Most studies of behaviour examine traits whose proximate causes include sensory input and neural decision-making, but conflict and collaboration in biological systems began long before brains or sensory systems evolved. Many behaviours result from non-neural mechanisms such as direct physical contact between recognition proteins or modifications of development that coincide with altered behaviour. These simple molecular mechanisms form the basis of important biological functions and can enact organismal interactions that are as subtle, strategic and interesting as any. The genetic changes that underlie divergent molecular behaviours are often targets of selection, indicating that their functional variation has important fitness consequences. These behaviours evolve by discrete units of quantifiable phenotypic effect (amino acid and regulatory mutations, often by successive mutations of the same gene), so the role of selection in shaping evolutionary change can be evaluated on the scale at which heritable phenotypic variation originates. We describe experimental strategies for finding genes that underlie biochemical and developmental alterations of behaviour, survey the existing literature highlighting cases where the simplicity of molecular behaviours has allowed insight to the evolutionary process and discuss the utility of a genetic knowledge of the sources and spectrum of phenotypic variation for a deeper understanding of how genetic and phenotypic architectures evolve.