Actually it's not as bizarre as you might think. Lot's of people don't understand the ideas that Dawkins was pushing. He was mostly pointing out that evolution is a phenomenon that takes places at the level of genes and populations. Dawkins tweets that Rafford "gets it" in his review.
Lovely retrospective review of The Selfish Gene by Tim Radford, the Guardian's distinguished science writer. He gets it.Unfortunately, Tim Rafford doesn't "get" everything. I was surprised to read this in the review ...
To re-read it is to be reminded of what an extraordinary achievement it was. When he picked up the theme, researchers certainly knew that genes contained the instructions for protein assembly; some had found a way – laborious and inaccurate – to "read" a DNA sequence; and others had begun attempts to "map" certain genes to particular chromosomes.That's not how I remember it. Back in 1976 my colleagues and I were beginning a project to clone a Drosophila gene (hsp70). We had a very good idea of what a gene was and we knew about lots of genes that didn't encode proteins. We had detailed genetic maps of many 'phage, viruses, and bacteria, and high resolution maps of the genes in specific parts of eukaryotic chromosomes.
But that was about it: nobody knew for sure what a gene was, how many genes there might be, how they did what they did, or how they could affect the behaviour and preferences of an individual, or a species.
We knew roughly how many genes there were in E. coli, Drosophila melanogaster, Homo sapiens, and many other species. We knew a lot about the functions of many genes and the proteins they encoded.
On the other hand, it's true that we had only the vaguest notions of how genes might affect behavior. In fact, many of us weren't even sure that all behaviors had a strong genetic component. That's why there was so much opposition to Sociobiology (now called evolutionary psychology) [The Bankruptcy of Evolutionary Psychology ].
That part hasn't changed much since the publication of The Selfish Gene. There's still a lot of controversy over the role of genes in animal behavior.
It's important to remember that The Selfish Gene advocates an adaptationist (Darwinian) view of evolution. This is the view that Gould & Lewontin attacked in their "Spandrels" paper a few years later [What Does San Marco Basilica Have to do with Evolution?].
Here's how Dawkins describes the selfish gene—the fundamental unit of natural selection (p. 33). (I would love to hear how he defines the fundamental unit of random genetic drift.)
To be strict, this book should be called not The Selfish Cistron nor The Selfish Chromosome, but The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome. To say the least this is not a catchy title so, defining a gene as a little bit of chromosome which potentially lasts for many generations, I call the book The Selfish Gene.
We have now arrived back at the point we left at the end of Chapter 1. There we saw that selfishness is to be expected in any entity that deserves the title of the basic unit of natural selection. We saw that some people regard the species as the unit of natural selection, others the population or group within the species, and yet others the individual. I said that I preferred to think of the gene as the fundamental unit of natural selection, and therefore the fundamental unit of self-interest. What I have now done is to define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!