On the eighth day God created mosquitoes

By Frederic Friedel

Mosquitoes are arguably the deadliest animal family on Earth. They spread many deadly diseases, like malaria (the big one), dengue, yellow fever, elephantiasis and encephalitis — and currently zika, a virus that causes microcephaly in unborn fetuses, leading to severe lifelong disability.

There are thousands of species of mosquitoes that feed on the blood of many different kinds of hosts: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, other insects, and even fish. The loss of blood is not the critical point, it is the saliva that the mosquito injects, mainly to numb the host to the piercing of the skin. It causes rash and itching, which is simply a nuisance, but more importantly the saliva can contain microorganisms or parasites, many of which rely on a particular species of mosquito to complete their life cycle.

Mosquitoes cause more deaths than any other animal on the planet. There are over 200 million cases of malaria globally, resulting in around half a million deaths, 80% of which are children under five. More than three billion people — half of the world’s population — are at risk of malaria. This one disease is estimated to cost endemic countries up to 1.3% GDP, and eradication might cost over a trillion dollars over the next decade. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is donating billions in an effort to free the world of the scourge. I hand over to Bill Gates to give you a compelling overview of the problem in Mosquito Week:

My two most distressing encounters with mosquitoes were the following: I visited a dear friend from a tropical country, whose little daughter was then about four years old. The visit was late in the evening and she was already asleep. “Come, take a look,” Farook said. And there lay Shalima, an enchantingly beautiful child, curled up in a corner of her mattress. And there were five mosquitoes sitting on her cheek and an arm, sucking away. I was horrified, but Farook took it in his stride: “What you gonna do?” he said. Killing them would wake her up, and they would be soon replace by another set of mosquitoes.

The second harrowing experience was when we took a trip to Kiruna, one of the northernmost towns in Lapland, Sweden. Kiruna is 145 kilometres (90 mi) north of the Arctic circle, and we were there during the summer solstice to see the midnight sun.

Kiruna at midnight. It is incredibly impressive – the sun stays above the horizon.
We had taken some snacks to feast on with friends on the hillside. But we were immediately attacked…
… by swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes! The Swedes, who were far more experienced than us, were lavishly daubed in mosquito repellent. They gave us some to protect ourselves, but that did not help reliably — I swear some the mosquitoes were holding their noses and biting us.
Here’s a mosquito I caught. It’s going to die, but it is still trying to get a last draft of blood out of me.
The next day we went to a Sami settlement to see some reindeer — Kiruna is in Lapland.

This was very nice, and the reindeer were quite friendly. But as the evening came they were covered with mosquitoes, clearly suffering intensely, shaking their heads and body vigorously, all the time. No repellent for them.

Our Sami guide told us that wild reindeer go up the mountains every night to sleep on ice patches — which give them a mediocum of protection from the bloodsucking insects.

The next day we went on a trip in the mountains, where we found patches of snow, but no reindeer on them during the day.
Getting a feel for what it is like for a reindeer to sleep on ice (it is cooold).

Well, the subject of today’s article is not how bad mosquitoes are and the horrific damage they inflict on man and beast. Our question is why are they there at all? What could possibly be the reason for their existence? I am going to give you the correct answer to this question at the end of this article.

A few years ago I made some t-shirts for family and friends. This is what it showed on the front:

Seriously, did the creator of the universe, whichever version you believe in, actually design and release these creatures, to plague the other inhabitants of the world he had created? How plausible is that? The great Mark Twain put it more eloquently than anything I can say. He was talking about flies, but what he wrote can apply equally well — even better — to mosquitoes.

How often we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both the designing and the execution of some of ­[God’s] works. Take the fly, for instance. In all the ages he has not had a friend, there has never been a person in the earth who could have been persuaded to intervene between him and extermination; yet billions of persons have excused the Hand that made him — and this without a blush. Would they have excused a Man in the same circumstances, a man positively known to have invented the fly and sent him out on his mission and furnish him his orders:

“Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and the unteachable. Settle upon the soldier’s festering wounds in field and hospital and drive him frantic while he also prays, and between times curses, with none to listen but you. Harry and persecute the forlorn and forsaken wretch who is perishing of the plague, and in his terror and despair praying; bite, sting, feed upon his ulcers, dabble your feet in his rotten blood, gum them thick with plague-germs. Feet cunningly designed and perfected for this function ages ago in the beginning — carry this freight to a hundred tables, among the just and the unjust, the high and the low, and walk over the food and gaum it with filth and death. Visit all; allow no man peace till he get it in the grave; visit and afflict the hard-worked and unoffending horse, mule, ox, ass, pester the patient cow, and all the kindly animals that labor without fair reward here and perish without hope of it hereafter; spare no creature, wild or tame; but wheresoever you find one, make his life a misery, treat him as the innocent deserve; and so please Me and increase My glory Who made the fly.”

So now we come to the explanation of why mosquitoes and flies exist. They may have some vague purpose in nature, for instance providing food for certain birds or bats. But could they not fulfill this role without the accompanying suffering they bring upon man and beast? The reason for their existence cannot be sought in a divine plan or purpose. It is the same reason why there are deadly viruses — creatures that are hardly alive but often inflict horrific misery on the innocent. It is the reason there are earthquakes, tsunamis, asteroid impacts and other calamities that befall the inhabitants of the world.

The reason all these horrible and deadly things exist is simply: because it is possible. I repeat: Because. It. Is. Possible. No other reason. No divine plan, no need to look for a purpose, look for the wrath or revenge of an invisible being. Evolution has created mosquitoes and flies, and physics the earthquakes and tsunamis. Simply because it is possible.

Addendum

After reading my article Europe’s biggest and most influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, decided to devote a full cover story to the “deadliest animal in the world”. It says pretty much what I do in this story. Well, maybe it was not actually sparked by my piece — this blog is not even public, yet. But it is gratifying to see my conclusions confirmed by a serious source.

The Friedel Chronicles

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade