Justin Hickey in Open Letters Monthly:
In 1949, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz introduced his concept of the “baby schema,” which theorized that the large eyes, shorter snouts, and round wobbly heads of infant animals trigger caregiving urges in their parents. That this phenomenon crosses species lines is irrefutable, considering how much time we spend cooing at puppies and kittens—true fur babies—and any adult creature possessing a hint of benign fluffiness. If Lorenz were alive today, he’d nod in sage commiseration at our vast internet cache of videos and memes celebrating owls, raccoons, pigs, hedgehogs, rabbits, and ducklings (to name a few, in this reviewer’s order of Descending Cuddliness).
How about fishes? The puffer gracing the cover of Jonathan Balcombe’s new book, What a Fish Knows, stares out with a rascally mien, as if daring us to deny that he is, indeed, cute. With both eyes facing front, playful spots and stripes, and translucent fins whirling, you could say he’s all wobbly head. Might your first instinct be to pet his forehead, rather than see him sautéed on a plate?
Balcombe, a Humane Society ethologist who’s written about animals as sentient individuals of emotional complexity in Pleasurable Kingdom (2006) and Second Nature (2010), favors petting. Now he aims to show, through both the latest science and fabulous anecdotes, that “fishes are not just sentient, but aware, communicative, social, tool-using, virtuous, even Machiavellian.” Like author Sy Montgomery’s foray into similar pools with last year’s National Book Award finalist, The Soul of an Octopus, Balcome’s What a Fish Knows is meant primarily for those who treat the ocean like a buffet table, rather than the fascinating, fragile alien world that it is.