The classical pathway of complement activation is a highly specific and amplifiable effector system responding to recognition of foreign antigens by antibody. It comprises a group of well characterized proteins in mammalian plasma. There are many similarities with the alternative pathway of complement activation, which suggests that they have a common evolutionary origin. Both pathways have homologous components, use related activation and regulatory mechanisms, result in the release of the anaphylatoxins C3a and C5a, and deposit C3b onto activating surfaces. This fixed C3b then becomes the focus of further immune reactions, involving either the lytic complement components of C3b receptors on effector cells. Phylogenetic data indicate that the alternative pathway is the older, and that the classical pathway evolved from it. Here Timothy Farries and colleagues review this evolutionary process and present a possible sequence of events that is suggested by recent functional data from their laboratory.