One of the many perks of working with the North Coast Land Conservancy is that they let me do little personal projects on Conservancy property: a bit of bird banding, salamander surveys, photography projects. Last Friday, I was able to put up some moth lights at Circle Creek and do a bit of non-lethal sampling…
The flip side of studying stuff on Conservancy property is communicating what I’ve discovered to others. I am asked on a regular basis to help interpret the Natural History of these places on walks through the property. Curious people ask me questions about things. Some I can answer, some I cannot. One of the questions I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to is: What good are mosquitoes?
We humans are social animals that communicate using a complex language that includes words and gestures and behaviors that all have meaning to other humans. We create societies and culture and rules. We create words to describe and assess members of our societies and folks from out of town. Among the mechanisms we use for assessment are the twin concepts of good and bad. These are value claims that often have different interpretations across human societies. They have no meaning outside human cultures.
This makes any question about a given plant or animal problematic. Mosquitoes are not good or bad, they simply are. We define mosquitoes as bad because they vex us, but the mosquito isn’t being bad, it’s being a mosquito. And any statement I might come up with to demonstrate the goodness of a mosquito has nothing to do with mosquitoes and everything to do with humans. I am being asked to provide a value claim that will enable humans to justify the existence of mosquitoes. If we insist that all organisms must have individually justifiable, human-defined reasons for being, I suspect that the Great Anthropocene Extinction will continue apace.
All of the language that we use to describe nature is created by us and most of our interactions with nature are anthropocentric. Life on Earth got along without names and categories for millions of years. The only things we can even remotely define as value claims made by nature are centered on ecological fitness and survival to reproduce. Organisms demonstrate their fitness by continuing to be. Mosquitoes demonstrate their fitness by continuing to be. The Earth and the organisms that live on it have done just fine without us. The planet doesn’t need us to sort things into piles and argue over what each pile should be called and whether they should be allowed to exist. Natural Selection has already done this work.
We humans, in order to communicate effectively with one another, do need to create these piles and we do need to create language that describes what each of these piles represents to us. Part of the adaptive strategy of being human is to identify those things which are “good” for us and those things we deem “bad” and modify our environments accordingly. We are as much a product of the selective mechanisms that have organized life on Earth as mosquitoes and it is in our natures to do what we do.
The meaning of good and bad are relative, however, and sometimes (perhaps too many times) our efforts to modify our surroundings fail to consider collateral damage or long term consequences. We often make short sighted decisions that come back to haunt us later on. Anthropocentrism as an adaptive strategy may, in the long term, prove to be the limiting factor to human survival.
So, when someone asks you: what good are mosquitoes? maybe the least anthropocentric response would be: I don’t know, ask a mosquito.
Or maybe we can find some anthropocentric solace in the knowing that the mosquitoes that bite me today become the breakfast of swallows tomorrow. Thanks to mosquitoes I can become part bird.