The relationship between biodiversity and habitat productivity has been a fundamental topic in ecology. Although the relationship between these parameters may exhibit different shapes, the unimodal shape has been frequently encountered. The decrease in diversity at high productivity has usually been attributed to competitive exclusion. We suggest that evolutionary history and dispersal limitation may be even more important in shaping the diversity–productivity relationship. On a global scale, unimodal diversity–productivity relationships dominate in temperate regions, whereas positive relationships are more common in the tropics. This difference can be accounted for by contrasting evolutionary history. Temperate regions have smaller species pools for productive habitats since these habitats have been scarce historically for speciation, while the opposite is true for the tropics. In addition, dispersal within a region may limit diversity either due to the lack of dispersal syndromes at low productivity or the low number of diaspores at high productivity. Thereafter, biotic interactions (competition and facilitation) can shape the relationship. All these processes can act independently or concurrently. We recommend that the common approach to examining empirical diversity–environmental relationships should start with the role of large-scale processes such as evolutionary history and dispersal limitation, followed by influences associated with ecological interactions.