories, and is able to tell them well. One example sticks out to me, when I write about the treatments for Malaria in Egypt.
I wanted to love The Mosquito. Part of me did. Winegard had a lot of problems with his historical examples and analyses. The negative comes here. It’s a good thing that the excerpt is laugh-out-loud funny, because the words he uses are evocative and almost disturbing, which is a good thing when you are describing the horrible things Winegard relays in The Mosquito.
Constantine went further at the Council of Nicaea. He blended their beliefs into one faith to appease them and end religious purges. The Nicene Creed and the concept of the Holy Trinity were approved by Constantine, opening the way for the creation of the current Bible and modern Christian doctrine.
The chapter on mosquitoes and the development of Christianity was the one that stopped me. Winegard makes a point about how Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion, but instead proclaimed religious toleration for Christianity. He makes a statement that is completely incorrect. He is writing.
There is a mistake in one excerpt. Winegard theorizes that mosquitoes were a major reason that the Mongols failed to conquer western Europe and that they had begun to conquer large swaths of eastern Europe. Batu and his army abandoned the war in order to join the struggle for power in the empire after the death of Ogedei Khan. Is mosquito-borne diseases a reason that they never returned? Maybe. The lack of detail hurts Winegard’s credibility.
Okay. This causes a fire under me, but let’s look at it in a different way. There is a connection between Christianity and polytheistic groups in Europe. Christian practices of polytheistic practices all over Europe, the most obvious of which is incorporated in Western Christmas traditions, but syncretism between Christianity and European polytheism did not ever reach the level of universal church doctrine. Nicaea was convened to make sure this happened. Winegard’s points about the biblical canon and the Trinity are listed under “Misconceptions” in the Council of Nicaea article on Wikimedia. Major articles are reliable and are a good jumping off point for research, even though Wikipedia is not a great source. Winegard would not have made this mistake if he had consulted the encyclopedia instead of using spurious sources. The doctrine of the Trinity was put forward by Christians at least as early as the second century, but it wasn’t decided on in the Catholic Church until after Nicaea. The focus was on the deity of Christ.
In December 1773, after the Tea Act was passed, a band of the Sons of Liberty hid in blankets and lampblack and threw 343 chests of tea into Boston Harbor during their Tea Party. I was made to rethink a lot of what Winegard had to say after I encountered a problematic passage. He made this statement in the chapter on the American Revolution.
I went back to a story about Alexander the Great’s death after the Boston Tea Party fiasco. Winegard explained the scholarship around Alexander’s death as coming around to the fact that he died of a mosquito-borne disease, and a new study suggests a completely new cause and a date of when he died. The colonists were not dressed like Mohawks that I have heard of. I was looking for a source for this big news. There were no notes in the back of the book. Next up is Google. Can’t find anything. I can not find a source to back up Winegard’s statement. You just have to weigh competing sources to find the most likely answer to a question on the internet. In this case, not. It is possible that I can’t find a source that supports the fact that some of the Sons of Liberty were wearing Indian garb. Not all of them, and not all of them in full native headdresses, are definitely in Indian dress. I include a link to my source to back up what I am saying, and the source includes quotes from actual eyewitnesses to the event. Winegard would love to see his source, but this really bothered me.
I have been wrestling with what to do with The Mosquito. Winegard makes a good point that the mosquito is more important to an understanding of major conflicts and world historical developments than it is given credit for. There are factual errors and misrepresentations in the text. I don’t think most people would question the errors in a mass-market history book, because someone who knows world history better than me could probably find even more. People will say that the Sons of Liberty wore Indian garb to the Boston Tea Party, but that is not true. They think it is because they read it in a book. I hope there is a second edition of this book after it is read and revised by several historians. I won’t recommend it to my students and I can’t recommend it to you unless you want to do the work of checking everything that doesn’t seem right.
Winegard shows a tendency toward the earth- shattering cynical view that ignores what years of scholarship portray. It becomes dangerous when you don’t give any source for what you are saying when the breadth of research doesn’t support it. They just have to take your word for it, because no one can check your facts. It is difficult to believe anything that is said in the 400+ pages of this book because of the major factual errors. You have to double-check statements in order to know if they are true or if they are poorly-sourced.
My opinions are my own, but I received this book as an eARC and it was my idea to give it a review.
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