In our introductory chapter we noted a feeling of failure infecting both the biodiversity and taxonomic sciences, a sense that grew from early concerns articulated in the 1980s to a situation widely acknowledged as a crisis by the early 2000s (Wilson 1985, 1992; Wheeler and Cracraft 1996; House of Lords 1992, 2002; Royal Society 2003). As official rates of species loss increased, so inevitably did the pressure felt by taxonomists themselves to document nature faster than the rate of its ongoing extinction, species by species. The roots of the taxonomic crisis were felt to go beyond its failure to meet the perceived knowledge demands of the biodiversity crisis, however. From the midtwentieth century onwards, taxonomy had experienced increasing fragmentation as a discipline (Hull 1988; Ridley 1986). One of the main components of this, as many taxonomists were aware, was the upsurge of interest in the common ancestry of species made popular by the phylogenetic systematic theories of Willi Hennig (1966). These were enabled through the advances of computer systems from the 1960s onwards and perceived to be a rigorous, mathematically based, hypothesis-testing science. One effect of this was to overshadow the more traditional taxonomic tasks of species delineation and description through (morphological and DNA) character analysis. Taxonomy became riven by different principles of character selection, which had begotten, broadly speaking, three main schools of classification (the evolutionary, the phenetic and the cladistic schools (Ridley 1986: 163)). Disputes thrived in the ensuing struggle between different taxonomic schools, as each one claimed the objectivity of its own philosophy of character selection (Ridley 1986: 2). Thus, even though the broad category of ‘descriptive taxonomy’ as Wheeler (2004) calls it (in distinction to ‘phylogenetic taxonomy’, more interested in species ancestry), was known to be the necessary underpinning for understanding biodiversity and biodiversity loss, it came under repeated attack from the 1990s onwards as too slow, inefficient and subjective to create an effective evidence-base for biological diversity with global concerns mounting

over rapidly accelerating rates of biodiversity loss. The ironies of this situation in the so-called ‘information’ or ‘digital’ age, a time when the production of human knowledge was accelerating at an exponential rate, only served to increase the powerful sense of stagnation and crisis in taxonomy:

On average the sum of human knowledge (estimated by titles of books published) doubled every 33 years before the information age. The time was reduced to c. 6 years in the 1970s, 1.5 years in 2000, and by some estimates will soon double several times per year. In sharp contrast, the doubling of taxonomic knowledge has not kept pace. Before the Enlightenment our knowledge of species doubled about once every 400 years. By the late eighteenth century, in the time of Linnaeus, our taxonomic knowledge doubled every 50 years. By the mid-twentieth century, this had slowed to doubling every 100 years and now is closer to 200 years. This should be an unacceptable trend in the midst of the biodiversity crisis.