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

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  1,159 ratings  ·  197 reviews
What a Fish Knows
Paperback, 304 pages
Published December 1st 2016 by Oneworld (first published June 7th 2016)
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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  ·  review of another edition
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
Tim Martin
_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
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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.

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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jonathan Maas
Mar 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Daniel M.
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 ...more
Sonia Faruqi
Jun 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really interesting look into the inner lives and weird behaviors of fish. If you’re a fish enthusiast, the first bit might be a bit tedious for you, but it’s worth it for all the cool facts later on. The author’s passion oozes when he talks about fish in general, and he does a good job of balancing actual scientific data with stories of what fish do without giving those anecdotes equal weight or discrediting them on the other hand. Quite enjoyable
Alexandru Tudorica
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 ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very engaging book written about what could be a very dry (ha!) subject. The everyday language and the author's obvious passion for his subject keeps it from being an infodump, and I can definitely say I have a newfound appreciation for marine life after finishing this book. He also discusses the ecological impact of fishing industries without being super preachy about it, and it's made me reconsider being blase about eating seafood!
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!
Fascinating - except now I don't know if I can continue eating fish ... !
Dec 26, 2018 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Bought for my Father in Law Xmas 2018. Was happy to receive it.
Lauren Read
An enjoyable exploration of qualities that are oft-overlooked by us humans and also about the vast ignorance of our collective knowledge of the sea. I glossed over some of the dozens of laboratory test descriptions, preferring the storytelling and factual information. The beginning and end of the book are the jewels, however, elucidating the big picture.
George Jacobs
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jonathan Balcombe, the author of this New York Times best-selling book, has worked for many years as an ethologist (a scientist who studies animal behaviour). He is director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy. His website is His other books are The Exultant Art: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, Second Nature: The Iinner Livers of Animals, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, and The Use of Aanimals in ...more
Alexander Landerman
Wonderful read, and worth your time. More Thesis reading
Joshua Buhs

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
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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.
“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. —Eden Phillpotts Just” 1 likes
“They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses.” 1 likes
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