Abstract The theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ hypothesises that most morphological change in species takes place in rapid bursts triggered by speciation. Eldregde and Gould postulated the theory in 1972, as an alternative to the idea that morphological change slowly accumulates in the course of time, a then common belief they dubbed ‘phyletic gradualism’. Ever since its introduction the theory of punctuated equilibrium has been the subject of speculation rather than empirical validation. Here I present a method to detect punctuated evolution without reference to fossil data, based on the phenotypes of extant species and on their relatedness as revealed by molecular phylogeny. The method involves a general mathematical model describing morphological differentiation of two species over time. The two parameters in the model, the rates of punctual (cladogenetic) and gradual (anagenetic) change, are estimated from plots of morphological diversification against time since divergence of extant species.