"I can readily see that 'The Selfish Gene' on its own, without the large footnote of the book itself, might give an inadequate impression of its contents."
Richard has lamented that he should have taken the advice of his friend Tom Maschler and named this book The Immortal Gene instead.
There is a misconception that many seem to have foolishly made about this book. Nothing about it states that we as organisms are necessarily selfish, or require selfish motives to function in the world. The title refers to the genes themselves.
Prior to the popularisation of the book, there was discourse in the scientific community about whether evolution by natural section took place at the level of the individual organism or at the level of the species.
That is; is it the fittest individuals that flourish and pass on their traits to the next generation or the fittest species. Altruistic behaviours in individual organisms including humans for the benefit of kin seemed to point to nature selecting for the fittest groups rather than individuals.
The Selfish Gene argues against this pointing to the gene as the unit of biology and therefore selection. It is because kin have genes in common that such behaviours can be found.
"Would I lay my life for a brother? No, but I would for two brothers or eight cousins."
From this point of view neither the organism nor the group are of ultimate significance. Rather, they are a part of the environment. The organism is a means of protecting and propagating genes from generation to generation.
To spell out the analogy in the title: genes construct organisms around them for their benefit. It is the genes themselves that are described as selfish, not the organisms they create.