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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  1,689 ratings  ·  268 reviews
A New York Times Bestseller

Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquar
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 7th 2016 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Petra X is very happy & even more confused
Years ago I had an extraordinary experience with squids when I was snorkelling off an unknown reef very close to a tiny island about 100 yards from shore. If the reef had been known there would have been very few parrotfish and cowfish, both of which are good eating. There would also have been no supermale parrotfish. A supermale is a female that has turned into a male and is double or more the size of the other fish and also much more beautiful and brightly coloured and absolutely delicious to ...more
Diane S ☔
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 5000-2019, lor-2019
Who ever knew that s book about fish could be both so fascinating and illuminating. Don't think I will ever look at fish the same way again. So many characteristics that make us human do come into play with fish. Communication skills, empathy, using tools and other clever ways to get what they need, including cleaning. The chapters are nicely separated, covering a topic at a time.

So many different types of fish, I spent much time looking them up to see their pictures. Some can change from femsle
This is the most delightfully charming work of nonfiction I have read in a long time!

I have heard on numerous occasions that fish are nothing more than “water vegetables”, lacking feelings of pain, memory, familial love and social structure. They are continuously looked upon as a distinct species separate from the rest of the animal kingdom because they do not embody features we associate with more “sentient beings”.

I used to work in a Fish and Reptile department at a pet store. I have intimate
Fish get short shrift when we are thinking about animal behaviour. Consider the poor maligned gold fish, which is reputed to have an attention span of mere seconds. Incorrect, as it turns out—gold fish can learn tasks and retain that learning for months.

I’m not a diver. I can’t swim and water will always be a scary place for me, but I can see where this book would be very interesting to anyone who spends time in the underwater world. Fish are much more interesting that I gave them credit for. I
Lori Ann
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Brain candy for any diver...a must read.

The last two chapters point out a ton of inconvenient truths for fish eaters. Looks like there are going to be more nuts and beans in my diet.
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"What many of these people like about fishes is not that they are like us. What is beautiful about them, and equally worthy of respect, is how they are not like us. Their different ways of being in the world are a source of fascination and admiration, and cause for sympathy. We can connect across the great divide that separates us, as when I have felt the gentle tugs of discus fishes rising to pluck food from my fingertips, or when a grouper fish approaches a trusted diver to receive caresses.

May 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Once I heard this book was coming out, I had to have it because, as the author points out, you can't really find an entire book devoted to fish ethology (behavior).

Now, this author undoubtedly has a bit of an agenda as you can tell from prior books. He's for animal rights so I wanted to see if he strayed too far from hyperbole. Generally I don't think he did. Mostly he stays with the science and makes some excellent points such as a) fish came way before us so it's not like they've stopped evol
Tim Martin
Oct 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
_What A Fish Knows_ was a quick, enjoyable read that veered between being a popular science book on the latest findings on fish behavior, memory, sensory abilities, and intelligence and a book strongly advocating for a kinder, more empathetic treatment of fish (and also essentially never, ever eating fish again). I can understand how one type of writing (fish are both surprisingly intelligent and quite aware of their environment and what happens to them in ways that might surprise most readers) ...more
Montzalee Wittmann
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe and narrated by Graham Winton is a delightful and very informative book on fish. It explains how fish can feel pain, probably pleasure too, can plan, remember, scheme, communicate, and think! They have preferences, can be trained, seem to enjoy certain activities or people over others, and they use tools.
I am a vegetarian and I don't eat fish due to this reason but it is nice to hear the science behind it. I learned so much in here too! Wow! How different
Katy Mann
Oct 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Read this from a recommendation on a blog.

Did not know what to expect, but the book was a lively romp with an intelligent guide through all things fish. Senses, emotions, social structures.

Check it out.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it liked it
I gave this book 3 stars because I think the subject matter is so critical, but I have read some of Balcombe's other work and am left here with the same feeling as with those: the writing is slow, and only sporadically does it pick up into something really enjoyable. This is a shame. I am reminded of books I've read on animal rights, like There Is No Happy Meat and compare it to Jonathan Saffron Foer's Eating Animals - and though I much prefer the message of Bohanec's, it was actually Foer's tha ...more
Jonathan Maas
Mar 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An incredible array of fish facts that slowly work their way into a thesis

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe is first and foremost, an incredible assortment of fish facts. Secondly, it is a book.

This is not to diminish it as a book - the incredible insight from the first gives it its power.

One of my favorite non-fiction books about the ocean is Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, where James Nestor acts
Martin Smrek
Nov 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Great introduction into the complexity and depth of lives of fishes and into what science can tell us about their abilities to perceive the world around them and, of course, how close we are to telling whether fishes have counsciousness or not.
Aug 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
We've learned so much about non human intelligence and sentience. Thinking or feeling differently than people just shows the incredible adaptations of species and may actually help us learn more about ourselves. I recently read The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, so why not fish? Probably because they live in such an alien environment from us. Their lack of expression and staring eyes seem, well, down rights fishy. Bur Balcombe makes ...more
Sam Sattler
Feb 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
It is difficult to look into the eyes of another living creature without wondering what that creature thinks of what he sees in your own eyes. Does that animal wonder what we are and what our intentions might be? Is it perhaps seeing us as an equal that deserves the benefit of the doubt? Or is anything really going on in the brain behind those eyes at all other than the hope that we will provide the animal with something to eat or drink? Humans find it easy to relate to pets, especially dogs and ...more
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audio, non-fiction
In the history of persuasion no one has ever changed their mind while being talked at. Preaching is the quickest way to lose an unconverted audience. The best way to change someone's mind is to make them curious. Ask them questions and then calmly lay out your interesting facts. Then after you've let the evidence speak for itself you ask if the status quo should change. Does what you thought still seem true?
Sadly this book did the opposite. It started fast and hard condemning people's unfeeling
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a sleeper! A surprisingly wonderful and engaging book about the life of fish. Did you know fish do have feelings, intelligence, use tools, plan, and have culture? Balcombe has that powerful combination as a writer to bring scientific studies alive, and we get lots of fascinating studies in this book presented in such a lively and clear manner. I also appreciate that Balcombe continually presents -well, this is another way we might interpret these results. And, unlike Sy Montgomery's books t ...more
Daniel M.
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When we seem them, they’re all a “fish out of water..,” which is a phrase describing someone in an alien place, probably suffering as a side effect. That’s 99% of our experience of fish, but it’s not Balcombe’s experience, and he wants us to know that fish have interesting cognition (learning and performing complex tasks), sophisticated memories, relationships, social bonding, and a real sense of pain that we continuously violate.

The book tells us that fish have these rich lives, but we don’t u
Feb 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology
Interesting facts about fish:

Do fish feel pain? It seems that they do. If you expose fish to a pain condition, such as exposure to vinegar, they cannot complete their task. However, if you give fish pain medication, they can complete the task, despite the vinegar exposure.

Fish express anxiety over a variety of things (e.g. finding the correct shelter). Researchers observe various fish doing various tasks and identify the anxious fish, give the fish anxiety meds, and observe that they are less a
Christian D.  Orr
Apr 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Not only are we learning from other scientific studies that birds are (and dinosaurs were) much more intelligent than longstanding paradigms had assumed for so many decades, this fascinating book shows that the same is true of fish as well; their cold, seemingly robotic and unfeeling automaton appearance notwithstanding, their actually sentient beings with intelligence and even personalities. The author offers his evidence with plenty of solid science, with detailed information backed by a witty
Nicola M.
This book could have been titled "Fish Are Awesome" and it would still be an accurate title. Not only are there over 33,000 species of fish, humans have only begun to scratch the surface of what fishes are truly capable of. Fishes (I'm with the author that referring, " a trillion fish by the singular term lumps them together like rows of corn") are indeed awesome: from complex social structures and behaviours to organized hunting, feeding and mating rituals, fishes remain perhaps the most m ...more
Mar 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This was delightful. Jonathan Balcombe tackles the subject of the inner lives of fish with an exceptional balance of science, argument, and anecdote. His prose never loses the deep compassion he has for fish but it doesn't become pedantic or pollyannish. He treats fish with respect and joy and wonder. I think I've learned a great deal from reading this book. I'd recommend it to anybody who is curious about, well, fish! They'll blow you away. I swear they will. ...more
Vicente Segarra
Aug 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
What a fascinating and eye-opening book!

Wish everybody could have the chance to read it and learn more about such an amazing, but often underestimated living creatures.

After reading the book, I cannot stop wondering: being 100% proved hat fishes are social creatures, have consciousness, personalities, memory, emotions, intelligence and feel pain, which right do we have to keep slaughtering such precious lives for "fun" as in sport fishing or for "food" when we have so many sustainable alternat
Joshua Buhs
Sep 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction

Balcombe is a (former?) ethologist, working (in some capacity) for the Humane Society. In this book, he reviews what's known about fish thinking and feeling, the research that undergirds this knowledge, and speculates on further lines of study based on anecdotes he has collected.

The book is organized around the (Romantic German biologist) Jakob von Uexküll's idea of Umwelt: the notion that an organism's understanding of the environment is shaped by its senses. Already, this approach pu
Daniel Kuo
I was hoping for a book that used science to share the author's awe and wonder at the natural world. Instead I got a book where the science is used to support the author's personal belief that we need to dramatically change our relationship with fish.

And I am sympathetic to that worldview. I think the environmental and ethical issues are genuine and worth examining. But the preaching, which is undeniably the main point of this book, had the opposite effect on me. I questioned whether or not the
Sonia Faruqi
Jun 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
When it comes to fish, what is fact and what is myth? If you’ve ever wondered about life in the underwater world, this book will teach you a lot, from fascinating facts like tapetum lucidum—the layer of the retina that enables marine creatures to see at night and is also responsible for creating the eyeshine in the eyes of cats and dogs—to the complexity of fish feeling. There are more species of fish than of all other vertebrates—mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians—combined, yet they’re a ...more
James Scheid
Oct 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I will never look at a fish the same way again. They are sentient beings with problem solving skills. Some can recognize their humans and like to be petted. One species of fish float near the top of the water at high tide and memorize the map of the sea floor so they know where to hide when the tide is low. This book is full of fascinating facts but also gives examples of the cruelty we inflict on them. It ends with a glimmer of hope for a better future. The writing just flows. (No pun intended)
Sep 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Neus by: Nature Literature BOM
This book is a jewel of the sea in all senses. It is very well researched and objective, and at the same time, it is written with sensitivity.

Although I am a marine scientist, I have learned new things along the way and my curiosity, empathy, and fascination with fish has increased even more.

I recommend it to everyone who wants to learn more or discover surprising facts about fish and ourselves.
Keith Akers
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This excellent book about fish sentience is much better than we have any right to expect based on its subject matter. Fish seem hopelessly alien, a topic that Balcombe addresses early on. Without needlessly sexing up the topic, Jonathan Balcombe gives us an entertaining, organized, and scientific exposition of what it is that fishes know. As it turns out, this is quite a bit. Fish have language, can feel pain (this should be obvious, but now you know), like to play, are affectionate, and can use ...more
Richard Thompson
Sep 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
OK, I admit it. This book taught me a thing or two about fish that I didn't know. They are definitely a lot smarter than I gave them credit for being. Of course I knew that they were sentient beings, but I was not aware of the level of refinement of their senses, or their problem solving abilities or their memories. I didn't need to have all of this new information to know that fish deserve to be treated with respect as living beings, but it certainly helps to have compassion for them to be able ...more
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Jonathan Balcombe was born in England, raised in New Zealand and Canada, and has lived in the United States since 1987. He has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, where he studied communication in bats. He has published over 45 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection.

He is the author of four books. J

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