Abstract The search for understanding of the past and present processes that have and/or continue to generate observed biotic distribution patterns substantially involves historical reconstruction based on present patterns (both phylogenetic and geographical). How this should be undertaken has been a cause for major debate over many decades. Residual patterns do not always provide explicit pointers to the causal processes, and in addition to applying our understanding of earth history, we need also to carefully explore the implications of contemporary processes as a means for unravelling pattern. Some biogeographers assert that earth and life evolve together, but knowledge of distributions and ecologies indicate that this is sometimes true and sometimes false. Just as general patterns may sometimes indicate a commonality of the means that generated the patterns so, too, do observable processes sometimes indicate commonalities. Vicariance and dispersal are fundamental attributes of biotic distributions. Phylogeography has the potential to assist us in determining which of these mechanisms has generated observable patterns.