Book Reviews - Summer 2016

The Lives Aquatic

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There is much more to gilled creatures than meets the eye

Nick Hobgood

By Eugene Linden

June 6, 2016


 

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe; Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 304 pp., $27

“Okay, so what can I eat, Mr. Balcombe?” was just one reaction I had to What a Fish Knows, which, among other things, demolishes the common justification for eating fish: namely, that they aren’t sentient and don’t feel pain. According to Jonathan Balcombe, they are and do. He cites a slew of field and laboratory studies that suggest that fish can innovate, cooperate, strategize, use tools, and pass on knowledge. As for pain, studies imply that they not only feel it but also recognize suffering and distress in others and sometimes respond helpfully.

Some of the studies he cites would be newsworthy if they related to higher mammals. In one, scientists put food into a plastic pipe to see whether stingrays could figure out how to extract it. They did, some by moving their fins to create a current through the pipe, others by using their bodies to create suction. Seeing this, the diabolical scientists added extensions to each end of the pipe, one of which contained wire mesh to prevent the food from coming out. All the rays quickly turned their attention to the end that was not blocked, and one invented a new way to move the food—by blowing water from its mouth through the pipe.

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Eugene Linden is the author, most recently, of The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands, and Indigenous Peoples Meet.


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