For over a century, evolutionary biologists have debated whether and how phenotypic plasticity impacts the processes of adaptation and diversification. The empirical tests required to resolve these issues have proven elusive, mainly because it requires documentation of ancestral reaction norms, a difficult prospect where many ancestors are either extinct or have evolved. The threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) radiation is not limited in this regard, making it an ideal system in which to address general questions regarding the role of plasticity in adaptive evolution. As retreating ice sheets have exposed new habitats, oceanic stickleback founded innumerable freshwater populations, many of which have evolved parallel adaptations to their new environments. Because the founding oceanic population is extant, we can directly evaluate whether specific patterns of ancestral phenotypic expression in the context of novel environments (plasticity), or over ontogeny, predisposed the repeated evolution of ‘benthic’ and ‘limnetic’ ecotypes in shallow and deep lakes, respectively. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that oceanic stickleback raised in a complex habitat and fed a macroinvertebrate diet expressed traits resembling derived, benthic fish. Alternatively, when reared in a simple environment on a diet of zooplankton, oceanic stickleback developed phenotypes resembling derived, limnetic fish. As fish in both treatments grew, their body depths increased allometrically, as did the size of their mouths, while their eyes became relatively smaller. Allometric trajectories were subtly but significantly impacted by rearing environment. Thus, both environmental and allometric influences on development, along with their interactive effects, produced variation in phenotypes consistent with derived benthic and limnetic fish, which may have predisposed the repeated genetic accommodation of this specific suite of traits. We also found significant shape differences between marine and anadromous stickleback, which has implications for evaluating the ancestral state of stickleback traits. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 573–583.