Richard Dawkins became famous due to the success of The Selfish Gene (1976), which is now a classic popular science book. Its main theme is that natural selection develops at the gene level, not at the level of the individual. In fact, he goes as far as to say that “…we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” [p. 2]. The replicators (the genes within DNA) developed longevity, fecundity, and high-fidelity, and they drive the robotic machines.
The ‘selfish’ aspect of Dawkin’s thesis is meant in a metaphoric sense: genes are not consciously selfish, but it would appear as though they are to an outside observer. And, indeed, Dawkins points out that altruism is a required element for the continuance of the replicator (Dawkins biggest hurdle with many critics was the term selfish; in retrospect, he admits — in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition — that The Immortal Gene may have served him better as a title).
Later in the book, Dawkins explains that the evolution of the brain has created beings that are able to rise above the control of the ‘selfish gene’, and he coins another term for beings that have attained this level of evolution: the selfish meme.
Dawkins is a persuasive writer and he builds his case well by using scientific examples in layman’s language, but at times his tautologies feel top heavy, as if they were built on an invisible foundation (a certain behavior must be due to selfish genes because all behavior is due to selfish genes).
There are some fascinating facts sprinkled throughout the book and there is an abundance of food for thought, but I cringed when Dawkins began to philosophize (he admits he is not a philosopher, yet this does not stop him from moralizing); in particular, I found his diatribes against religion off-putting. I’m not going to spend time here arguing for (or against) religion, but I think Dawkins could have let his thesis stand on its own (he should have made his points and moved on) without attacking a belief system that is not truly disprovable; after all, Dawkins’ theory is really just another belief system.
If you plan to read the book I would recommend acquiring at least the second edition (updated with corrections and extra material, including excellent Endnotes), which enriches the reading experience.
The Selfish Gene is an enjoyable read, with a few sections I had to slog through, and some unfortunate sections I could have done without, but it was intellectually stimulating.