Abstract Evidence from a variety of research areas, including phylogenetic palaeobiogeographic studies of trilobites, indicates that there may be a fuse to the Cambrian radiation, with a duration on the order of 20–70 myr. Evolution in trilobites appears to have been powerfully influenced by the tectonic changes occurring at the end of the Neoproterozoic: especially the breakup of Pannotia. This continental fragmentation may have also elevated opportunities for vicariance and speciation in trilobites, and other metazoans, given that speciation rates at this time period were high, though not phenomenally so. This provides clear evidence that abiotic factors played an important role in motivating evolution during this key episode in the history of life; biotic factors probably also played a role. The evidence for the role of biotic factors is considered in light of information from some problematic Cambrian taxa. These may show affinities with modern problematic pseudocoelomate phyla, although Cambrian and modern exponents differ dramatically in body size.