Known for centuries, the geographical pattern of increasing biodiversity from the poles to the equator is one of the most pervasive features of life on Earth. A longstanding goal of biogeographers has been to understand the primary factors that generate and maintain high diversity in the tropics. Many ‘historical’ and ‘ecological’ hypotheses have been proposed and debated, but there is still little consensus. Recent discussions have centred around two main phenomena: phylogenetic niche conservatism and ecological productivity. These two factors play important roles, but accumulating theoretical and empirical studies suggest that the single most important factor is kinetics: the temperature dependence of ecological and evolutionary rates. The relatively high temperatures in the tropics generate and maintain high diversity because ‘the Red Queen runs faster when she is hot’.