Pointless news, this time from Nature

Fresh off the desk of the Nature News is a feature pondering a world without mosquitos (or -toes).  How is this news?  Perhaps there is some new vector control we all need to hear about!  Well, check out the article from the latest edition of Nature titled “A World Without Mosquitoes“.  I originally came across this on PZ Myers blog and started to write a comment… which started to grow exponentially so I decided to blog about it instead.

This entire article lacks a cohesive thought and follow-through.  The introduction states that Janet Fang has concluded we wouldn’t miss a world without mosquitos.  It’s a romantic though; sitting on your back porch on a summer’s eve, drinking a Chateauneuf-du-Pape ’61, smoking your Cuban and eating some Russian caviar (might as well dream big).  Not a single buzz of high C is heard in your ear, no obnoxious itchy bumps all over your skin and of course worst of all, no insect borne disease plants you six feet under.  So with such a dreamy notion you might expect Janet to support her thoughturism (thought and aneurism) with some supporting evidence or at least a poetic rambling reflecting on her premise.  As you may have guessed by now, this was not the case.

If there was a benefit to having them around, we would have found a way to exploit them. We haven’t wanted anything from mosquitoes except for them to go away.

Thank you 6th grader Janet Fang… oh wait, she is an intern and I assume was just paid for that gem.

Janet did her homework and e-mailed dozens of scientists working on mosquitos.  Not a single one of them unambiguously stated that we would be not only better off without mosquitos, but that we should actually consider trying it.  The general consensus can be paraphrased with the thought “well yes, mosquitos cause us incredible harm… but their impact on the environment is large and not understood well enough to say we can eliminate them safely”.  Janet dances around this caution by ignorantly assuming that nature would fill the niche and any ecosystem service lost from mosquitos would be quickly replaced by similar insects that are somehow now harmless.  Now we can all dance merrily through the savanna and nap under an acacia with a lion.

The boat she misses is a large one: the niche would be filled.  One more time Janet, the niche would be filled…  So, if we lost mosquitos today, tomorrow we would have biting-midges or… hell – biting moths – that take their place.  Parasites and pathogens are opportunists, as soon as the door creeps open a flood of novel vector/pathogen combinations would surface.  The entire essay concludes with a thought from Joe Conlon from the American Mosquito Control that intimates this caveat.

If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life.  Something better or worse would take over.

Why this was chosen to be the most compelling quote of the essay perplexes me.  Joe has a great point, life will continue with or without mosquitos, and we have no idea just what would take their place.  Should we even attempt such a daring move?  Somehow Janet lacks the ecological or biological background to interpret what is being said here and skips right pass this without a thought.

If I were writing this article I may have mused for a moment on the joys of life without pestilence.  Sadly life is not so.  But the wonders of modern science, technology and medicine have given us powerful tools to fight back the diseases mosquitos carry.  Take for instance malaria.  For thousands of years this disease was a heavy burden on the American peoples, it probably even played a factor in the pattern of settlement of this country.  Not until the late 1940′s did science take charge and effectively eradicate malaria from the USA.  Granted, the primary ingredient to containment was likely habitat destruction… but there can be no doubt of the role the CDC played.  Today there are nearly weekly advances in the fight against malaria and a cost-effective treatment is on the horizon for the millions of lives across the globe who continually suffer from this disease.  Does Janet propose that we focus instead on mosquito extinction instead of control?  No… actually Janet barely regurgitates a though of her own, but in premise she dreams of eradicating all mosquitos.  How this could possibly be accomplished is beyond me.  Making this happen is almost painful to think about, but without completely paving over all habitat – millions of tons of pesticide would have to be used.  OK, it’s not even worth the effort to postulate a realistic mechanism by which we can accomplish this goal.

I should re-write article using nearly the same words and re-title it as “A World Without Mosquitoes, a curse we all must fight”.  Then I should be given my job at Nature and paid the big bucks… after-all, I have some expensive wine and caviar to purchase.

As a closing thought I will steal this Aldo Leopold quote posted from the commenter Zachary Burington in response to this article on the Nature website.

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?”  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

4 comments to Pointless news, this time from Nature

  • James C. Trager

    Which mosquitos? All, or just the small fraction of species that feed on human blood? The whole premise simply proclaims ignorance of what the question itself really means!

    (Thank you, Aldo.)

  • Now we can all dance merrily through the savanna and nap under an acacia with a lion.

    Chuckling uncontrollably!

  • Bob Abela

    Yes, the notion is just plain silly…will have to read the article. Now if we were talking about, say, cockroaches… ;)

  • Could not agree more. I really don’t get that entire approach to/view of the natural world. Since when is it all about you? Yikes. And, yes, ignorance leads to some pretty ridiculous suppositions. Just step away from the thinking space, and STOP PUBLISHING. Do something else.

    I’ve had people ask me this specific question about mosquitoes when they learn I’m a biologist. “What good are they?” After rapidly donning my poker face so they can’t see my “what are you ON??” reaction, I said, well, they feed 10,000,000 bugs, fish, and birds. HUGE food base for SO many species.

    I was very proud of my polite little self. =)

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