Book club: ‘What a fish knows’ by Jonathan Balcombe

‘Eye-opening’ – Sunday Times

The front cover of ‘What a fish knows’ by Jonathan Balcombe

Despite being the largest and most diverse group of all the vertebrates, fish are also one of the most misunderstood and exploited groups of animals on the planet. A majority of people imagine that fish are unfeeling, unintelligent and unremarkable, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In his 2016 book ‘What a fish knows: The inner lives of our underwater cousins’ Jonathan Balcombe sets out to change this by showing us that fish are actually more like us than we believe. In doing so he also highlights how our behaviours towards these animals are far more morally questionable than we think.

Even goldfish are much more intelligent and capable than people give them credit for

The core of this book is an examination into the lives and experiences of fish. Using a combination of scientific studies, personal anecdotes and expert opinions, Balcombe paints a vivid picture of what life is like as a fish and showcases that it is probably a lot more interesting than we give them credit for. He examines how they feel pain, learn to solve problems, interact socially, remember things, love each other and sense the world around them. He is especially good at relating their underwater lives to our own and illustrating that although we occupy completely different worlds there are still striking similarities between us.  

However, the main question this book ask is that; given how intelligent, social and aware fish really are, is the way we treat them acceptable? Towards the end of this book the focus shifts away from the inner lives of fish and instead looks at fishing (both commercial & recreational), aquaculture and other ways we unsustainably exploit fish, and how these practices are far more damaging, traumatic and ecologically destructive than most people realise. In doing so not only does this book show us ‘What a fish knows’, but also asks us what we are going to do about it now we know.

The relationship between cleaner wrasse and groupers on coral reefs is just one example of complex social behaviour amongst fish

Overall, ‘What a fish knows’ is a fantastic insight into the lives of fish and also has the potential to cause real change in human actions by highlighting issues that most people are totally unaware of.


This review is the eleventh in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a new review of an ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page here.

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