Abstract The evolution of the cytochrome P450 (CYP) superfamily is described, with particular reference to major events in the development of biological forms during geological time. It is noted that the currently accepted timescale for the elaboration of the P450 phylogenetic tree exhibits close parallels with the evolution of terrestrial biota. Indeed, the present human P450 complement of xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes may have originated from coevolutionary `warfare' between plants and animals during the Devonian period about 400 million years ago. A number of key correspondences between the evolution of P450 system and the course of biological development over time, point to a mechanistic molecular biology of evolution which is consistent with a steady increase in atmospheric oxygenation beginning over 2000 million years ago, whereas dietary changes during more recent geological time may provide one possible explanation for certain species differences in metabolism. Alignment between P450 protein sequences within the same family or subfamily, together with across-family comparisons, aid the rationalization of drug metabolism specificities for different P450 isoforms, and can assist in an understanding of genetic polymorphisms in P450-mediated oxidations at the molecular level. Moreover, the variation in P450 regulatory mechanisms and inducibilities between different mammalian species are likely to have important implications for current procedures of chemical safety evaluation, which rely on pure genetic strains of laboratory bred rodents for the testing of compounds destined for human exposure.