One of a book editor's easy tasks is finding out which subject areas spawn the most new books. This is accomplished by carefully observing which shelf of review copies sags the most - public affairs? biography? ancient history?
A harder but more rewarding task is discovering which books to recommend. After reading through several new volumes about Charles Darwin and the attempts of archaeologists and theorists to tie up the loose ends of his controversial theory, it's clear there are some outstanding finds this season.
One of the most important is The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 325 pp., $14.95) by Stephen Jay Gould. In January it won its author, a Harvard biologist, a National Book Critics Circle Award, which follows last year's American Book Award for Gould's previous work, ''The Panda's Thumb.''
In ''The Mismeasure of Man'' Gould knocks some props from under biological data that give support to racism and other forms of injustice. One of the most presistent fallacies, he argues, is the idea that evolution has resulted in lower levels of intelligence in nonwhites than whites.
The reader may be in for surprises in this fascinating history of social science since Darwin. For example, Gould points out that until recently ''the larger size of white brains was an unquestioned 'fact' among white scientists.'' And he carefully documents how racial prejudice has unconsciously distorted the findings of top researchers over the last 100 years.
He also shows how their data have detrimentally affected not only racial attitudes but immigration quotas, the access of millions of white as well as black schoolchildren to higher education, and the treatment of criminals and those labeled mentally retarded.
In the penal area, for example, Gould cites the influence of ''criminal anthropology,'' a discipline that sprang from the work of 19th-century Italian physician Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso theorized that ''born criminals'' were throwbacks to an earlier, less developed link in an evolutionary chain, identifiable by their anatomical resemblances to apes. Though the theory is discredited today, its influence lingers. Gould says the main impact is on how the criminal is viewed:
''To understand crime, study the criminal, not his rearing, not his education , not the current predicament that might have inspired his theft or pillage. . . .
''Few people realize,'' he continues, ''that our modern apparatus of parole, early release, and indeterminate sentencing stems in part from Lombroso's campaign for differential treatment of born and occasional criminals.'' Indeterminate sentences, he notes, are still used to sequester the dangerous. ''. . . George Jackson, author of 'Soledad Brother,' died under Lombroso's legacy, trying to escape after 11 years (8 1/2 in solitary) of an indeterminate one-year-to-life sentence for stealing $70 from a gas station.''
Gould thinks the social scientists have put too much faith in numbers and too much weight on a single concept, ''intelligence,'' which really only summarizes the ''wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. . . . Once intelligence becomes an entity, standard procedures of science virtually dictate that a location and physical substrate be sought for it,'' he continues. Then the tendency is to measure and rank individuals using ''a single number for each person.''
The man who devised the IQ scale, 19th-century French anthropologist Alfred Binet, had no such aim in mind. He used it exclusively to determine which children in the school system needed special help. Binet wrote that ''intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.''
"The number is only an average of many performances, not an entity unto itself,'' Gould asserts, and the American psychologists who extended and popularized Binet's scale after his death were on shaky ground, he says. Some of them have viewed IQ as a marker of permanent inborn limits, and Gould notes that the scores have been used to segregate classes and races, sterilize the ''mentally deficient,'' mark the ''sociopath'' for removal from society, and channel ''biologically unacceptable'' people away from ''unsuitable'' professions. Gould points out that his book is timely because ''biological determinism,'' the dogma that intelligence is inherited, precisely measurable, and basically unalterable, ''is rising in popularity again, as it always does in times of political retrenchment.''
Reanalyzing the data of influential 19th- and 20th-century scientists, Gould finds that almost invariably their prior expectations caused unconscious errors to twist their conclusions. Though Gould's own critics accuse him of the same kind of mistakes, his evidence here seems convincing. Gould's bottom line: ''I . . . label the whole enterprise of setting a biological value on groups for what it is: irrelevant, intellectually unsound, and highly injurious.''
Some parts of the book are slow-going because of the wealth of detail, but Gould's writing is consistently clear, lively, and inviting. Anyone who wants to understand the IQ debate and the broad but dubious heritage that links discrimination with mental testing will want to read it.
Another fine book that addresses issues in today's headlines is The New Evolutionary Timetable (New York: Basic Books, 222 pp., $16.75) by Steven M. Stanley. Stanley makes a convincing case against the arguments of religious fundamentalists who feel that ''creationism'' should be taught in public schools. But the main concern of this Johns Hopkins paleobiologist is to refine and update Darwin's ideas. Using new fossil evidence, Stanley argues that evolutionary changes occur, not gradually over eons and among large, stable groups of animals or plants, as Darwin believed, but suddenly, over a few thousand years in small, isolated groups. His book stands out for its comprehensiveness and clarity.
Two more books offer front-line views of archaeologists in search of fossil evidence that could close the gaps in our knowledge of mankind's history. The newer one is The Making of Mankind (New York: E. P. Dutton, 256 pp., $24.95) by Richard E. Leakey. Written in conjunction with a British television series, this handsomely illustrated volume examines the evidence of mankind's distant past on three continents and looks at the impact of recent finds on evolutionary theory, and the rise of agriculture and of language.
The older book is Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 320 pp. $16.95) by Donald C. Johanson and Maitland A. Edey. Working in Ethopia, Johanson and his colleages unearthed the remains of ''Lucy'' - at 3.5 million years, the oldest human ancestor on record. This book takes readers into the heart of the research. (See a full-length review in the Monitor of Apr. 8, 1981.)
A final book is recommended for readers who want a well-organized, detailed, and sometimes eloquent account of Darwin's life, together with a workmanlike and occasionally insightful survey of his ideas: Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity (New York: Harper & Row, 536 pp., $20.75) by British biographer Peter Brent. The author provides a finely balanced view of the exhilaration and personal costs of Darwin's world-shaking findings upon this supremely inquisitive man, some of whose questions still are waiting to be answered.
I came away from this particular shelf of books with an enormous appreciation of the biologist's quest to understand the ancient traces of humans on earth and the natural processes that affect all the wonderfully diverse varieties of life. But I was also reminded of the vast human capacity to be misled. These books make it abundantly clear that there's no room for arrogance or dogmatism on the part of scientists or those who differ with some of their views. We all have much to learn.