The present study reports on a natural experiment with twelve replicates in which rapid, predictable and consistent divergence of Cepaea nemoralis populations occurred in response to repeated selection gradient of adjacent open and shaded habitats. Because the frequencies of various genetically-based phenotypes varied widely among surveyed populations, and there was a large overlap between habitat types, no overall association with habitat was apparent. In paired comparisons, however, significant changes were consistently towards higher frequencies of light morphs in the open than corresponding shaded habitats, and this result is attributable to natural selection. This shows that the knowledge of the genetic composition of reference populations is often essential for discerning selection from random processes. At each site, a different morph combination contributed to the divergence of populations, indicating that there are many genetic solutions to similar ecological problems; this likely enhances the maintenance of high levels of polymorphism. Adaptation of populations occurred in contemporary time and was fast. In one case where it was possible to follow changes, significant shifts in morph frequencies occurred within just two snail generations (selection coefficients of 0.404 and 0.518). High evolvability may be one of the factors contributing to the ecological success of Cepaea nemoralis. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 251–262.