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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins Hardcover – June 7, 2016
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Longlisted for the 2017 PEN / E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
One of the 10 Best Popular Science Books of 2016: Biological Sciences, Forbes
One of the Week's Best Science Picks, Nature
A "Must Read" Book, The Sunday Times (London)
One of the Best Books of the Year, National Post
"Latest Reads to Pique Your Curiosity," The Toronto Star
“Numerous books have shown me how utterly ignorant I am about most creatures I share this planet with, but none humbled me more than What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe.” ―Cornelia Funke, The Observer
"We Buddhists consider all animals, including fish, as sentient beings who have feelings of joy and pain just as we humans do. We also believe that they have all been kind to us as our mothers many times in the past, and are deserving of our compassion. Therefore, we try to help them in whatever way we can and at least avoid doing them harm. In What A Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe vividly shows that fish have feelings and deserve consideration and protection like other sentient beings. I hope reading it will help people become more aware of the benefits of vegetarianism and the need to treat animals with respect." ―The Dalai Lama
"An extended exploration of the world from a piscine perspective . . . Balcombe makes a persuasive case that what fish know is quite a lot." ―Elizabeth Kolbert, The New York Review of Books
"[An] exhaustively researched and elegantly written argument for the moral claims of ichthyofauna." ―Nathan Heller, The New Yorker
"What a Fish Knows will leave you humbled, thrilled, and floored. Jonathan Balcombe delivers a revelation on every page, presenting jaw-dropping studies and stories that should reshape our understanding of, and compassion for, some of the most diverse and successful animals who have ever lived. After reading this, you will never be able to deny that fishes love their lives as we love ours, and that they, too, are vividly emotional, intelligent, and conscious. Bravo!" ―Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, a National Book Award finalist
"Balcombe builds a persuasive argument. Writing in a straightforward, somewhat breezy style, he makes his case partly through a compendium of fascinating anecdotes and scientific findings that illustrate the complexity and creativity of fish behavior . . . Dozens of startling revelations emerge." ―Alan de Queiroz, The Wall Street Journal
"One of the most enlightening books I have ever read . . . What a Fish Knows will change the way you view fishes and their world." ―Dr. Mariappan Jawaharlal, The Huffington Post
"Balcombe has touched a nerve in me." ―Renée E. D’Aoust, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Beautiful . . . we’re much more similar to fish than meets the eye." ―David Gruber, Ideas.TED.com ("What Should You Read This Summer?")
"As ethologist Jonathan Balcombe notes in this engrossing study, breakthroughs are revealing sophisticated piscine behaviours. Balcombe glides from perception and cognition to tool use, pausing at marvels such as ocular migration in flounders and the capacity of the frillfin goby (Bathygobius soporator) to memorize the topography of the intertidal zone." ―Barbara Kiser, Nature
"Balcombe covers the waterfront, so to speak, from fish cognition and perception to their social structures and breeding practices, all the while drawing on a dizzying array of experiments and studies. In the hands of a lesser writer, the sheer weight of material could have overburdened the reader. But Balcombe’s prose is lively and clear, showcasing his gift for pithy sentences." ―Eugene Linden, The American Scholar
"What a Fish Knows bubbles with astounding fish facts." ―Kate Horowitz, Mental Floss
"[An] eye-opening look at the lives of fish." ―Christopher Hart, The Times (London)
"What a Fish Knows seeks to acquaint us with the 'fabulous diversity' of sentient beings in our waters." ―Sarah Murdoch, The Toronto Star
"The simple fact that fish live in an alien environment has created an information gap that scientists have been hard-pressed to bridge. Until now. Jonathan Balcombe, a professor of animal studies, fills the void in his new book What a Fish Knows, which argues we’re not as different from our water-brethren as you’d think." ―Joselin Linder, New York Post
"What a Fish Knows . . . certainly left this piscivorous angler queasy about picking up his rod. There are other ways of interacting with these marvelous animals . . . Perhaps we should treat our aquatic kin with a bit more respect." ―Ben Goldfarb, Hakai magazine
"This is a book full of wonders." ―David Profumo, Literary Review
"With the vivacious energy of a cracking good storyteller, Balcombe draws deeply from scientific studies and his own experience with fish to introduce readers to them as sentient creatures that live full lives governed by cognition and perception . . . Balcombe makes a convincing case that fish possess minds and memories, are capable of planning and organizing, and cooperate with one another in webs of social relationships." ―Publishers Weekly
"[A] sparkling exposition on 'our underwater cousins' . . . [and] a compelling pitch for greatly expanding fish conservation." ―Ray Olson, Booklist
"[Balcombe] offers an enjoyable, surprising and sometimes gruesome exploration of the world of fish, written with clarity and humor and grounded in many scientific studies . . . The breadth and depth of his research and his enthusiastic storytelling may permanently alter how [readers] look at a pet goldfish or a can of sardines." ―Sara Catterall, Shelf Awareness
"Balcombe's breathtaking book should instill a sense of humility and enormous wonder and awe at the rest of creation." ―David Suzuki, scientist, environmentalist, and broadcaster
"Outstanding. This excellent book brings fishes into their proper and well-deserved perspective." ―Dave DeWitt, food historian
"I thought I knew a lot about fishes. Then I read What a Fish Knows. And now I know a lot about fishes! Stunning in the way it reveals so many astonishing things about the fishes who populate planet Earth in their trillions, this book is sure to 'deepen' your appreciation for our fin-bearing co-voyagers, the bright strangers whose world we share." ―Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words
"Based on the latest scientific research, What a Fish Knows offers an eye-opening tour of the social, mental, and emotional lives of fishes. Who knew fishes use tools, appreciate music, fall for the same optical illusions we do, and engage in both cooperative hunting and some very kinky sex? Jonathan Balcombe's book is popular science writing at its best. It will spin your head around." ―Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat
"What a Fish Knows is a delightful and fascinating book that should be read by all who have dismissed fishes, especially the smaller denizens of the ocean, as utterly simple, primitive creatures. Jonathan Balcombe's lively descriptions of fish behavior are backed by solid science. What Carl Safina’s Beyond Words did for elephants, wolves, and orcas, Balcombe's book does for fishes. It is a terrific read." ―Wendy Benchley, ocean conservationist and co-founder of the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards
"Fishes are greatly misunderstood and grievously maligned. Now, in What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe uses the latest science to provide a comprehensive picture of just who fishes are. You will learn that fishes have distinct personalities, experience a wide range of emotions, form intricate social relationships, and are wonderful parents. Indeed, this forward-looking and long-overdue book is an integral part of reconnecting with the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet." ―Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Rewilding Our Hearts
"What a Fish Knows is the best book on fishes I have ever read. Brimming with engrossing anecdotes and humor, Jonathan Balcombe's inspiring treatise takes the reader on a fascinating and deeply moving journey into the lives of fishes. Balcombe's eloquent, persuasive, highly readable tour de force has a single, luminous message: Fishes deserve more respect, care, and protection." ―Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Wild and Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker
About the Author
Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of four books, including Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom. A popular commentator, he has appeared on The Diane Rehm Show, the BBC, and the National Geographic Channel, and in several documentaries, and is a contributor of features and opinions to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and other publications. He lives in Maryland. Find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and visit his website.
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I like reading about play and games and imagination and playfulness and all things related. And when I'm not reading about those things, I like reading science fiction. I especially like those "first contact" stories when the heroes are trying to figure out how to communicate with an alien mind. It's a wonderful exercise of the imagination, just to imagine someone who thinks differently than you. It's also a wonderful exercise in compassion, and understanding children and your significant others and your boss. Reading Dr. Balcombe's book is like that. Like reading science fiction. Only it's science non-fiction.
You’ll be amazed at how much mind is present in the two-thirds of the world we’ve never considered in any other light than that of food and perhaps beauty. I’d advise, however, that you skip the last chapter.
If, on the other hand, you like fish because they taste good, or because catching them is good sport, and you don’t want to think about the lives, the uniqueness of the beings that you are taking away from their communities and habitats, you should still read this book. It will give you a different perspective on things. It will help you appreciate the cost of the gift of their lives that you are accepting. But you still shouldn’t read the last chapter.
You might flip the book open to, for example, page 84 of the chapter that begins with the question "do fish feel pain?" where Dr. Balcombe writes:
"Fishes show the hallmarks of pain both physiologically and behaviorally. They possess the specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli. They can learn to avoid electric shocks and anglers' hooks. They are cognitively impaired when subjected to nasty insults to their bodies, and this impairment can be reversed if they are provided with pain relief."
Yes, but do they have fun?
And so, we turn to page 97.
"This one (fish) seemed to have a destination. She would swim in one direction along the bottom (of the aquarium), then, on reaching the end of the tank, she swerved upward and swam to the surface. Arriving there, she was met by the current of the water pump, pushing the little traveler like a rocket back to the other side. There, she descended back to the bottom and started her circuit all over."
Finally, yes, if you’re the kind of person who wants to save lives, conscious lives, who wants to help create a better balance between our ever-growing, all-consuming appetite and the dwindling abundance of ways to satisfy those appetites; if you want to get angry, yes, by all means, read the whole book, every last word.
I was so wrong.
In opening Jonathan Balcombe’s book, I fell into "Alice in Wonderland" waters where the characters come to life, - but real life, in an underwater civilization that I didn’t know existed. I set aside all I thought I knew about fishes after reading Chapter 1 – The Misunderstood Fish - which challenged the teachings on which I had based my bias about them.
Balcombe first leads through the basics, the understanding of fishes’ senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch and expanded to added senses of magnetic fields, electricity, and pressure.
Then his really challenging work begins: fishes’ pain, consciousness, awareness, stress, and joy followed by intelligence, tools, planning, and winning competitions with primates. Not one to hold back, Balcombe next leads us to the cultural pages of Fishdom with social contracts and societal cooperation, democracy, and peacekeeping.
I could relax my poor brain a bit when he finally ventured into the sex lives and parenting styles of fishes. (Gone was my long held belief that all female fishes let go of their eggs to wherever the waters took them.)
Before reading the last chapter, I braced myself for a round of proselytizing paragraphs on what is wrong about harming fish leading to a condemnation. But no, as a consummate scientist and brilliant writer, Balcombe simply lays out the facts clearly and calmly of how fishes and fish populations are suffering and how current human actions are irreparably damaging Earth’s underwater world. He has finished walking us through the science.
Now he leaves it up to us to decide what to do.