TLDR? Just read the bold bits!
I started with Darwin's Origin of Species, and then read Dawkins's first three books The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind watchmaker (I just started River out of Eden).
Dawkins talks of Gradualists and Punctuationalists as if their views are incompatible but my initial understanding of Darwin was that both of these are true. My understanding is that if you look at an individual line of heredity then you will see a very consistent and gradual change through the generations (at the mutation rate), but if you look at the population as a whole you will see "periods of rapid evolution".
To me this seems easy to reconcile. Imagine a gene for fur thickness in polar bears, if each nth generation has a 'random' mutation for thicker or thinner then for each line of heredity you'll see a random walk about the starting point. Most of them will go up a bit, then down a bit, and end up close to where they started, some will be a bit further away, and a small number will be far away (much thicker or thinner fur) in a Gaussian distribution. So any random sample from the population that happens to become a fossil is most likely to be in the middle (i.e. unchanged over many generations).
Now if there's a sudden environmental change, or a one-off freak event such as a very cold winter, say that only the 10% with the thickest fur survived this cold winter (and perhaps a very small number of others who got lucky). Now very quickly within a few generations, that thick fur gene will dominate and as the population grows back to whatever size the environment can sustain it will be present in much greater absolute numbers than before the selection event. When looking at random samples of the population throughout this period, you might conclude that there has been a "period of rapid evolution". If the change is more gradual than a single sudden event, for example it gets colder over 500 years, each year the ones with the thinnest fur die off and the thicker fur genes get more popular in the population. This would appear to be a very rapid period of evolution, but really all the evolving happened gradually, long before the selection event.
My question really is what's wrong with this view of things? Dawkins seemed to anticipate all my thoughts and objections while I read his books and provided explanations, except for this one. This kept nagging at me the whole time and he never mentions it at all. I can't imagine I'm the first person to think this way (especially since Darwin himself pretty much said this) so why doesn't Dawkins explain it (either as correct or as incorrect with the reasons why)? Can someone please explain it to me either way?