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

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  670 Ratings  ·  135 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
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
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
Tim Martin
Oct 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, science, nature
_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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Dan Russell
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
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
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
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)
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
Alexandru Tudorica
Sep 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Our water-dwelling cousins are actually surprisingly sentient, while absolutely unsustainable commercial practices massively deplete the aquatic ecosystems. 40% of the fishing represents bycatch, which is simply thrown away (dead, of course). Fish tend to accumulate various pollutants, therefore frequent consumption is mostly detrimental to human health. The farmed fish usually eats wild fish (since we apparently have a taste for carnivorous fish) and they are kept in conditions so bad that a 10 ...more
Aug 29, 2017 rated it liked it
This book explores the sentience of fish. A very interesting read that made me aware of lots of fish behavior that I knew nothing about. I did find the book to be a bit preachy but regardless it made me think about fish in a more empathetic light than I did previously so it did do its job!
Jun 11, 2018 added it
Shelves: us, non-fiction, nature
Fascinating - except now I don't know if I can continue eating fish ... !
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Joshua Buhs
Sep 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science

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
Joseph M. O'Connor

I have never before been so thoroughly bored and turned off by popularized science-writing. Please note the assignment of ONE star to this... umm... publication. I HAD to give it a star to review it. It actually deserves ZERO stars. I guess I could give it one star for the apparent effort it took to pull together the information the author so brutally misused in the text. But then I realized how easy it is for an unpaid intern to do that job with any reasonable search engine. So... ZERO STAR
Mar 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Jonathan Balcombe is an advocate for fish—or, as he prefers, fishes: “individuals with personalities and relationships”—and makes a strong case for piscine perception in What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (Farrar, Straus). Weaving together decades of scientific studies of fish consciousness, cognition, and social structure, ethologist Balcombe (author of the lovely The Exultant Ark) offers a picture of fish(es) as complex and sentient beings. Not only do they have acute ...more
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
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Fish are friends. Not food.

Very well spoken by some sharks in the beloved movie Finding Nemo. But just how true are those words, especially to us humans? There's plenty of fish out in the sea, and no amount of fishing could ever deplete the vast ocean of all its fish. Could it? The sad answer is yes.

Fish are animals, and they have personalities and social lives and experience emotions just like us and any other animal. Balcombe makes the case in his fascinating book What a Fish Knows, and you ma
I enjoyed the premise of this book, that fish are interesting, evolved animals just as much as many birds and mammals. We should consider as much when we discuss fishing and farming practices, which may involve a great degree of cruelty. Including many interesting facts, studies, and anecdotes, this is a good choice for the casual reader looking for a little natural science. It did not have quite as many photographs in the picture section as I might have liked, but I would look at pictures of fi ...more
Ingrid Sinclair
Jan 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Extraordinary and essential
Robin Tierney
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book about the intelligence, emotions, behavior and lives of all kinds of fishes from goldfishes to menhaden to rays to sharks fascinated and entertained me. Here are my notes...this is not a review:

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
by Jonathan Balcombe, ethologist

"Overexploited"..."stock" - human distancing.

Die from asphyxiation, crush of being piled up, trauma dredge, decompression.
Biology and biography - individual

Cartilagenous fish 6th vertebrate group.
Brain s
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
What a Fish Knows is a systematic review of research supporting the hypothesis that fish - like our cousins, chimpanzees - are sentient. The book is sorted into sections (such as What a Fish Perceives, What a Fish Feels, Who a Fish Knows), each with chapters exploring a different aspect of the section (the section on Who a Fish Knows, for example, has chapters on cooperative hunting, social contracts, and peacekeeping behavior in intra-species and inter-species pairs/groups). I found the formatt ...more
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book - and I learned so much. I love all animals and have an appreciation of how they are each individuals, with their own personalities. And while I have believed that fishes are sentient beings, I was not aware of their complexity. I loved the behavioral trial that took a certain type of fish 40 tries to solve it, primates 100 tries and a human child who didn't get it after 100 tries. Unfortunately, though, while the evidence posed in this book should get people to think again abo ...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
“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. —Eden Phillpotts Just” 1 likes
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