POST BY Sarah Yerrace, UW Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences UNDERGRADUATE

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins” by Jonathan Balcombe is a crash course in fish behavior and physiology. But not to worry, you don’t need a college degree in ichthyology to get through the book. Balcombe effectively communicates peer-reviewed research in an accessible way so the average person can follow along. The book covers topics from fish senses and perception to their social and sex life. Fishes become more relatable than ever, and considering they are our ancestors, they should be.

The hardcover version of “What a Fish Knows”

Thoughts from a Fish Enthusiast

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is the first book I’ve read cover to cover in quite a while. It was a refreshing change from my typical college diet of scientific peer-reviewed papers. I admit my bias as a lover of fishes – I started this book expecting to enjoy it. Even though I had already learned much of the information in previous college classes, I never found it boring. The transitions from one topic to another felt seamless, and I found myself more than once unintentionally reading late into the night.

My Love for Fish Articulated

I remember throughout junior high and high school, a particular guy (named Max) would always make fun of me for wanting to study fishes. To him, there was nothing dumber than a fish. I wish this book had been around back in junior high. There was nothing more frustrating than having your passions belittled with no way to formulate a defense. To me, “What a Fish Knows” helps me articulate why I want to study fishes. Balcombe begins his book with a mind-boggling fact: “When we refer to ‘fish’ we are referring to 60% of all the known species on Earth with backbones”. They are more diverse than all other vertebrates—mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles—combined. Fish have been around for more than 450 million years and live in the largest habitat on Earth.

My favorite fish, the Mandarin dragonet (Synchiropus splendidus). This fish is unique because it is the only vertebrate with true blue pigmentation. Photo by Luc Viatour

This is why I choose to study our ocean and the fishes that bring them to life. As one of the most successful groups on Earth, they hold the clues to our origins. Fishes provide not only food for us, but recreation for humanity and deserve respect for their services. We will learn to respect and admire fishes and their diversity the more we study and learn about them. This is what Balcombe wants to convey through his words and this is what I wish I could have told Max.

When we refer to ‘fish’ we are referring to 60% of all the known species on Earth with backbones

The Good, the Bad, and the Fishy

Since its publication in 2016, the book has received over 140 reviews on Amazon, with an average 4.7 out of 5 stars, and most reviews feature words like “fascinating”, “brilliant”, and “astonishing”. Many people described how their view of fishes was changed by the book. They had no idea about the biological details and behavior of fishes and gained a new appreciation for them. One reviewer wrote that they were using the book for an upper level marine science class and the students loved it; they weren’t the only one using the book for teaching. Another ichthyologist commented that even with his education, there were still things to learn from the book. Of course, there were some reviews by people who thought the information was presented with a bias, especially considering Balcombe’s background as an animal rights activist. One amazon reviewer wrote, “…the author is a scientist and should be objective, [but] this book is not”. Others wrote that Balcombe used science to support personal belief instead of using science to share awe and wonder at the natural world.

However, because of the conversational tone in his writing, it’s clear that the book wasn’t meant to be a strictly scientific textbook. I would argue that the book probably would not have even been written if not for Balcombe’s own awe of aquatic environments. Balcombe provides his interpretation of the scientific studies, which I didn’t find to be an inherently bad thing. I think his main goal was to show people that fishes aren’t just ‘things’ but living creatures that deserve respect for all that they provide for humanity. (For more on science communication, see our post on science communication: Taking the “Fake” Out of Fake News)

Regardless of your background, “What a Fish Knows” will change your perception of what life is like underwater.

More About the Book’s Author

Jonathan Balcombe has earned three biology degrees including a PhD in ethology

The author, Jonathan Balcombe. Photo by Amie Chou

from the University of Tennessee. Since then, he has published over 50 peer-reviewed papers on animal behavior and protection. He was formerly a Department Chair for Animal Studies with Humane Society University and is currently the director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. “What a Fish Knows” is his fifth published book.

Links to Other Reviews

Huffington Post

Hakai Magazine

The Scientific American