We’ve been killing mosquitoes ever since we’ve had hands. We’ll kill them aboard a mission to Mars if we find them flying around the sleeping quarters. And we should. But there’s a better way to go about it.
When I was a kid my father once asked my sister to keep flies off the barbecue. She laid into them and killed about fifty before he returned from the house. When he did, he took away the fly swatter and sat her down to explain that what she’d done was a bad thing. He started out by telling her how wonderful flies actually were — how they could land upside down, how they had only two wings and not four because the other two had become gyroscopic stabilisers over millions of years, how their brains worked twenty times faster than ours. He mentioned these things to show her what she destroyed when she killed a fly, but his point was something else.
“You can kill these flies,” he said, “but you should never enjoy it. For the fly it’s the end of the world.”
“But you told me to,” my sister whimpered, near tears.
“I know,” he said, hugging her, “but I didn’t mean for you to like it.”
A mosquito is a bit like a fly. It’s so small that it’s easy to think little of killing it. It’s so small, in fact, that when you kill it, it sometimes seems as though it’s just disappeared. Yet the mosquito has a mass of about 2.5 milligrams and is an arrangement of around a hundred million million million atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and a few other elements — the same stuff you’d find in a gin and tonic. Its brain is the size of a printed period. Like you, the mosquito is an animal and is therefore a bit of the earth that has floated free, moving about as long as its arrangement is intact. Like you, it’s the result of self-organisation. It’s your distant cousin and shares 60% of your DNA. Your common ancestor lived about 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period. Mosquitoes evolved around 175 million years ago in the Jurassic and have been more or less unchanged for the past 80 million years.
To find you, the female mosquito uses a carbon dioxide detector from about 25 meters away, then visible and infrared light when she’s closer. Then she switches to a sensitive heat receptor at the tip of her antennae to locate the best capillary near the surface of your skin. She also likes the smell of sweat. The itch comes from histamines in your body reacting to the anticoagulants and proteins in her saliva. The female mosquito doesn’t eat blood for a living, but rather to produce eggs. She feeds on nectar and decaying matter the rest of the time. If you don’t kill her, she’ll live for 3 weeks or so.
But you will. You won’t spare mosquitoes just because you’re better informed. I’m not going to ask, like my friend Jack once did, that you do. We were hiking in the forest and came upon three other hikers. They were sitting at the table we had had in mind, and it pissed Jack off.
“Fucking great,” he grumbled.
The hikers were slapping mosquitoes and laughing. Jack walked to their table and loomed over them.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
“What are you doing to those mosquitoes?”
“Excuse me—” one man began, but Jack silenced him with a superior gesture.
“Did you now,” he resumed, “that there are about ten quintillion insects alive on the planet today?”
He assumed the tone of a lecturer.
“That’s a one with nineteen zeroes.”
He paused for effect.
“There are seven billion or so of us. That means that each of us has more than a billion insects we can call our own.”
He looked at the hikers, and the hikers looked at one another.
“You can imagine our names written in tiny letters along their backs,” he added.
The woman giggled.
“Those mosquitoes you killed,” he said, eyeing each of the hikers in turn, “had my name on them.”
The woman stopped giggling.
“How do you know?” the other man protested. “They could’ve had mine.”
“I know,” Jack said, nodding in sad agreement. “That’s true. But did you check?”
The hikers glanced at one another. Jack was a large man and he now began to look like someone who’d recently agreed to stop hurting people.
“This is stupid,” the first man said, getting up. “Let’s go.”
They left and we sat at the table, slapping mosquitoes.
“Fucking great,” Jack grumbled.
Even though you won’t spare mosquitoes, there’s a better way to kill them. All it takes is a little imagination and the basic insight that a brain is a map of the world. It’s a simple thought, really, but a staggering one — to be aware of the world is to contain it. When you kill a mosquito, you destroy the whole world in her tiny corner of perception. That corner is not unlike your own. Once you see it this way, killing is an act of infinite consequence. You won’t stop killing mosquitoes, of course, but now and then you might pause for a moment to think about what you’ve done.