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Just beneath the surface: The secret lives of fish




'What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins
'What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins" book cover.
Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Turns out there's a lot more going on in fish brains than most of us realize. But fear not, Jonathan Balcombe's popular book dives into just that. "What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins" explores myths surrounding fish and works to give insight into what fish in our oceans are thinking and feeling.

That's right, fish... thinking and feeling.

For more on the inner machinations and secret lives of our "underwater cousins," A Martinez spoke with Balcombe.

Common misconceptions about fish?

"That they're primitive. They're in fact highly evolved. They've been around for 450 million years, which is about 450 times as long as we've been around. They're dimwitted, that they're emotionless, unfeeling, that they don't feel pain. These are all myths. I don't even like saying them because I don't want to reinforce the myths. But they're all some of the myths that I've busted in this book."

Why do we believe that?

"I think it's partly that fishes have been literally and figuratively below the surface and are thinking and are conscious. They live in another realm, right? You look out over the ocean or over a lake, you're not seeing any fishes, generally...

And so we've been alienated from them. And the fact that they don't blink, well they don't need to, they live in an aqueous medium. Their eyes are bathed in water constantly. We don't hear the sounds they make, they make tons of sounds but we don't hear them because they're under the water.

So, I think that's the key reason. And I think why we're emerging from this now, finally, is that we have the technologies. We have scuba gear, we have underwater photography, and you can watch YouTube videos of fishes doing stuff that would've been thought fantasy just a generation ago.

It's one thing for you to say that though, but what's the science behind it?

"A key reason why I wrote this book, is I was encountering in my everyday work, science that really surprised me. It was like, 'Wow, these guys are doing stuff that I had no idea.' They have thoughts, they plan, they use tools, they fall for optical illusions, they have sex lives, they have interesting social lives, they can be devious and machiavellian, I mean the list goes on...

It's really quite an explosion of information that we now have coming out about fishes. But most of it doesn't filter up to the general public which is why I wanted to write a book like this that's accessible to lay readers."

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