Andrew Brown and Mary Midgley are prominent examples of people with this kind of misunderstanding and Jerry Coyne has set them straight in Poor Richard’s Almanac: Andrew Brown and the Pope go after The Selfish Gene and “Selection pressures” are metaphors. So are the “laws of physics.”
However, there are two other problem with the metaphor. The first is rather trivial, it refers to the fact that it's actually alleles, or variants, of a gene that are "selfish." Dawkins knows this. He explains it in his book but I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the concept and in most parts of the book he uses "gene" when he should be saying "allele." I grant that The Selfish Allele is not a catchy title.
The second problem is the emphasis on natural selection—a hallmark of Dawkins' writing. He doesn't even consider the success of "lucky" genes (alleles) that aren't "selfish." His readers are left with the impression that only selfish genes succeed. The Lucky Gene is a book that still has to be written.
Jerry Coyne thinks that The Selfish Gene is a very important book. He says, ...
The Selfish Gene, which has by now sold well over a million copies in a gazillion languages, is a seminal work, and has opened the eyes of millions to a gene-centered view of evolution and all that it explains: cooperation, conflict, and, in its brilliant central metaphor, the process of natural selection. I can’t count the number of people who have told me, either in person or on this site, that it changed their lives, opening them up to the wonders of science.Jerry seems to be thinking of non-scientists. I'm not sure if scientists, especially biologists, think the same. I believe that most biologists still think of individual organisms as the primary unit of selection (evolution). Most of them have not adopted the gene-centric view of evolution expressed by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Neither have I.
I understand population genetics and its central role in evolution but that's an entirely different model than the one Dawkins writes about in his book. Dawkins doesn't talk very much about evolving populations or allele frequencies. That's a shame because, if he had, he would have made a much greater impact on people's understanding of evolution.
I do not think The Selfish Gene is a "seminal work." To me it's a collection of just-so stories and it serves as the perfect example of the view that Gould and Lewontin criticized in their Spandrels paper. What do others think?
I know that Richard Dawkins is very proud of the book. It was first published in 1976 and republished in 1989. In the preface to the 1989 edition, Richard Dawkins says ...
In the dozen years since The Selfish Gene was published its central message has become textbook orthodoxy. This is paradoxical, but not in the obvious way. It is not one of those books that was reviled as revolutionary when published, then steadily won converts until it ended up so orthodox that we now wonder what the fuss was about. Quite the contrary. From the outset the reviews were gratifyingly favourable and it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is widely regarded as a work of radical extremism. But over the very same years as the book's reputation for extremism has escalated, its actual content has seemed less and less extreme, more and more the common currency.I still see the book as controversial. I do not think that the "orthodox neo-Darwinism" described in the book has become "textbook orthodoxy."
The selfish gene theory is Darwin's theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognized and delighted in. It is in fact a logical outgrowth of orthodox neo-Darwinism, but expressed as a novel image. Rather than focus on the individual organism, it takes a gene's-eye view of nature. It is a different way of seeing, not a different theory.