As we enter the twenty–first century, the demand for taxonomy is greater than ever before. The global imperative for the conservation of biodiversity has brought into sharp focus both the need for and the needs of taxonomic research. Although commentators today frequently, and rightly, stress how comparatively little we know about the diversity of organisms with which we share our planet, we should not lose sight of the enormous progress that has been made in cataloguing, describing and understanding the Earth's plants, animals and microbes. This research programme was probably born among our hunter–gatherer ancestors, baptized by the Greeks, and then reached maturity in post–Enlightenment Europe with the Linnaean revolution. Its success has been due to the legion of naturalists and taxonomists who have explored every nook and cranny of the living world, and to a series of rules and protocols that have allowed this massive corpus of knowledge to be organized and arranged in an age of paper and post. Any student of biology in the nineteenth century, and for perhaps the first three–quarters of the twentieth century, would have spent a large fraction of his or her time learning systematic biology, and the tools and techniques needed to identify and describe various elements of the flora and fauna. Systematic biology and taxonomy was the fertile soil in which emerging sciences such as physiology, genetics, ecology and evolutionary biology had their roots and drew nourishment.