IT SEEMS UNTHINKABLE now, but our hominid

forebears managed to hoist themselves out of the primordial goo and find the evolutionary off-ramp to humanity without the benefit of a single self-help book. Yet modern man -- the pride of the cosmos with his Eggs McMuffin, herbal shampoos and steel-belted radials -- can scarcely tie his shoes without consulting some paperback guru. Clearly, Homo sapiens is degenerating into Homo ineptus, and every year we need more help.

Publishers have been monstrously eager to oblige. There's a succour born every minute, and the racks are slathered with titles. Some are excellent, as we shall see. Many are despicable -- cynically produced, bloated with cant, not even books so much as mutated smile-buttons. Worse yet, both sorts look identical. But even the most desperately perplexed help-hunter can buy wisely by learning to use these simple guidelines:

* The Patronizing Babble Index.

* The Redundancy Quotient.

* The Defunct Metaphor Warning Indicator.

* The Scribal Narcissism Profile.

The P.B.I. is computed thus: Flip through the volume, reading six paragraphs at random. Score 15 points for each lumpy locution like "the roots of your being" or "the road map of your mind" or "responsibility is a big word"; five points for each paragraph without a concrete example; and 20 points for each diagram with a fatuous heading like "Stairway to Nowhere." If the score is 50, you are holding the hardcover equivalent of John Denver. If 75 or more, you are being insulted, as is plainly the case with The Power to Change Your Life (Doubleday, $13.95), from which the above examples are taken.

Psychological counselors Kathryn Jason and Joe McMahon begin by deriding most other self-help books as "simply pep talks" which do not encourage the reader "to reflect about his or her life or examine his or her motivations in a meaningful, lasting way." (Note the double use of the pseudo-liberated "his-or-her" construction, invariably presaging a torturous style.) Their alternative at first sounds promisingly practical. We are advised to "find a quiet, comfortable place to sit" and then write down our deepest concerns on a sheet of paper. (Self-help authors' faith in the efficacy of foolscap borders on the supernatural.) But soon we are sliding into an ooze of abstraction: "Trusting your feelings means that you stay in touch with what you are feeling in order to responsibly think through what those feelings are indicating about your conscious and subconscious evaluations." By the end of the book, we are reduced to swampy pleonasms like this: "True value judgments are made when our intuitive values are the norms guiding our practical judgments." And we are deeply gratified when the authors finally abdicate responsibility and recommend enrollment in workshops, individual therapy and assertiveness training. Save $13.95 and sign up now.

But for sheer volume of benighted babble, no one surpasses Norman Vincent Peale, the man who afflicted civilization with The Power of Positive Thinking, and now is at it again in You Can If You Think You Can (Prentice-Hall, paperback, $4.95). Peale spends a third of his time recounting self-aggrandizing stories about the miraculous success of his disciples and reminding us of his access to such celestial figures as Richard Nixon. He squanders another third on dime-store jingoism. ("We are the descendants of a once great breed of men who had problems and had them aplenty. But did they whine and whimper and crawl through life on their hands and knees piteously demanding of some so-called benevolent government that they be taken care of?") And for the rest, he thumps away at his two jejune precepts for coping with adversity: the Persistence Principle ("It's always too soon to quit,"); and the Perception Principle of critical self-examination ("Stand in front of a mirror and say to yourself, 'Now look, I want the truth about you' "). Pretty soon you can do anything.

Just how a fella might get one of these super-grade epiphanies is never explained in the quagmire of platitudes. But no matter. In the gospel according to Peale, suffering is God's way of telling you to Have a Nice Day: "When the Lord wishes to give you a great value . . . Does He wrap it up in a glamorous and sophisticated package and hand it to you on a silver platter?" Well, mercy, no. He thoughtfully "buries it at the heart of a great big, tough problem." Look at it this way: "Only alive people have problems. And the more you have, the more alive you are. So be glad you have problems." Not apt to be convincing for the cheese-line crowd, or anyone with an IQ over the speed limit.

To use the second guideline, the Redundancy Quotient, open the book at random and read 10 consecutive paragraphs. If five or more say the same thing (or un- thing) in only marginally different ways, with the author shuffling his jargon bits around like cards in a bridge hand, you are entitled to burn the book and dance on the ashes.

John W. Gardner's revised edition of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (Norton, $12.95) has a Redundancy Quotient in double digits. Gardner, the admirable founder of Common Cause, has a small thesis: Society can avoid "the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness" by encouraging humane adaptation and developing a populace with the motivation and open-mindedness to match. Alert readers will note that this is not an argument but a tautology -- offered without concrete examples, circumspect to the point of inanity and inflicted upon the increasingly narcoleptic reader with endless permutations of the same distended rhetoric: "Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life -- not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent." The psychic effect of such syntax is equal to a week in the Trenton bus station.

The Defunct Metaphor Warning Indicator, if it appears, will occur in the first 10 pages, signaling that the author is bereft of inspiration and relying on fly-blown clich,es. Watch for the appearance of these mummified tropes: That life is like a) a river, b) a sea voyage, c) a road; or that the mind is like d) a growing plant, e) a marvelous trunk, f) a computer. And, of these, the roadies are so particularly execrable (Jason & McMahon: "The answer to where the path will go is in the process") that by comparison computerites may seem positively oracular, no matter how shop-worn their jargon to the Transistor Generation.

But the computer model, too, has a built-in banality that makes it virtually impossible to sustain at book length. Jules Z. Willing begins The Lively Mind (Morrow, $11.50) by calling the mind "the ultimate computer . . . already programmed to evolve, improve its own design, increase its own capacity." He wants us to achieve "mental aliveness" by a two-step process of feeding the brain with new "input" and then developing "reflexiveness: the ability to observe and think about what you are thinking about." But despite some pleasing digressions (he comfortingly debunks various myths about aging, memory loss and senility), the thesis is just too thin to stretch. And Willing, who died just after completing the book, finally resorts to quite uncybernetic remedies: keeping a journal, making notes in book margins, trying unfamiliar periodicals (Bigfoot News comes recommended), publishing your own book, reading aloud and, yes, getting a pen pal.

To measure the Scribal Narcissism Profile, sample one paragraph every 50 pages. Score one point for each anecdote in which the author is the protagonist; twoon points if celebrity names are dropped or the author is shown to be a Swell Guy. Anything over six is camouflaged autobiography.

William Atwood's Making It Through Middle Age (Atheneum, $12.95), scores eight. The veteran journalist and victim of heart attack, stroke and polio promises to be our "self-appointed guide" through the years between the 40th birthday and "that sobering milestone where, if you get a new dog, you can be reasonably sure it will outlive you." This proves mere pretext. Atwood lavishes nearly all his effort on 40 years of pungent personal anecdotes, and here his prose shines. But when he tries to generalize, his voice grows lackluster, his advice vapid. ("There's perforce a generation gap between you and your children.") And his life has a dubious applicability to America's bewildered millions. Few of us can afford to resign early as publisher of Newsday "because I was getting stale," and then hop off to teach at Yale or dabble at the Aspen Institute. Fewer still can identitfy with his nostalgia over the time he went to bed with three Parisian popsies at once, or his regret at passing up that fishing invitation from Hemingway. And when he finally confides that he might have singlehandedly prevented the Bay of Pigs if only he had talked to Jack Kennedy . . . well, Bill, we'll wait for the movie.

Inadvertently high in SNP is Dr. Joseph Wolpe's Our Useless Fears (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95), written with his son David -- a self-congratulatory history of Wolpe's celebrated behavioral methodology cunningly mismarketed as a self-help book. There are engaging and lurid case studies, informative psychiatric background and some peculiar insights into the author ("I habitually wipe my shoes when I enter a house, but not if there is no doormat"). But forget about do-it-yourself: Wolpe, understandably, recommends therapy.

Careful attention to the above guidelines will enable the browser to choose a superior title such as The Art of Creative Thinking (Cornerstone, paperback, $6.95) -- a modest masterpiece of compression and utility, organized into brisk, short sections and packed with concrete examples. New York attorney Gerard Nierenberg believes that our habit of seeing events in routine categories stifles the mind. Drawing from semantics, he postulates five perceptual modes -- structure, order, relation, level and point of view -- and argues that we must constantly shift modes to see creatively. Once this formula is in place, Nierenberg generously goes short on prose, long on exercises. Two examples: "You are asked to add a line to IX to make a six." If you keep thinking in Roman numerals, you'll never get it. But add a capital S and you have SIX. Or try this: "Their is four errers in this sentence. Can you find them?" Did you count three, for spelling and grammar? The fourth is that there are only three errors in the sentence. This little volume is a cheerful vade mecum for everybody.

Equally valuable is Gerald M. Phillips' Help for Shy People (Prentice-Hall/Spectrum, paperback, $5.95). Given the title, one expects yet another deluge of treacle. But Phillips, a speech communication therapist, is wonderfully, ruthlessly practical. Shyness is "not a 'defect' but a lack of skills." And forget that inner-power malarkey: "The only way you can see how you look to others is to examine how others respond to you." He demonstrates, with breathtaking cynicism, how to get those responses -- always insisting on very specific, concrete goals. It isn't easy (he urges Aristotelean rhetoric), but then "A good way to overcome shyness is to train yourself to do something other people cannot do that they find valuable. In this case we are talking about making sense." However, since "a great deal of what gets said at initial meetings is clich,e," he advises beginners to "discover the appropriate clich,es." Ditto for social events: "It is hard to say anything substantive and have people react to it seriously, so it is not productive even to try." He even includeson a list of clich,es and "safe topics" such as "the dip is delicious. I wonder what it is made of?" For phobic job-seekers, Phillips concludes with a superbly detailed discussion of r,esum,e preparation, along with a step-by-step analysis of the psychodynamics of the job interview and strategies on both sides: If the interviewer tries joking around to see if you have a sense of humor, "don't get carried away . . . He or she may be trying to see how willing you are to waste time."

There is none wasted in these two volumes. Help yourself.