The mosquito is the subject of much ire by humans, and rightfully so. It is considered to be the deadliest animal on the planet – not because a single mosquito is directly capable of killing any living thing, but because certain species of mosquitos are the vectors of a number of lethal diseases. Malaria, which is caused by a blood parasite transmitted by an anopheline mosquito, infects over 200 million people and results in the death of about 500,000 people every year. Tens of thousands of people die from other mosquito borne diseases such as Dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. While not fatal, over 50 million people every year suffer the debilitating effects of lymphatic filariasis (aka, elephantiasis) – a monstrous swelling in the limbs due to the impairment of the lymphatic system caused by filarial worms which are transmitted by mosquitos.
In developed nations most people are spared the health impacts attributable to mosquitos, but there still are mosquito borne diseases (e.g. West Nile Virus) which affect hundreds of people in the United States. To most, mosquitos simply represent a significant annoyance. Swarms of mosquitos limit our activities and make outdoor ventures unpleasant. While most people can seek refuge inside homes and screened porches, our livestock are not so fortunate. The swarms of mosquitos which emerge following periods of flooding from spring runoff or hurricanes, can result in hundreds of animal deaths due to blood loss alone. Our pets may also be affected by mosquito borne diseases such as heartworm – another filarial worm that damages the heart and lungs of cats and dogs.
Given all that, why would anyone suggest that mosquitos could be considered good? The question stems from biblical declarations about the creation. The familiar narrative in Genesis chapter 1 depicts God looking down on his creative work and claiming that in every aspect it is good. Some may assert that this declaration was made about the world prior to the Fall of Man, and that man’s sin has brought forth all the disease and suffering we now know. However, the apostle Paul uses the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation in his argument against restrictions on diet and marriage – “For everything created by God is good.” (1 Timothy 4:4) So, while sin can result in the corruption of things God has made, and certainly accounts for some increased suffering, it would appear that those things made by God remain good – including mosquitos.
A first hurdle to be crossed here is whether God actually made mosquitos. Some would suggest that the existence of mosquitos is evidence that there is no God at all – surely a good and loving God would not create something as vile as a mosquito! For them, Darwinian evolution provides the best explanation for the existence of mosquitos. With God out of the picture, however, one loses any moral grounding which would allow us to think badly of mosquitos. Everyone dies somehow, and death by a mosquito borne disease is not worse than any other. Similarly, every animal has an equal right to survive, so me being the victim of parasites is no better or worse than my consumption of other organisms. It’s just nature doing its thing. If there is no God out there, there is nobody to complain to anyway.
Making claims against the existence of God in this way also requires one to take a position of omniscience – that we know with certainty there is no good reason for God to have included mosquitos in his creation. For someone to assert that, “the world would be a better place without mosquitos” is a fair and understandable sentiment, but it is nothing more than that. From a scientific vantage point, this sentiment is neither testable nor verifiable. It could very well be that of all possible worlds that God could have created, those without mosquitos would be something worse than the world we live in now.
Contrary to this dysteleological view, I have suggested in a couple other articles (Mosquitos Bite! and Mosquitos Suck!) there is good reason to doubt an evolutionary explanation for the origin of mosquitos – that the existence of mosquitos does not preclude the existence of God. Rather, there are clear signs of intelligent agency to be found in the mechanisms utilized by mosquitos to take their blood meals.
It may appear as a type of bias to point to design features found in nature which are either favorable or neutral to the human experience, but the filter we use to determine intelligent agency can be vindicated when we discern design in structures or organisms which strike us as harmful, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Such recognition brings us humans to a point of humility in our inability to perceive the purpose and effects of everything we observe in our universe. We don’t need to alter the way in which we detect design, but we need to be more open to consider what this tells us about the Designer.
Implicit in the concept of design is the notion of purpose. God is said to be purposeful with all his creation – “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” (Proverbs 16:4) So, if God is the maker of mosquitos – that He utilized foresight, planning and design to create them – then He has some purpose in mind for them. What might those purposes be?
At this point I step out with considerable caution in attempting to suggest what God’s purposes might be. I am mindful of the chiding received by the friends of Job who attempted to explain the cause of his suffering (Job 38). In the most general sense, what is considered good by God is whatever is useful for accomplishing his purposes (Romans 8:28) – that “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16) – the universe is not about me.
God also warns us through his prophet that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) We are incapable of perfectly detecting God’s ways and means from our finite perspective. Nevertheless, I think God has revealed enough about his character in Scripture which enables us to reasonably suggest some plausible purposes He had in mind when he made mosquitos.
The first of these is ecological. When God created different types of organisms, he fashioned them to function interdependently within ecosystems (humans included). For instance, the blood sucking behavior of female mosquitos may transmit diseases among animals, and diseases do play a role in regulating populations within ecosystems. The death and suffering of a few by disease may alleviate the death and suffering of many more by starvation. While we do all die, perhaps this is a method for minimizing the amount of suffering experienced in life.
Mosquitos, though, do more than just suck blood. The larvae which live in aqueous environments are detritovores – organisms which consume dead plant and animal material – this makes them important in nutrient cycling within ecosystems. Mosquitos are also part of food chains – the larvae and pupae are consumed by fish and other aquatic invertebrates, and the adults are food for animals such as the dragonflies, bats and swallows. The males (who do not suck blood) of some species are pollinators of certain plants. While it might be true that no ecosystem would collapse for the loss of mosquitos, this could also be said for all organisms in an ecosystem. Not being essential to the existence of an ecosystem does not mean they lack purpose.
The mosquito can also be thought of as having a historical purpose. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, history is linear – it had a beginning and is moving in a distinct direction via God’s intervention toward a definitive end. Insects have periodically played a role in the way God has directed history – remember the plagues of Exodus: three of the ten involved insects (gnats, flies and locusts). The Hebrews did little to advance taxonomy, so it is unclear what kind of flies were involved in the plagues. Mosquitos are a distinct possibility, but other types of biting flies could fit the description (see a discussion about that here).
Alongside that is the recognition that God used disease as a tool to direct history. Several times in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet relays that God will use pestilence along with famine and “the sword” to discipline Judah (e.g. Jeremiah 14:12, 15:2, 18:21). Another prophet describes God’s work in history by stating that, “Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.” (Habakkuk 3:5) Descriptions of diseases given in the ancient near east accounts lead experts to think some were those spread by insect vectors.
A recent New York Times best seller, The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard, takes an interesting look at history from ancient to modern times. He identifies key turning points that were significantly impacted by the effect of mosquito borne diseases – especially malaria. For example, he recounts how the attempts by the Persians to overtake Greece were thwarted because their armies succumbed to the effects of malaria. Similarly, the contention for power between the Carthaginians and the Romans were swayed by the spread of malaria. How different would our contemporary culture be without the influences of Greek and Roman cultures!
While God’s use of the mosquito to move history in a particular direction is plausible, our interpretation of when and how that occurred is open to speculation. We likely would not think that every outbreak of insect borne diseases was an attempt by God to alter the course of history. Even when it is clear that history changed because of something like malaria, what God’s aim might have been in that case is not clear from our perspective. The best we can do here is leave it as a possibility that God made mosquitos for such a thing when he so desired.
A third possible purpose for mosquitos falls into the realm of ethics. One of the interesting aspects of human virtues is that none of them can be developed aside from adversity. It defies the imagination to think how a person could develop a sense of compassion without the presence of suffering in the life of other people. The existence of insect borne diseases challenges our sense of compassion on a couple levels. At the most basic level, we consider how we care for the sick and alleviate suffering. While millions of people are affected each year by lymphatic filariasis, effective treatments are now available to both cure and prevent this condition. The WHO indicates 6.7 billion treatments were delivered between 2000-2016.
On another level, we exercise compassion by considering how to prevent suffering in the first place. Much effort has gone toward determining how to best disrupt the vector cycle for malaria. The most common approach has been to consider ways of eliminating the vector (e.g., draining swamps, using pesticides such as DDT, genetic engineering of mosquitos). Unfortunately, these have had significant ethical issues of their own in regards to environmental impacts. Most recently, it has been announced that researchers have developed a vaccine which provides immunity against the transmitted disease organism, Plasmodium falciparum. This will be a very interesting program to watch for its success.
A fourth purpose for mosquitos would best be described as theological – that God is using the mosquito along with the rest of creation to reveal himself to us. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:19-20) To some degree, the previous three purposes mentioned could be enfolded into this one, but, particularly, I would suggest the evidence of intelligent design found in the mosquito as noted earlier is the clearest indication of God’s intervention and involvement in both biological and human history.
In closing, I think it is fair to make one point clear. Recognizing that mosquitos are good from a divine perspective does not preclude us as humans from thinking of them otherwise. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38) – the “bad” here is related from the human perspective. While you may realize the intricate design possessed by mosquitos points to God’s creative activity, and concur that God is capable of using them for His purposes, you don’t have to like them. When a mosquito lands on your arm, there is every good reason (from a human perspective) to think a mosquito is bad, and swat it!