Oceanic islands offer special opportunities for understanding the patterns and processes of evolution. The availability of molecular markers in recent decades has enhanced these opportunities, facilitating the use of population genetics to reveal divergence and speciation in island systems. A common pattern seen in taxa on oceanic islands is a decreased level of genetic variation within and among populations, and the founder effect has often been invoked to explain this observation. Founder effects have a major impact on immigrant populations, but, over millions of years, the original genetic signature will normally be erased as a result of mutation, recombination, drift and selection. Therefore, the types and degrees of genetic modifications that occur must often be caused by other factors, which should be considered when explaining the patterns of genetic variation. The age of the island is extremely important because oceanic islands subside on their submarine plates over time. Erosion caused by wind, rain and wave action combine to grind down soft volcanic substrates. These geomorphological events can have a dramatic impact on population number and size, and hence levels of genetic diversity. The mode of speciation is also of significance. With anagenesis, genetic variation accumulates through time, whereas, with cladogenenesis, the gene pool splits into populations of adaptively radiating species. Breeding systems, population sizes and generation times are also important, as is hybridization between closely related taxa. Human disturbance has affected plant population number and size through the harvesting of forests and the introduction of invasive plants and animals. Therefore, the explanation of the observed levels of genetic variation in species of oceanic islands requires the consideration of many interconnected physical, biological and anthropomorphic factors. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 174, 276–288.