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 cats, because those animals readily exhibit affection via their actions and variable facial expressions. But other animals, especially those incapable of changing facial expressions, find it more difficult to claim the respect of human beings. And Jonathon Balcombe contends that fish, of all the members of this too easily written off group of static-faced animals, is probably the most underestimated of the lot.
Balcombe offers What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins in hope that the book will change the way that we think about the more than thirty thousand species of fish that exist today before it is too late to save many of them from extinction. Balcombe strives to make us see fish as individuals that can think, feel emotions and pain, make choices, enjoy play, hunt in cooperative groups, learn to use tools, and live complicated social lives. The author rightfully believes that the world’s commercial fishing industry is still so unregulated and out of control that it is in the process of relentlessly destroying the very fish species that make it a viable proposition for today’s fishermen. I submit that anyone who reads What a Fish Knows with an open mind will find it difficult, it not impossible, to argue otherwise.
Balcombe builds his case by using both the latest scientific breakthrough discoveries and anecdotal evidence from fish owners, recreational and professional divers, and others whose lifework is caring for and studying fish. The book is split into seven sections: “The Misunderstood Fish,” “What a Fish Perceives,” “What a Fish Feels,” “What a Fish Thinks,” “Who a Fish Knows,” “How a Fish Breeds,” and “Fish Out of Water.” For the most part, the content of each section is as clear as the title, but two of the sections demand a bit of an explanation.
“The Misunderstood Fish” section focuses on the point that fish are not the “lowly” creatures that most of us believe them to be. As Balcombe puts it:
“Lacking detectable facial expressions and appearing mute, fishes are more easily dismissed than our fellow air breathers. Their place in human culture falls almost universally into two entwined contexts: (1) something to be caught, and (2) something to be eaten.”
The “Fish Out of Water” section is the one in which the author stresses “it isn’t easy being a fish in an age of humans.” This is where he exposes the commercial fishing practices that do so much collateral damage to the populations of non-targeted fish, practices that see the wasted-by-catch tonnage rivaling the targeted tonnage taken by some commercial shrimpers and fishermen. According to Balcombe, right at one-third “of the world’s fish catch…is not eaten by humans.”
Two paragraphs from What a Fish Knows beautifully summarize what Jonathon Balcombe hopes his readers will take away from his book. The first paragraph appears on page 177 in the “Who a Fish Knows” section, and I quote a portion of it below:
“The main conclusion we may draw from these aspects of what a fish knows is that fishes are individuals with minds and memories, able to plan, capable of recognizing others, equipped with instincts and able to learn from experience. In some cases, fishes have culture. As we’ve seen, fishes also show virtue through cooperative relationships both within and between species.”
The second paragraph I want to quote from appears on page 207 in the “How a Fish Breeds” section of the book:
“Fishes are not merely alive – they have lives. They are not just things, but beings. A fish is an individual with a personality and relationships. He or she can plan and learn, perceive and innovate, soothe and scheme, experience moments of pleasure, fear, playfulness, pain, and – I suspect – joy. A fish feels and knows.”
Bottom Line: What a Fish Knows is guaranteed to make the reader rethink his relationship with everything from his pet goldfish to the largest whale in the ocean. It is an eye-opener with a message, but it is also an entertaining book about a cousin of ours we all too often take for granted.